Move From Harmful to Healthy Conflict
Where there are people, there is conflict. We all bring our different values, needs and idiosyncrasies to the workplace – and they can sometimes clash with those of our colleagues.
Left unchecked, conflict brews and can lead to animosity. Teamwork can break down, morale drops, and tasks grind to a halt. Organizations feel the hit, too, with wasted talent, high absenteeism, and increased staff turnover.
But conflict can be resolved. What's more, it can be healthy – bringing issues to light, strengthening relationships, and sparking innovation. In this article, we'll explore different types of conflict, what causes them, and ways to reach a positive outcome.
To identify the signs of conflict occurring in others and to help them overcome conflict, read our article, Resolving Team Conflict.
Types of Workplace Conflict
Generally, workplace conflicts fall into two camps:
- Personality conflict or disagreements between individuals. These clashes are driven and perpetuated by emotions such as anger, stress and frustration. A study found that "personality clashes and warring egos" account for nearly half of all workplace conflicts. 
- Substantive conflict is tangible and task-related, like the decisions leaders make, the performance of a team member, or your company's direction.
If unaddressed, both can spiral into wider conflict between teams, departments or businesses.
What Causes Conflict at Work?
Some of the most common causes of workplace conflict are:
- Unclear responsibilities. Some team members may feel they do more work than others, or resent those who seem to have fewer responsibilities. Blame and frustration can build due to duplicated work or unfinished tasks.
- Competition for resources. Time, money, materials, equipment and skillsets are finite resources. Competition for them can lead to conflict.
- Different interests. People may focus on personal over organizational goals. Or be held up and frustrated by others who they rely on to do their jobs effectively.
Read our article on Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict for more sources of – and solutions to – disputes.
Conflict Resolution Skills
When you find yourself in a conflict situation, these five approaches will help you to resolve disagreements quickly and effectively.
1. Raise the Issue Early
Address the person (or people) concerned. Keeping quiet only lets resentment fester, and speaking with other people first can fuel rumor and misunderstanding. So, whether you're battling over the thermostat or feel that you're being micromanaged, be direct and talk with the other party.
Be assertive (but non-aggressive) and speak openly. This will encourage others to do the same – and you can get to the root cause of a problem before it escalates. If you're not comfortable approaching the other party, or worry that it may exacerbate the problem, speak with your manager first.
2. Manage Your Emotions
Choose your timing when you talk to someone about the conflict. If you're angry, you may say something you'll regret and make the situation worse.
So stay calm, collect yourself, and ask, "What is it I want to achieve here?", "What are the issues I'm having?" and "What is it that I would like to see?"
See our article Managing Your Emotions at Work for more insight and tips.
3. Show Empathy
When you talk to someone about a conflict, it's natural to want to state your own case – rather than hear out the other side. But when two people do this, the conversation goes in circles.
Instead, invite the other party to describe their position, ask how they think they might resolve the issue, and listen with empathy.
Putting yourself in the other person's shoes is an essential part of Win-Win Negotiation. This helps you to build mutual respect and understanding – and achieve an outcome that satisfies both parties.
4. Practice Active Listening
To identify the source of the conflict you have to really listen. To listen actively:
- Paraphrase the other party's points to show you're listening and really understand them.
- Look out for non-verbal signals that contradict what they are saying, e.g. a hesitant tone behind positive words. Bring these out into the open to address them together.
- Use body language, such as nodding your head, to show interest and make it clear that you're following them.
Go further with Empathic Listening – a structured listening and questioning technique to strengthen relationships and better understand what the other person thinks and feels. It will also make them more likely to consider your side.
5. Acknowledge Criticism
Some of the things the other person tells you may be difficult to hear. But remember that criticism or constructive feedback is about job behaviors and not you as a person.
So, keep an open mind and use criticism to help you to identify areas to improve, perform better next time, and grow.
A Three-Step Approach to Conflict Resolution
Conflict management consultants Doctors Peter and Susan Glaser recommend a three-step approach for reaching a positive outcome that draws on many of the above strategies. The steps are: prove that you understand their side, acknowledge that you are part of the problem, and try again if the conversation didn't go well. 
In this section, we'll apply each step to a fictional conflict scenario.
Conflict Resolution Scenario
The heads of two departments are in conflict. Product Manager Sayid changed the price of a product without letting Marketing Manager Gayanne know. As a result, her team sent out an email to customers with incorrect prices. They had to send out a follow-up email apologizing for the error, and make good on the price some customers paid for the product.
1. Prove You Understand their Side
Instead of blaming Sayid, Gayanne asks why he made the decision. She uses her active listening skills to show she's taking information on board. With some questioning, she discovers Sayid was pressured by a client to raise the price or risk losing a contract. She empathizes, saying, "Yes, I've had difficulties with that client before, too."
As Susan Glaser says, "Only when you believe that I understand you, will you be willing to try to understand my perspective." 
2. Acknowledge You Are Part of the Problem
If you're in conflict with someone, it's unlikely you'll be blame-free. So admit your part in it. This leads to mutual trust, a better understanding of each other, and makes it easier to find a solution.
In our scenario, Gayanne could say to Sayid, "I should have shared our marketing strategy and email send dates with you. I'll do that when I get back to my desk."
3. Try Again If the Conversation Doesn't Go Well
With relations between the two managers still frosty, Sayid calls Gayanne the following week. He says, "I was thinking about our conversation, and I'd like to try again because I'm not happy with how it went. I've had time to take your points on board, and I'd like to talk about how we can work together going forward."
Remember that you get more than one shot at resolving a conflict. Doctor Susan Glaser says, "There's a myth that if we have a bad conversation with someone it's over. In fact, 'do overs' are powerful."
Conflict is common in the workplace. The biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing. Unresolved tensions can affect the health and performance of people and organizations.
So, use our conflict resolution skills to pre-empt, manage and fix conflicts. You may discover positives, too, such as improving processes, strengthening relationships, and innovating.
To resolve conflict, try the Glasers' three-step approach to resolve issues together:
- Prove that you understand their side.
- Acknowledge that you are part of the problem.
- Try again if the conversation doesn't go well.
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