The thought of conflict is scary to many people. They imagine loud voices, heated glances, frustrated silence or endless conversations that seem to never end.
Depending on your personality type, you may look at conflict as something to get over with as quickly as possible, or you may do anything to avoid it altogether. Regardless of how you feel about conflict, we have some good news: Workplace conflict resolution doesn’t have to be terrible; in fact many people who are skilled at working through conflict WITH others are typically viewed as highly valuable and deeply trusted colleagues.
With the right skills and mindset, situations that produce conflict can end up being some of the most rewarding and valuable experiences you can have in the workplace. Let’s learn how.
What is Conflict Management?
Skillful Conflict management is the ability to lean into a healthy partnership oriented mindset while using some basic but powerful skills to create a positive outcome.
The single most important foundation for healthy conflict in the workplace is the mindset you approach the conflict with.
All of the skills in the world will still fall short if leaders don’t have a partnership mindset as they work through workplace conflicts. The core shift that creates successful conflict management is moving from viewing conflict as an argument (a zero sum, win lose scenario) to simply treating it like a conversation focus on shared needs and outcomes.
Asking questions and then listening to authentically understand the other party's point of view is the single best way to shift a situation's tone and eventual outcome. Questions like “help me understand your perspective” and “what is most important to you” and “tell me more about that” open up space for true understanding and a productive conversation and resolution,
It’s important to note that these questions don’t ask you to change your convictions, but rather help you move to understand all sides of an issue. Too often people are not interested in truly understanding the other person's concerns and needs because they are overly focused on winning or even forcing agreement consistent with their own solutions. THAT is precisely the orientation and attitude that creates more conflict and tension.
What are Conflict Management Skills?
If an authentic partnership mindset is the foundation for good conflict management, the questioning and listening skills are the scaffolding upon which the partnership can be built. Learning these simple and incredibly effective conflict management skills give you practical, tangible steps to create a powerful healthy conversation
1. Asking questions
Asking good questions focused on understanding all sides of a situation, exploring others’ needs, concerns and worries are the key to allowing the other person to experience being heard and having their perspective authentically and deeply considered and included in the actions you agree to that will move everyone forward.
2. Viewing conflict as an opportunity
Conflict is far too often associated with negativity - but when we give leaders the perspective skills they need to view conflict as an opportunity to evolve and deepen their partnerships like never before, a world of potential for healthy conflict opens up.
3. Finding the root of the problem
We love what Adam Grant has to say on the Work Life podcast about viewing conflict like a ladder. The bottom step of the ladder is a basic observation about another person or thing. The next steps are the assumptions you begin to draw from that observation, and the top of the ladder is a full-blown conclusion based off of that initial observation.
Rather than fighting over “top step” conclusions that may not be accurate, conflict management skills enable leaders to view the full picture and pinpoint what the actual conflict is before they make more assumptions.
5 Personal Styles People Bring to Conflict Management
This style focuses on finding common ground and moving forward with the parts of the conflict that the two parties do agree on. This can be a healthy and useful attitude and often create forward movement. It can also avoid addressing key issues that may eventually bog down the actions need and agreement needed to resolve an issue completely.
Strong personalities tend towards this competitive style of conflict management. This style works from the idea that one person has to “win” the argument in order for it to be a success. This zero sum thinking creates opposition and tension which moves the conversation away from rather than towards partnership.
Similar to collaborating, compromising takes an undefensive approach to conflict management. Both parties work to not only understand the other’s perspective but then to be willing let go of some of their own outcomes in order to move toward a common goal that everyone will support going forward..
One common form of conflict management is to simply bend toward the needs and wants of others, being unwilling to voice your own needs and perspectives on the issues. This useful in low-stakes situations but ultimately it doesn't actually respect the relationship or demonstrate trust in the other person to be willing to hear your concerns and work with you to shared solutions. In this case, avoiding the conflict, not managing and communicating through it is a huge missed opportunity.
Just like it sounds, this style of conflict is a “flight” response to perceived danger and tension. While avoiding conflict can be useful in order to cool down from a disagreement or frustration, long-term avoidance of conflict will only result in compounded conflict down the road. It also misses the opportunity to build the relationship through powerful authentic communication and actions.
Strategies for Resolving Workplace Conflict
The most important things anyone facing workplace conflict can do are to: put themselves in an authentic partnership mindset that is focused on shared outcomes and ongoing support of the action plan. Getting a “win in your column “ in the moment of conflict that ignores the need for ongoing support from all parties is doomed to failure and the creation of even more tension and mistrust.
EngagedLeadership’s conflict management training is for employees and managers at any level (executives to front line individual contributors).
We help employees practice simple ways of thinking and acting that help leaders shift their mindset from viewing conflict as a threat and move it to a productive and even positive experience for increased partnership, trust and personal growth.
How Healthy Conflict Benefits Your Team
Healthy conflict in the workplace provides an enormous opportunity for your team to learn and grow from. Helping them see the power in approaching conflict with authentic curiosity and a desire to understand, will help your team grow their self confidence and their partnerships. When coworkers see that they can disagree and come to productive shared, mutually supported outcomes everyone benefits!