Handling Conflict At Work

“Happy Work” is in our name, and we’ll still be some of the first people to tell you that your career doesn’t always come up roses. Work isn’t happy every day, and that’s OK! Sometimes it’s smelly, rotten, exhausting, boring, and difficult (and not in the fun-challenging kind of way). Conflict at work can be a big part of the stink.

Conflict isn’t always bad. It’s a natural part of work and working with other people, and it’s important to have if you want to continuously get better. You don’t want to be having battles 100% of the time, but you also don’t want to struggle to remember the last time you had a healthy debate with someone. If you feel like every day is combat, you may have to think about whether or not you’re really fitting into your company culture. If you’re not respectfully butting heads with colleagues, it may be a sign that you don’t have anyone to hold you accountable or that they aren’t invested in your ideas and, as a result, won’t challenge you to make them better.

The most important thing when it comes to conflict at work is facing it head-on. This is less about putting on your battle gear and more about being proactive. Don’t fear conflict, and don’t avoid it. Avoiding this healthy and productive part of a professional life creates an unhealthy culture which often results in an environment with a lot of closed-door meetings, whispers, and the poor kind of office politics.

One of the core Happy Spectacular beliefs is that there are always compromises to be made in your career, but you should be compromising on the least important things to you. Dealing with the conflict that doesn’t always feel good is a part of those compromises we all have to handle.

How To Handle Conflict Like A Pro:

Take the time to talk it out. When it comes to differing opinions and conflicting ideas, rushing the discussion is only going to lead to hurt feelings and unformed + misunderstood perspectives. Time is probably our biggest luxury in and out of work, so if you’re not giving everyone the time they need to work through these conflicts, you’re doing them and your organization a disservice. You’re also sending the message that you don’t really care as much about what they have to say. If you know you’re going to face a lot of push-back, schedule lots of time to hash it out and be clear if there is a hard stop time so everyone can have their say. Additionally, if a conflict comes up at the end of a meeting that can’t run over, acknowledge that you want to be able to deal with this and before anyone leaves, schedule the next follow up to allow all points of view to be shared and debated.

Listen. I don’t think I can employ active listening enough. It is an essential tool whether you’re at work or at home. There’s so much that can get lost in translation, and when you use active listening to reiterate what you’ve heard, you can feel confident in knowing that everyone is on the same page. Sometimes clearing up a misunderstanding is enough to quell a conflict right there. If it’s not, this specific tool for listening ensures that you are working to understand another point of view which, in itself, is a hugely important component in resolving conflict.

Finding common ground. Often active listening leads to this step. By using common ground to start from a place where all parties know the goal is to be altruistic (or at least for the betterment of your organization), it’s easier to hear differing perspectives because it doesn’t feel so personal. The other part of finding common ground is ensuring and explicitly stating that you respect other points of view. Respect is paramount to working with other people, and even a simple declarative sentence to that effect can go a long way in building common ground and a productive working session. Who knows? Maybe it will even lead to a profitable long-term relationship.

Move on quickly. Eventually, hopefully without a process that is too drawn out, the conflict will be resolved and even with a compromise, it’s likely one party will at least feel like they were more on the right side than others. Moving on quickly helps to facilitate a working relationship that can continue to function without grudges. This might mean congratulating someone on an exciting new initiative or responsibility, and depending on how heated these debates got, apologizing (and meaning it).

If you are a leader helping to mediate these conflicts, there are a few additional things you can do. As a leader, don’t take sides. There is a good chance that emotions are already running high and taking sides in a conflict isn’t going to help. Don’t confuse this with making an executive/ clear-headed decision. As a leader, that might fall to you, but it is important you can articulate the difference to your team.

Set expectations. There are two sets of expectations you need to manage. First, what is the point? What is the goal you are trying to accomplish and why are you having this debate in the first place? Grounding the conversation in its benefits will help bring even divided opinions together over a shared goal. The other set of expectations you need to manage is around behavior. The standard of behavior, even when things get heated, is something that should be a part of your company culture, but mediating is an important way to bring those behavioral expectations back up (similar to ensuring you’re all starting from a place of mutual respect and common ground)

Guide the conversation back to the point. By continuously bringing things back to the goal, you can work to avoid feelings getting hurt by acting as a clarifying agent.

 

Some people live for conflict at work; they can’t wait to debate and fight and go through a trial by fire. Some people (myself included) decidedly do not live for conflict. Understanding that we all have different approaches and socialized behaviors around conflict can help remind us that while conflict at work can feel really personal, it’s often more about the other person. Open, honest, and clear communication is almost always the right way to go. And if all else fails? Armor up because this particular part of work isn’t going away.

 

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).

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