Want to Solve Conflict at Work? Start with a Conversation

Any relationship, professional or personal, often encounters sparks of tension and discord. Disagreements in work practices, looming deadlines, personal issues, differing senses of humour and even varying moods and temperaments can cause “rubs” to occur, misunderstandings to arise and workflow to be obstructed.

These are natural. They occur in most relationships and in every workplace. They do not, on their own, mean your relationships or teams are broken. They do not need to ruin or re-define our working relationships with others.

They simply need to be resolved …. respectfully.

As someone who facilitates workplace conflict resolution both informally (mediations) and formally (investigations/arbitrations), I can assure you that there is no “pot of gold” at the end of the “adversarial rainbow”. It is far better for everyone – those involved in the conflict and those caught in the middle – to resolve day-to-day conflicts both early and informally.

The best way to do this? Have a conversation with the other person involved.

However, instead of talking through conflict with those involved, I increasingly witness our collective tendency to avoid the situation. If there’s tension with someone, we work around them. If there’s conflict, we walk the other way.

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We readily talk about the conflict we face, including its impact on us and our wish for it to be resolved. However, we are having these conversations with everyone but the person involved.

This epidemic of talking about rather than to the individual prolongs the conflict and makes the situation worse.

Avoidance is Dysfunctional and often Disrespectful: Here’s Why

There are many ways we avoid dealing with conflict in the workplace. But before we figure out how to change our approach, we need to better understand why we do what we do.

  1. When we speak critically about someone to others in the workplace (for unnecessary and non-work-related reasons), it is often considered a form of disrespect. At its mildest, it is gossip. At its worst, it is a form of harassment.

How to Jump Start Conflict Resolution

For these very practical reasons, it is critical that we jump-start conflict resolution by having 15-minute “MIRROR conversations” with those who, from our perspective at least, are causing stress, issues or concerns. A MIRROR conversation is one in which we reflect our experiences for others in a way that will build mutual awareness and understanding so that we may fix the fractures in our relationship.

In doing so, let’s proceed with care and compassion. Conversations – even those intended to resolve conflict – can cause even more conflict if we fail to engage in respectful, measured and considerate communication.

What does this look like? Here are a few tips on how to get a MIRROR conversation about conflict resolution started:

  1. Set up the conversation for success. Don’t blindside the other person. Find a mutual time that works and let the other person know, generally, what it is you want to talk about. Do so confidentially.

MIRROR Conversations Require Respectful Speakers and Respectful Listeners

Respectful speakers should:

  • Describe the concern/issue in a neutral, specific and descriptive manner, allowing the other person to visualize how they “showed up” for the speaker during the interaction. Truly act like a MIRROR. Don’t judge, don’t generalize, don’t diagnose – just describe the event that caused you concern. Explain its impact. Explain what you would have preferred to have seen or experienced instead.

Respectful listeners should:

  • Genuinely listen to the person, without feeling pressured to agree, with an open willingness to understand where that person is coming from and how they experienced the situation with you.

Working Together to Address Workplace Conflict

Day-to-day resolution of workplace conflict is simply about finding ways to work through issues so we can get back to getting the work done. When we find ourselves “in each other’s way,” let’s figure out practical and meaningful ways to adjust. Let’s not write each other off, pigeon-hole each other or in any other way make this more challenging than it needs to be.

It starts – and often ends – with a 15-minute MIRROR conversation – one that is reflective, respectful, balanced and very practical. If that doesn’t work, and you feel that conflict and dysfunction are taking hold of your psychological health or your organization’s culture, reach out to a professional.

A leading legal expert in workplace conflict management. Author of The MIRROR Method and a charismatic, engaging, educational & entertaining Keynote Speaker

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