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How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace: Steps for Group Problem Solving

A tight deadline, a difficult client, or a challenging sales goal: When employees are under stress at work, tempers can flare and disagreements can happen. Even under the best of circumstances, our varied personalities, past experiences, and communication styles can lead to conflict. Failing to resolve these conflicts can potentially lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and a toxic work environment.

Two co-workers with their arms crossed and facing each other.

Steps for Conflict Resolution

Whether the issue is a difficult client or overlapping job duties, effective conflict resolution follows a standard approach: identify the problem, share feelings, and develop solutions as a team.

These are some steps that can help you better handle conflict in the workplace:

  1. Address the conflict as soon as possible. Dancing around hard topics or delaying an uncomfortable conversation can lead to a toxic work environment. While it may not always be possible to reach an immediate agreement, strive to work together to solve the problem rather than ignoring the elephant in the room.

  2. Identify the core problem. Sometimes, small disagreements can mask bigger problems. For example, perhaps a co-worker sent out yet another passive-aggressive email reminding everyone to clean their dirty dishes in the break room sink. Is this person really upset about the dishes, or does your co-worker feel like he or she is always cleaning up everyone's messes on client projects, too? Consider what's triggering someone's frustration and get to the root of the problem.

  3. Focus on the event or behavior, not the person. When two people over-personalize a conflict, it's easy for both to feel like they are under attack and go into defense mode. This can make it more difficult to constructively discuss a conflict. Changing the way you talk about the conflict can help depersonalize the disagreement and diffuse emotions. Rather than saying, "When you do..." or "When you make me feel..." try saying "When this happens...".

  4. Listen carefully. Listen to what the other person has to say, even if you disagree with their version of events. When they are finished speaking, repeat what they said back to make sure you understood. Ask questions to clarify anything you may not understand.

  5. Identify points of agreement. When we start from a place of commonality, it can make conflict resolution easier. For example, you might say, "It sounds like we are both worried about meeting the deadline but have different plans for doing so."

  6. Develop a plan as a team. Start from points of agreement and discuss strategies for achieving the group goal. Keep your focus positive and collaborative. Remember, you're both on the same team. How can you both support each other to succeed together?

  7. Build on your success. Check back in after a week and assess how the plan is going. Continue practicing good conflict resolution by focusing on the event of behavior (rather than the person), listening carefully, and identifying points of agreement. Congratulate one another for making progress, even if the change is small. Every step forward is positive.

Learning constructive conflict resolution can help foster a culture of respect and create opportunities for individual, team and organizational growth. It can help to remember that while viewpoints may differ, most people want the same outcome: to get the project completed on time, to make the client happy, and to be successful.

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