Office Conflict – Elizabeth McLaughlin

It’s happened to all of us—that moment when, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves in conflict with a co-worker, a boss or a member of our team. Office conflict can be extremely stressful, because most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else, and conflict always distracts us from performing at our highest levels.

So how do we resolve conflict at work? Here are the recommendations I make to my coaching clients:

4 Steps for Working through Office Conflict

1. Evaluate your own role in the conflict, and own what’s yours

This is often the hardest step in resolving conflict, because it involves taking a hard look at the dynamic and figuring out the part of it for which we bear responsibility. Whether we like it or not, we always bear some part of the responsibility, because conflict, after all, can’t exist without two people willing to butt heads.

If you made a mistake at work that upset your boss, you need to own up to it and apologize. If you’re in constant conflict with a co-worker because you’re secretly envious of her success, you need to own that, too. And if you’re relentlessly upset with a member of your team because she doesn’t seem to be understanding your instructions, you need to consider your own communication before moving on to the next step.

Candid, objective evaluation of our own role in any conflict is the most important step to resolving that conflict now and down the road.

2. Envision your desired outcome

When approaching difficult conversations to resolve conflict, I often have my clients write up exactly how they’d like the conversation to go from start to finish. This is not a script, however. I ask them to write up how they want to enter the conversation emotionally, how they want the conversation to flow, and how they want all parties to feel when the conversation is over.

This exercise helps to keep you on track as you move on to step 3, and keeps you grounded in your desired outcome.

3. Communicate your desire to resolve the conflict with the other party, and begin with an apology

Again, this step can be hard to swallow, but trust me: you stand a much better chance of resolving any conflict in your workplace if you begin the conversation with the other person by owning what’s yours, apologizing for your part in the dynamic, and clearly expressing your desire to move forward.

(In doing so, I often find the four-step process of Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication strategy especially helpful. The strategy involves using “I” language to own one’s own behavior, aligning your observations with your needs and values, and then asking for the buy-in of the other party to resolve the conflict.)

For example, if I was struggling with a co-worker who kept interrupting me in meetings, I would use the methodology as follows, in a meeting with that co-worker:

“Sharon, I know I’ve seemed angry at you recently, and I’d like to apologize for that. There’s something I haven’t been communicating, and that’s at the root of the issue. Here’s the thing: when I hear you interrupt me in meetings, it really upsets me because I value the opportunity for everyone’s opinion to be heard. Would you be willing to wait to share your opinions in meetings until I am done sharing mine?”

Note that nothing in here says “you interrupt me” or “you make me mad.” Rather, I’m owning the fact that it is my observations and reactions that are causing my emotional state, and inviting the other person’s help. This strategy is much more likely to earn you support and resolution from the other party in response, instead of hostility.

By the way, this strategy is equally effective when someone is angry or upset with you for reasons you don’t understand. For example: “Jane, when I heard you snap at me in the hallway about my current project, I was surprised, because I value open communication about my work and I didn’t realize you had a concern. Would you mind sharing with me why you were unhappy with my work so that I’m sure to address your concerns head-on going forward?”

Keep in mind that a lack of effective communication is often at the root of conflict. The more clearly you can express your desire to end the conflict, and effectively explore solutions to it with the other person involved—without accusing the other party or putting them on the defensive—the more likely you are to end the conflict for good.

4. Going forward, watch your triggers and keep them in check

Lastly, once you’ve resolved the conflict with the other party, it’s a good idea to continue your internal work by observing what triggers you and adopting strategies to keep your triggers in check.

If you are triggered by a co-worker’s constant interruption, note the trigger when it happens, breathe a few deep belly breaths so as to not lose your temper and then communicate your concern effectively using the strategies outlined above.

Observing your triggers and understanding them is a sure-fire way to avoid conflict before it even starts.

And one word of caution: if you find yourself in an abusive workplace where you are mistreated, harassed or discriminated against, please do reach out to your HR department or other responsible official to address your concerns. Not all conflict is your responsibility, and in serious instances, your best strategy may be to report the behavior, get your resume in order, and move on to something better. Good luck!

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