Why is conflict in the workplace and even at home one of the most uncomfortable and for some, one of the most difficult things to deal with?

What makes humans react in the way that they do? Often shying away from it, turning their back on it, pretending it’s not happening or just totally ignoring it?

Of course, this is not true of everyone, but many of you who are reading this now, will be thinking, ‘yes, that’s me’. How can this be changed?

The training organisation, Master Class Management states; ‘In some cases, the conflict can be a good thing like process improvements or better ideas to service the customer. This can be part of the “open communication” that is encouraged within the team. However, in most cases the conflict is more negatively based.’

It can lead most commonly to stress in the workplace and consequently an increase in absenteeism; when staff become so anxious about what may happen, and how they are going to deal with a difficult situation or colleague, that they become physically unwell and cannot come to work.

It can in extreme cases lead to a total breakdown in communication, not just affecting the two, or more people involved but impacting on the whole team and the well-being and effectiveness of that team.

If you are a leader or manager what do you need to be aware of to prevent these issues arising or at least to limit them?

It’s also worth noting that so much advice ‘out there’ can be applied to your personal life as well. The main message I would give is, ‘Don’t bury your head in the sand as the problem may fester, and potentially worsen. Address it before it gets that bad’.

This is a lesson that I have learnt myself over time. I can also say from experience, that in the long run, dealing with conflict head on is far easier than letting it go. If you don’t try to put it right then, it will probably leave you feeling disillusioned with yourself so make it a priority, get involved (if it is your job to do so) and seek solutions to resolve the issues.

One of my favourite quotes from Thomas Huxley (Physiologist) is ‘Action is the catalyst that creates accomplishments’. If you don’t take any action nothing is going to change.

So how do conflict situations arise, how do you know it is happening and what can you do? How do conflict situations arise in the workplace and in life outside of work?

The most common issues are;

  • A lack of understanding by one person around another’s actions
  • A simple clash of personalities; one person may be very sensitive and another totally insensitive; one may be direct, appearing brash. The other may prefer to have time and more details
  • One believes they are working harder than the other
  • Jealousy of another person’s success
  • Perceived favouritism, perhaps by the boss
  • General disagreement; one person wants to do it one way because they think it is the best way and the other thinks their way is better
  • A person picking up on another’s past mistakes and highlighting them.

These situations can so easily arise. We see them often, both at work and in our personal lives.

If you are a manager and perhaps not working alongside your team, if you arrive at your club, or a family or friends home, what is it that alerts you to a conflict situation?

It’s often difficult to make that judgement and sometimes it is almost a subconscious awareness. You walk in to a room and there is an ‘atmosphere’;

  • A tension in the air
  • It could be unusually quiet – not the usual buzz of activity or visa-versa
  • Look out for the body language of people in the room – are they turned away from each other? Observe facial expressions
  • Be aware of those ‘off-hand’ comments; perhaps rude, hurtful or embarrassing – or designed to make others feel stupid or incompetent or to undermine them
  • A person who is usually quiet is being outspoken or an usually vocal person is being unusually quiet
  • Evidence of manipulation or ‘backstabbing’.

All these points may indicate that you have walked in on a conflict situation.

What can you do when a conflict arises?

Invariably when it arises in a work situation there is a process to follow; even a policy.

For some people, especially those new to leadership and management it is good to have some acceptable steps that they can take. However, what leaders and managers often think, is that they need a specific formula to follow. There is a magic solution and fault is soon found in others or blame is passed on.

In my view, what is often overlooked, is the fact that people have different values and beliefs which impact on the way that they behave. And one person’s behaviour can often be the only thing that causes the conflict situation to arise.

A very wise and knowledgeable man once said to a group of students (including me) that were studying emotional intelligence, ‘If you hear something that you are not happy about, it is better to say something than nothing’.

Being aware of the impact that you can have on others by what you say and the way in which you say it, and also being aware of the way in which you behave, is critical in conflict situations. Develop your self-awareness.

I remember thinking about awkward and difficult situations that I had encountered previously. How I had been annoyed at myself when I had walked away thinking ‘I wish I had just said . . . . . .’. From that point on I changed my behaviour and now I always say something even though I do not always know how I may tackle the situation.

It is usually just a few words, delivered in a calm and non-confrontational way, that gives me time to think about the best course of action to take later; ‘I am not really very happy about what I just heard, could we discuss that when you are free please?’

If you are a leader or manager, or if you are simply a person in a social situation, and you say this quietly, at least the person is aware and it is easier to address it rather than to let it fester and then to have to raise it separately when the situation has past. Try it. Perhaps it will work for you too?

Some key points to keep in mind when handling conflict;

Consider whether you have a typical style of handling conflict – do you totally avoid, attack or do you tend to defend? Being able to handle and express feelings appropriately is important, it has an impact on others around you. Perhaps you need to change your style?

Get to the bottom of the problem. Take some time to understand what has happened. Ask open ended questions starting with the words; what, why, where, when, how, describe.

Often conflicts arise out of human need; a desire to be accepted, a need to feel listened to or to feel heard.

Do we know what is important to ourselves let alone what may be important to another person?

A consequence of not knowing this means conflicts will re-emerge with new triggers but the individual’s needs may remain the same.

Take some time to think about this.

Consider the communication skills of those involved.

Do they need training? Is there a lack of listening? Do they say too much, not enough, are the messages given unclear or sloppy and do they lack words that evidence empathy; ‘I can understand why you are feeling angry . . . . .’

In developing conciliation skills, you need to care about people and not just about tasks and getting things done. You need to understand what emotional intelligence is; an awareness of how a person may be feeling in any given situation. Put yourself in their shoes. Try and see, feel, understand how it may be for them.

Examine the values and beliefs of those involved. What’s important to them that conflicts with what they have been asked to do? Can any compromises be made on your part?

Just because a person is quiet and not very articulate when it comes to expressing their views it does not mean that they don’t want their opinion to be considered. Ask them what they think. Consider what you can do to help them in a conflict situation. Find out what is important to them.

Top tips for you in dealing with conflict:

  • Be well prepared.
  • Listen and be non-judgemental.
  • Remain neutral and be fair.
  • Stay calm and be clear in your communication.
  • Don’t generalise.
  • Share an outline-plan for dealing with the conflict if you are managing the situation.
  • Explain next steps and timescales for action.
  • Ensure issues are documented.
  • Consider what needs to be shared and what should remain confidential.
  • Document it!

Ultimately if what you have tried before is not working you need to think, feel and respond to problems, issues and particularly conflict in a different way.

You have choices and control over those choices. Don’t keep thinking you can have an impact on things that you have no control over.

If dealing with conflict is something that you need help with consider taking up a short course of Personal Development Coaching which could set you on a path for success.