Conflict is an unavoidable part of working life. While tempers can sometimes flare and come to nothing, it’s never a good idea to ignore real frustrations in the hope that the problem goes away. Whether you’re directly involved in an argument or trying to resolve conflict between others, there are ways to help diffuse the tension and ensure a positive outcome.
When you’re involved in the argument
If you’ve been involved in a workplace conflict, the best advice is to let the situation pass, give yourself chance to calm down, and prepare for a conversation later on.
Career coach Ruth Winden of Careers Enhanced says: ‘Think through what happened and plan your feedback, using the SBI model – Situation, Behaviour, Impact. If it helps, write the SBI sequence down first, practice saying out loud what you observed until you sound calm, comfortable and unreproachful.
‘What was the Situation? State what happened. Be as specific and objective as possible. Avoid any generalisations.
Situation: In the senior management meeting this morning, I asked for clarification of the first agenda point. I raised my hand three times.
Behaviour: You did not look at me and moved onto the next agenda item.
Impact: I got frustrated because I felt ignored and side-lined.
‘Then stop, stay calm and open-minded, and let the other person respond. Maybe they were unaware of what they did, maybe it was a genuine oversight, or maybe they did not look at you on purpose. In any case, they know now how you experienced the situation, the impact of their behaviour, and how you felt as a result.
‘Often, people respond to SBI feedback with a genuine attempt to clarify the situation, think about their behaviour, and rebuild the relationship.’
Solving conflict between others
Whether you’re a manager or not, you may find yourself in the role of peacekeeper. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict between others, Corinne Mills of careers consultancy Personal Career Management has this advice.
‘Firstly, don’t feel you have to come up with the perfect answer. Share problem-solving responsibility so that you get the people affected actively involved in creating their own solutions. They are far more likely to want a positive outcome if they have made an investment in making it work.’
Don’t get so hung up on practical solutions that you miss the emotional subtext which so often reveals what the issue is really about, for example mistrust or not feeling respected, warns Corinne.
‘Be direct with people. For example, say “you seem really angry about this” and they are far more likely to tell you the truth about what the basis of their anger is – and it may be nothing to do with the actual issue you are discussing.’
Structure the discussion
Before you set up a meeting and invite all the parties involved, you need to do some groundwork.
‘Ask people to prepare their comments beforehand so that they are able to make focused points rather than wildly rambling. Give each person clear, uninterrupted time to make their points and ensure that everyone listens,’ advises Corinne. ‘This allows people to feel they have said all they want to say and they have been properly listened to.’
Often this is enough to defuse the conflict. If things are getting really heated call the proceedings to a halt and suggest you meet up again when tempers are cooled. There is a real danger of irreparable damage if things are allowed to get to a point when people will say things they regret.
At the end of the meeting, Corinne suggests summarising the points made by each person back to them.
‘Make sure you use their exact words. For example, say, “So from your perspective, you believe that…” You’re not saying that you agree with their points – but by doing this, you’re showing that you have really listened to what they have said. This alone can be a very powerful way to reduce tensions.’
Above all, to successfully resolve conflict between others, you need to remain neutral. If other people express their viewpoint to you in private, resist sharing your opinion. If you’re seen to have taken sides, others will lose faith in the process, making it harder to reach an understanding and move on.
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