Conflict between people is an inevitable part of being human. It’s not going to go away, but we can get much better at managing it. And conflict isn’t always a bad thing – debate and argument between people can lead to new ideas and innovation – provided it is handled well.
There are three features of conflict that we need to acknowledge:
- The overt cause of a conflict is not usually the same as the underlying cause
- Conflict can quickly escalate from misunderstandings and tensions to full blown crisis
- The most common contributor to conflict is differences in personality or styles of working [i]
When conflict occurs between people at work, line managers understandably tend to focus on resolving the immediate problem rather than tackling the underlying cause. They want to get people working again quickly, so they deal with the practical problem rather than the personality clash that might underlie it. They think they have resolved the problem, but in many cases the relationship issue continues to fester.
They also tend to ignore the small signs that relationships between team members are deteriorating – snide remarks, unhelpful comments, personal criticism, sarcasm – and only get involved when it has escalated into overt conflict. By this time, positions and perspectives are entrenched and it’s much more difficult to get the relationship back on track, particularly if formal procedures are invoked – informal open conversations are much more effective in reducing conflict [ii].
A critical organisational strategy for reducing conflict at work is therefore to ensure line managers have the skills and the willingness to recognise and manage the personality differences underlying conflict and to deal with the small stuff when it happens.
Most conflict arises from how we relate to others through our behaviour – what we do and what we say. Other people don’t know what we are thinking or feeling (unless we tell them) or what might be driving our behaviour or stressing us when we interact with them. Similarly, we don’t know these things about others.
The most effective strategies to reduce conflict are those that focus on managing behaviour and the motivations and stressors that drive behaviour:
Manage your drives and stressors. Being aware of what is driving or stressing you when you conflict with others helps you manage your behaviour. For example, someone who has a strong drive to get results can become stressed when they feel nothing is being accomplished (perhaps when discussion is going on too long or decisions aren’t being made). This triggers their negative emotions, they may come across as impatient and demanding and their behaviour has a negative impact on others.
Someone with this drive and style (known as Mobiliser[iii]) can help themselves by taking time out and stepping back to give others time to think. Their colleagues can help them by showing they appreciate the urgency and by being clear and concise. Adapting behaviour in this way helps people connect and reduces conflict.
Be aware of your emotions and control them. Rather than letting your “inner chimp”[iv] take over, make time to allow the rational part of your brain to kick in. Relax your body, breathe deeply, pause before you speak, use a calm tone of voice and measured body language. If you can, move to a different location – while you are walking, you and the other person will have chance to reflect – or suggest a time out.
Have a collaborative mindset. Look for win-wins, rather than win-lose outcomes, it’s not a competition! Look for common ground and make it clear that you agree. Consider the problem from their perspective – put yourself in their shoes, rather than sticking firmly in your own.
Use open questions, beginning with “what” and “how” and avoid questions beginning with “why” as this can come across as too challenging and elicit a defensive response.
Plan what you want to say and how to say it. Speak assertively, not aggressively or submissively. Have an adult-to-adult conversation, not a parent-child one. Repeat the other person’s point of view in your own words – this acknowledges the other person, checks you have heard correctly, and gives you a bit more time to think. Pause after paraphrasing before you state your point of view. Don’t raise objections. Instead, ask for clarification, seek ideas and make suggestions.
Avoid red flag phrases
- Don’t say “never” and “always” when you are describing someone else’s behaviour, as this is likely to lead to an emotional reaction and escalation of conflict
- Avoid saying “should” and “ought” as most people don’t like being told what to do
- Phrases like “with respect” and “I hear what you say, but…” are big red flags that you are about to disagree
- Use “and” instead of “but” to bridge to your point of view – compare the impact of replying “Yes, but I think…” with “Yes, and I think….”.
Switch from the past or present tense to the future – what are we going to do, how can we stop this happening again? This helps to take anger out of the disagreement.
Show respect for them and their views. People are particularly sensitive to what they regard as a “lack of respect”[v]. When you communicate with people, bear in mind that we all have deep seated needs to feel that we matter, are respected and are liked. So even during conflict, treat them as if they are important to you and you want to get on with them.
Finally, remember that you will have to carry on working with the person after this conflict is resolved – what can you do or say now, that will help to build a better relationship with them for the future?
[i] CIPD Survey Report April 2015 Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: tracing the experiences of employees
[ii] As above
[iii] Stothart, C (2018) How to Get on with Anyone
[iv] Peters, S. (2012) The Chimp Paradox
[v] CIPD Survey Report, as above
About the Author
Catherine Stothart is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Based in Chester in the UK, she is a leadership coach and team facilitator, www.essenwood.co.uk, and author of new book, How to Get on with Anyone, available from Pearson, priced at £12.99.
Catherine will be speaking at the conference about how you can apply Interaction Styles to defuse conflict.