In a perfect world, we would all get along with our coworkers and boss all the time. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.
At work, it’s rare that a decision gets made where everyone is 100% on board and in agreement. It is often the case that — because of time limits, budget constraints, or even just the preferences or work styles of other people — we have to make decisions or do work we don’t completely agree with.
And sometimes, when people don’t completely agree with the decision being made, conflicts can come up.
While most of us make our best efforts to avoid conflict at work, occasionally it is unavoidable. Whether you are the person who is frustrated, or you’re being approached by someone who is frustrated, there are definitely right ways and wrong ways to handle conflict at work.
Here is how to do it effectively, so you can all move on and get back to what really matters.
Give up on the idea of “winning”
The best way to win an argument is to let go of the idea that you have something to “win” at all. Winning, in this case, doesn’t mean getting your way or showing the other person how they were wrong. Instead, it means being the person who helps everyone get on the same page so they can move forward.
Whether that means everyone actually does come to your point of view or not, isn’t necessarily the most critical element. What you want to achieve is being the person who resolves the conflict. You want to be the leader who can look at the situation big picture, assess how to move forward, and then get everyone working on the same page again. That is true leadership.
Start by looking for common ground
KateM often says, “conflict comes from missed expectations”.
Which makes sense, right? We are all able to happily work together when we know we are on the same page with everyone else and we are all working towards the same goals. Conflict comes up when we realize someone wasn’t on the same page we were or where we thought they were.
And actually, at the heart of many workplace conflicts is a common goal. Two people disagreeing over strategy might have the shared goal of wanting to execute a project to the highest quality possible. So their conflict isn’t as deep as it might look from the outside; really, they already agree on the important parts, and they are just fighting about details.
One person’s definition of success might be a product that is completed and shipped faster; the other person might see success as a product that has high user ratings. Both of these metrics could measure success, but the routes to get there will be quite different, which can cause disagreement about how to execute the project.
When you can see what you have in common with the other side, then you can start to sort out the facts and key priorities. Why does each person think what they think? Is there outside information that could influence or persuade them otherwise? Why do you think what you think?
When you find common ground, it becomes easier to compromise, since the other person’s perspective can feel relatable and reasonable, and you realize they are more like you than you thought.
Don’t blow up (and if you do, leave)
If you really care about something, it’s easy to get worked up. If emotions are running high, though, you won’t be very effective at bringing everyone to resolution — least of all yourself. You need to be in control to work through a conflict.
It’s really hard to agree or give in to someone you’re mad at. The more worked up you are, the more defensive you get and the less listening you do.
So not only will you be damaging the relationship by blowing up at the other person, but you won’t be getting any closer to a resolution either. It is a waste of everyone’s time.
If you or the other person is losing their temper, walk away. Tell them you need to take a break, and come back later. If need be, apologize for your actions, and then come back to the question when you have a cooler head and you’re more likely to be thinking logically.
Focus on the facts (not the perceptions)
You might think you know why a person has a certain opinion or why they do their work a certain way, but don’t assume. Not only are you probably wrong, but nobody takes kindly to hearing what other people think of them (especially if they are worked up and frustrated).
The best thing you can do during a conflict is to focus on the facts. Only speak for yourself. Avoid saying things like “we all think ___” or “you’re just saying that because ___”. Instead, talk about your experience, your knowledge, and the facts at hand.
Try to take as much emotion and projection out of it as possible, and just look at what is in front of you. What is the goal? What are the possible solutions? How can we measure each of them? Do we have any experiences or resources we can draw on to get more information? How can we reach a compromise that acknowledges everyone’s needs?
If you have a feeling someone is doing a certain thing or leaning a certain way because of something you assume about them, don’t let that judgment color your interactions. Instead, try asking questions about their perspective. It will help them clarify their point of view (to you and to themselves), and will help you get rid of your assumptions and replace them with facts.
Repeat back the other person’s words to them
As you are talking, it can be tempting to reiterate your position again and again — in fact, you might not even realize you are doing it. We all want to feel heard, and when emotions are hot, it’s hard to think beyond our own opinions.
However, the more you can listen to the other person, the more you will make them feel heard (which lowers the level of conflict) and the more you will understand their perspective (which will help you uncover what you need to know to find a resolution that will work).
Trying to repeat the other person’s words back to them is a great way to do this.
When someone finishes making their point, you can acknowledge that you heard them by saying, “Okay, that makes sense. Just to make sure I completely understand, you are saying _____” and repeat back their key points to them.
This helps cement their points in your mind because you have to listen carefully enough in order to repeat back. And hearing you say their words shows the other person you were listening.
When people feel listened to, they are more likely to compromise because they feel like their perspective is being taken into account in the decision. (And feeling like they weren’t being heard is likely what started the conflict in the first place!)
Stick with it and seek a conclusion
It can be tempting to implement the silent treatment or simply walk away when someone disagrees with you, but it’s important to see the conflict through to resolution. As painful as that might sound, imagine the alternative: seething frustration that drags on for hours, days, or even years, and that damages your relationships with people — and maybe even your reputation, if the blowup was big enough or causes enough long term damage.
One bad interaction can turn into a bad relationship, which can have wide-reaching negative impacts on your career. Better to get the situation resolved now, so you can all move on.
It might be tempting to throw up your hands and say, “We’ll never agree!”, but it is better to seek a conclusion to the conflict than to just accept it. Maybe you ultimately will decide you and this other person have to just “agree to disagree”, but it is better to have that be a mutual decision than for one of you to just walk away.
If you must, agree to disagree and find room to compromise
Ideally, a good conversation can cure any conflict. When both parties feel heard and are acknowledging each other’s perspectives, it is easy to start looking at the facts and coming up with plans that make everyone feel good.
However, it might be the case that you and the other person simply do not see eye to eye.
In that situation, it’s important that you be able to find ways to still work together and create a plan that you can both work with. This might involve incorporating elements of each other’s ideas into one unified plan, or it might be going with one person’s idea but agreeing to check in later on and see if it would make sense to try the other person’s strategy.
Remember, you don’t always have to 100% agree in order to do really great work in your job. Don’t focus so much on winning that you are a sore loser if someone else appears to come out on top in the conflict.
Even if you don’t get your way, remember that at the end of the day, it is your job to be aligned with your team and do great work.
If you pout and phone in your work because you didn’t get your way, people will notice and they will remember. And that will make it even harder to get your way in the future.
However, if you can work through a conflict and be a great teammate and still produce great work, then you will become a respected authority on your team. The longer your track record of successfully managing and negotiating conflict is, it will serve you far better in the long run than winning one fight.
Have you faced conflict at work recently? How did it get resolved? Tell us in the comments.