How to Have Healthy Conflict in the Workplace

We choose our friends, but we don't often choose our colleagues. In offices, we spend a large proportion of our waking lives with people with whom we may not have much in common, and it’s natural for disagreements to arise.  When they do, managing the resulting conflict is not easy: there is serious potential for hurt feelings and awkward working environments. But grievances and annoyances tend not to disappear when buried – instead, they fester under the surface and prevent colleagues from working together successfully. So how can you ensure conflict takes place in a healthy manner? Let’s look at some ideas for turning ill will into good! 

How to Have Healthy Conflict in the Workplace

Speak one-to-one when you can

The first step in resolving conflict should be a private, one-on-one conversation. Don’t begin by challenging a person in public or in the middle of an open-plan office. They’ll be more likely to hit back at you to rescue their pride, or may resent you for embarrassing them. 

Instead, why not say, “Hey, do you mind if I have a quick chat with you about something in one of the meeting rooms?” This dynamic makes it easier for you to have an open conversation, and it’ll be more likely to end with the two of you hugging it out, hearts aglow with the joy of reconciliation (okay, maybe not – but hopefully at least you won’t be scowling at each other during the next Monday morning team meeting). 

Think about the right form of communication

While a quick, private chat is often the best first step towards resolving an issue, it’s not always going to be enough. But when you have to go further, think carefully about the best form your communication could take.

In general, emails are colder and host more potential misunderstanding than face-to-face or phone communication. A spoken conversation is usually better for diffusing tension.

One downside to an oral conversation, though, is that many of us stumble and find it difficult to articulate ourselves on the spot. It’s a common experience to go into a meeting with many thoughts to express, and come out of it feeling that you didn’t properly get any of them across. If you’re nervous about this problem, try writing down what you want to say in advance so that your ideas are clear in your head. You could also talk it over with a friend or family member to practice expressing yourself. 

Written communication is appropriate sometimes, too – particularly when you need to escalate the situation. An email chain provides a concrete record of what has been discussed. In a case of workplace bullying, for example, this might be valuable. Or if you find yourself forced to repeatedly ask a colleague to do something that they simply will not do, putting it in an email creates evidence of your requests.

People generally respect you sticking up for yourself 

If you feel you are being pushed around at work, you may fear consequences for your career by confronting the situation. More likely than not, however, you’ll actually gain standing in the eyes of whoever is doing the pushing. Although they might not openly admit it, they’re probably more likely to respect someone who stands up to them, making you more likely to be considered for that promotion, not less.

With any professional setting, however, your attitude makes a difference. Be sure never to assume malicious intent. This can lead to a misunderstanding in which you feel genuinely wronged by an innocent mistake.  

We can only learn from feedback

So far, we’ve been focusing on what to do if you have an issue with a colleague. But let’s be honest, none of us are perfect. What if – heaven forbid – a colleague has an issue with you? 

If this scenario arises, it’s easy to get caught up in defending yourself and maintaining your pride. Instead, think of it as an opportunity. Your colleague might be being unreasonable – but then again, maybe there really is something you could do differently? And if so, this could be the only way you find out. After all, if you’ve got some stray food stuck in your teeth, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? Otherwise, you’ll be unwittingly displaying the remains of your entrée every time you grin for the rest of the day. And the same goes for more serious matters - you need feedback if you’re ever going to recognize what to change.

Workplace relations are not easy. But our differences can be a source of joy and growth. With these tips in hand, you’ll soon be turning workplace disagreements into something that brings you and your colleagues closer! 

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