A Guide to Handling Workplace Conflict 

It’s inevitable that at some stage in your career, you’ll end up in some form of conflict with a colleague or manager. People disagree and clash – that’s a part of life. But there are positive and negative ways to deal with this conflict. Read on for a guide on making sure the conflict in your work life is positive. 

Jun 18, 2020

  1.     Acknowledge that conflict shouldn’t be suppressed

Conflict is intimidating and difficult, and it’s easy to try and sweep it under the carpet. But doing so will only lead to simmering resentment. Failing to resolve issues is unlikely to lead to them disappearing – they will bubble up in some way later on. 

You’re better off dealing with conflict head-on. It might not be easy – but the benefits are huge. Not only will it be a relief to have your issue out in the open, but it might even bring you closer together to the person with whom you’ve been clashing.

  1.     Acknowledge your own emotions

Often, it’s easy to displace conflict about something that’s difficult to on to something else. Couples will end up arguing about how to do the dishes, when the real issue is something much deeper. However, people are not always aware that they are doing this. Realizing that this is the case often takes some introspection. If your colleague’s minor habits have been getting on your nerves, ask yourself if you’re blowing it out of proportion, and if so, are there some other emotions in play that are the real source of your irritation?

  1.     Listen to what’s being felt, not just what’s being said

The above paragraph applies to the other person in the situation, too. They might not be completely aware of their own emotions or might be covering them up. That means you need to pay attention to body language and to any messages you might pick up between the lines. For example, your colleague might tell you in a conversation, “It’s completely fine”, while clenching their fist and failing to make eye contact. That’s a clue that it isn’t completely fine, but that your colleague feels unable to articulate that or explain why. 

You can’t resolve a conflict without listening carefully. And part of being a good listener isn’t just taking the words that are said at their plainest value, as if you’re reading a contract. For better or worse, human beings don’t work like that (and this includes you). We need to pay attention to what’s being felt, not just said.

  1.     If you can, keep things light-hearted and use humor

Humor is a brilliant tool for releasing tension in a situation. Of course, it’s also a double-edged sword, because humor can be a tool for shaming and criticizing others as well. The last thing you want to do is seem to be laughing at the other person. But it’s a great skill to be able to make a well-timed joke that makes matters suddenly seem less serious. 

Overall, this is one to be very risk-averse about. If you think there’s a chance of inflaming the situation, avoid trying humor. But if you can make a joke that gently laughs at yourself or the situation in general, it might help bring some light-heartedness into your relationship. 

  1.     Don’t make it about “winning”

You may well be completely in the right about your conflict. However, don’t make your goal proving how right you are. Make the overall goal about restoring good relations. Doing the former will not serve you well in the long run – it will only make it harder to bring your relationship to a healthy place. 

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book Anger and Forgiveness is a fascinating study of the role of anger in our lives. Nussbaum’s thesis is that anger is actually never a useful emotion to have. By embodying the thought that harming the person you’re angry with can somehow ‘restore the balance’ (something that doesn’t really make sense), anger is an emotion that looks backwards, rather than forwards at moving to a better future.

A common objection to this is that it's necessary to be angry at injustice, as otherwise it will never be fixed. Nussbaum acknowledges this, but then studies heroic and successful figures like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., who never in their lives stopped fighting the terrible injustices they faced. She argues that while anger may have played some role in their speeches, it was always a specific type of anger that was forward-looking – with the focus being whatever could be done to create a brighter future rather than on punishing wrongdoers (while the latter may sometimes be necessary, it’s not a valuable goal in itself).

It’s a complicated and intriguing read, and like everything in philosophy there will be a variety of views. But Nussbaum certainly has much to say about how a forward-looking focus on our relationships could better benefit our lives than a backwards-looking focus on who has committed which wrongs.

Don’t allow workplace conflict to continue. With a combination of the right attitude and a forward-looking, listening-based approach, you can deal with conflict and prevent it from interfering with your work life.

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