01 Jun Managing interpersonal conflict at work
By Patrick Psaila
Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship whether at work or in our personal life. It as an opportunity for relational growth, maturity, openness and authenticity. However, it can become harmful if left unaddressed or allowed to escalate. While we should not avoid conflict, we also need to have the right skillset to manage it effectively.
Conflict normally occurs when one person or group feel wronged by another person or group. The action that provokes it can be real or perceived, intentional or accidental. Nonetheless, conflict is a threat trigger so from the moment of inception, our defence/attack mechanisms are activated in the brain. Unless we are aware of what is happening to us, we can easily give in to a fight (attack) or flight (defence) reaction. This is more likely to happen when the other party is perceived as being aggressive, manipulative, deceitful or unjust. Managing intense negative emotions in response to threat can be particularly challenging to manage unless we are able to harness our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Here are six useful tips that can help you achieve the best outcome from conflict situations.
- Explore your relationship with conflict: The first step in managing conflict is to become aware of your relationship with it. How does conflict make you feel? Which specific people or situations do you find threatening and hard to deal with? Do you tend to avoid conflict at all costs and try to harmonise and accommodate or do you tend to quickly gear up for battle? Are you a competitive type of person who likes to be proven right or have the last word? Do you tend to withdraw when there is conflict and bottle things up? Reflecting on such questions is critical in identifying your starting point in relation to conflict scenarios. Volatile and competitive people need to learn how to dial down their reactions and allow more time for listening and processing. Accommodating and harmonizing types on the other hand, need to pluck up the courage to look at conflict in the face and deal with it firmly and assertively.
- Address conflict early: The sooner you nip conflict in the bud the less likely it is to escalate and spiral out of control. By being aware of your own internal reactions and sensitive to other people’s you can realise early on that a conflict is brewing and needs to be addressed. The more intense emotions get, the harder it is to manage them. For example, it is much more challenging to manage frustration and anger than annoyance and irritation.
- Take the other person’s perspective: A critical factor in resolving conflict is the ability to understand the other person’s point of view and communicate this understanding. This immediately reduces the levels of threat for both parties involved. It transmits the message “I can understand your position, your reason or your intention for doing what you did even though I object to it”. Expressing your understanding of the other person’s perspective also communicates a willingness to reach an amicable conclusion to the conflict.
- Address the emotional sub context: The emotional sub context of any interaction refers to the underlying emotional dynamics that exist just below the surface of the content of the interaction. For example, a conflict about work task distribution can be based on lack of trust that the process will be conducted fairly. So, for the conflict to be resolved the feelings of mistrust also need to be addressed and dealt with. This will naturally take longer to work through, but it will ensure that the conflict is not just superficially resolved only to reemerge at the next occurring incident.
- Find common ground: The effort to find common ground when dealing with conflict is the first step in finding a solution and a way forward. Common ground may consist of agreeing on values, intentions, principles or even outcomes that both parties prioritise. For example, in team conflict parties involved can start by acknowledging that they all want the team to be successful. Highlighting common ground and areas of agreement automatically diffuses the intensity of the conflict.
- Avoid setting off defence triggers: During an interpersonal conflict we are primed to react defensively or aggressively. By using non-threatening language, you can avoid setting off these defence/attack triggers. Three of the most common triggers are accusation, judgement and humiliation. To avoid setting off these triggers you need to practise the following:
- Address the issue or behaviour rather than the person;
- Refer to the consequences of that behaviour rather than judge the behaviour; and
- Be specific to one occasion rather than generalise and always maintain respect.
For example, if a colleague puts you down during a meeting your impulsive reaction could be to say something like “how dare you speak to me like that! You’re so disrespectful!” This will naturally escalate into a conflict. Instead, you might say “saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about in front of the whole team makes me feel disrespected and I’m not going to accept that kind of treatment”. So, while being assertive, you are not accusing the person, judging the, or ridiculing them back.
Using these techniques when dealing with interpersonal conflict will help you reach resolutions faster and safeguard your relationships with the people you work with. They will also influence and encourage the others to adopt the same approach. Naturally, these tips can be applied to all your relationships and are effective life tools that will help you enjoy more harmonious and positive relationships while remaining authentic and self-respecting.