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Be An Expert at Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Elephants are magnificent creatures, but no one wants to have one in the room. We’ve all experienced that awkward situation: there is an issue that everyone is aware of, but no one knows how to address it. The longer it is avoided, the larger the metaphorical elephant grows, creating more discomfort and probably more conflict for everyone involved.  If you are a business owner, manager, or an employee, you will do well to understand conflict resolution in the workplace. Having the skills to address differences with a win-win approach will serve you well in many situations.

There are several points to keep in mind when you are looking to resolve a conflict:

ADDRESS CONFLICTS IMMEDIATELY. Conflicts do not disappear if they are ignored or avoided. In fact, they grow larger. Addressing conflicts as soon as they come up is in everyone’s best interest. The longer a conflict continues the more likely it is that the facts will get blown out of proportion, causing resentments to escalate.

ONLY INCLUDE NECESSARY PARTIES. In order for trust to be built in business relationships, conflict resolution should only include the parties involved in the conflict. Direct communication and collaboration is vital, and confidentiality is a must.

DEMANDS AND FORCE DON’T WORK. If you are in a position of authority, remember that wielding your power may get you the result you want in the beginning, but you will likely be left with unhappy employees. This will lead to further conflict and a high turnover rate, as well as poorly completed work, increased illness, and on the job injuries.

ACCOMMODATE WHEN POSSIBLE. If issues are small and not likely to affect the work environment negatively, accommodation may be the best route to go. Careful examination of the outcome of the compromise is necessary before choosing that option. You’ll want to make sure you are not setting a precedent you do not want to follow in the future.

COMPROMISING IS NOT NECESSARILY THE BEST OPTION. When you compromise, you are finding a solution that is a middle ground, but may not be satisfactory to either party. It may meet some of the needs of both parties, but in some cases leaves enough to be desired that the conflict will continue.

IT’S OKAY TO DISAGREE. Many people don’t understand that a differing opinion is not a threat. Just because someone thinks differently about a subject that does not mean they are wrong, nor does it mean you are wrong. A great phrase to keep in mind is, “Not wrong, just different.”


Conflict Resolution in the Workplace Through Collaboration

The best way to resolve conflicts is to use a technique called collaboration. Collaboration involves open discussion, mutual understanding, exploration of solutions through brainstorming, and a mutually satisfying resolution. Let’s explore what that looks like.

Step 1: Create an Atmosphere of Transparency

In order to avoid having conflicts arise in the first place or to keep them to a minimum, transparency is key. Meeting with employees, managers, and departments regularly is vital, as well as when conflicts arise. At these meetings, it is important that everyone be informed that they matter, their opinions and ideas matter, and that honesty is welcome. This will breed an atmosphere of collaboration, transparency, and emotional safety.

It is also important to write down everything that is agreed upon in a meeting and send it to all participants. Give them the opportunity to correct anything that is incorrect, or add anything that was missed. Create a way for them to sign off on what was written, and also send the correspondence to anyone who may be affected but was not able to attend. This may seem like a tedious process, but it will avoid the hearsay trap, and you will have a reference to work from should further conflict arise or should the process need to be split into multiple meetings.


Step 2: Listen and Validate

This step is so crucial that if you don’t follow it your process will be severely hampered if not brought to a halt altogether. First, you must listen without interrupting until the person is done speaking. You may also want to set a reasonable time expectation for this. For example, “Let’s take five minutes for you to tell me in your own words what the situation is.” Take notes if necessary to keep important points in mind. Try to see underneath the words, to what the real problem is. Let the person know you are seeking to understand, and put your concerns to the side for the time being. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree. This step is not about that–it’s about understanding.

Second, validate what the person has said, using a phrase such as, “It sounds like your main concerns are . . . Is that correct?” Paraphrase what you have heard the person saying and make sure that before you take your turn, the person or group feels understood. You can even include feelings such as, “It sounds like you feel frustrated when . . .” or “I hear you saying that you feel unsafe when . . .” Pointing out feelings that go along with concerns can go a long way to creating understanding and emotional safety.

As you validate and paraphrase, keep a friendly tone that indicates a willingness to learn, rather than a condescending or judgmental tone. Look at this step as information, just like you would approach a project such as installing a kitchen faucet. You need to understand the facts or you won’t be able to complete the project.


Step 3: Clearly State the Problem and Brainstorm

Once all have been heard and validated, state the problem clearly so that everyone agrees on what it is. You may need to work with this a bit to come to an agreement.

Then you will need to brainstorm. For this step, first, have individuals brainstorm on their own and bring their ideas to the next meeting. This prevents them from getting stuck on someone else’s suggestions. Remember that no idea is bad because it may lead to another idea that does become the solution. This also promotes safety in voicing ideas without judgment.

Write down all ideas where everyone can see them. As time allows or at subsequent meetings, choose two or three solutions that seem viable and discuss those. Approach this as a challenge to be solved, rather than a burden to bear.


Step 4: Work Toward a Mutually Satisfying Solution

As you discuss the chosen ideas, work toward a mutually satisfying solution that meets the objectives of all parties involved. Write down the solution, including whatever steps are necessary to carry it out and who is responsible for said tasks. Again, distribute this in writing as before, and have everyone involved sign off on it. Congratulate everyone on working together to come to a satisfactory solution. Convey that you look forward to doing this again in the future.

Conflict resolution in the workplace does not have to be a burdensome or overwhelming process. The best places to work are those that foster this type of collaboration in everything they do. This increases productivity in all sectors, the creation of superior products and services, teamwork, and excellent workplace morale.