Seven Tips for Interpersonal Conflict Resolution at Work


People handle conflict differently based on their experiences and personality. Recognizing these styles can help in approaching disputes more effectively.
Conflict resolution in the workplace is less about the specific dispute and more about how people communicate and interact with each other.
Listening, understanding, and respectful communication are key to preventing and resolving conflicts.
Interpersonal Workplace Conflict
Richard Birke Lead Facilitator and Trainer

Workplaces vary dramatically and the disputes that arise on a construction site are different from those in a surgical center or in a faculty meeting at a university. Having been a conflict resolver in all those environments and more I’ve seen those differences firsthand. 

But one thing that always remains the same is that conflicts involve people and the more you understand about people the easier it will be to manage conflict and handle conflict. In this short piece, I’d like to offer seven tips that may help you stop problems before they arise or fix them quickly if they already exist.

TIP 1: Listen more than you talk. 

Folk wisdom says that because we have two ears and one mouth we should listen twice as much as we talk. And that’s good advice but that ratio might be off by a factor of two or three. (It’s probably a good thing we don’t have four or six ears.) 

When people get into conflict, it’s usually because they have a need that is unmet. They may not have been able to articulate that need to their colleagues and once the conflict has arisen, their ability to communicate may be diminished. 

If you are a supervisor or colleague who wants to help someone in conflict, let them talk. Let them express what happened, what matters to them, and how they are feeling about the situation. Listening well is key in helping resolve interpersonal conflict among co-workers.

TIP 2: Listen effectively and replace judgment with curiosity. 

Whether or not you are involved in a particular conflict, when you hear someone recount a story of how the conflict happened, you are likely to have emotional responses to aspects of what they say. Perhaps they aren’t accepting responsibility for having a role in conflict and that bothers you. You’d like to interject “It takes two to tango” but that’s a judgment and if that judgment becomes known, the teller of the story is likely to feel shut down. 

Instead, when you feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle or your brow start to furrow, use these magic words: “Tell me more about that.” You can even say that you noticed the teller’s voice or facial expression change when they brought up the incident or the person on the other side of the conflict. When you feel judgment, an open-ended invitation to expand is more helpful than a statement.

TIP 3: Restate and reframe. 

When you do speak, tell the speaker what you heard. It’s very helpful for someone to know that the person listening has understood what they meant to say. You can reflect the statements in your own words and perhaps even say things a little better than the teller did. You can also reflect feelings. “Let me make sure I’ve understood what you said. You said your colleague didn’t respect your workspace when they took your favorite pen without even asking. It seems like maybe you felt a breach of trust and that bothered you. Is that right?” 

Don’t worry if you are little bit off in your reflection. They’ll let you know if you missed the mark and they’ll tell you a little bit more.

TIP 4: Conflict can be productive. 

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict is defined as a disagreement about the best way to manage conflict or accomplish a goal. One person might think the fastest route to make a delivery is via surface roads, and someone else might think that taking the highway is quicker. These people share a goal: getting the delivery accomplished in the shortest time possible. Their disagreement is on how to accomplish their mission as quickly as possible. If handled effectively, task conflict is a great way to generate multiple solutions to a problem, and that will lead to better outcomes. 

On the other hand, if the two colleagues start to take the matter personally, it becomes relationship conflict, and that’s generally destructive. If one says “We’re taking the highway,” and the other says (or thinks), “You never treat my ideas with any respect,” the choice of which route to take may never be made, or if it is made, it will leave bruised feelings and may make working together more difficult in the future. 

Be aware that many conflicts start as task conflict and turn into relationship conflict. If mindful of this distinction, you can have more of the productive kind of conflict and less of the destructive kind.

Resolving Workplace Conflict

TIP 5: Separate intent from impact.

 “You’re taking this the wrong way. That’s not what I meant.” When you hear someone say anything like this, it means that there’s a gap between intent—what the speaker thought they were saying—and impact—how it landed. Just because someone meant no harm doesn’t mean that no harm was done. 

If you are the speaker, don’t be defensive. Recognize the impact that your words had and take ownership. Instead of “you misheard,” think “I misspoke.” Apologize and restate what you want to convey. 

If you are the listener, be charitable. Sometimes people aren’t always able to articulate exactly what’s on their mind, and it could be that what you perceived as a hurtful statement wasn’t really an accurate reflection of what the speaker intended. Instead of snapping back or shutting down, you might make an “I” statement such as “When you said that, I felt insulted. Is that what you intended?”


TIP 6: Conflict styles vary. 

Because conflicts involve people, that doesn’t mean everyone will react to conflict the same way. Over our lives, each of us has developed strategies that work for us, and those strategies are the result of our experiences, culture, upbringing, and more. We tend to repeat what’s worked for us before and discard what’s failed. 

Broadly speaking, when confronted with conflict, some people become controlling, some accommodating, and some avoidant. Controllers like to take charge, and while that works in some situations, in others it can lead to someone feeling steamrolled. Two controllers in a dispute can argue for control while the conflict gets worse. Accommodators put the needs of others ahead of their own, often stifling their own good ideas and feeling that “I do everything for everyone, and no one looks out for me.” Avoiders seldom make conflict worse, but they can bury problems deep in the soil, only to find that the problem developed even deeper roots and has grown. 

It's useful to recognize your own conflict style and those of others. Once you understand that people approach conflict differently, and in these three broad ways, you may be able to intervene in your own problems and those of colleagues differently and more sensitively. The hope that everyone will just jump to your style or do things the way you like is both naïve and short-sighted. A wider perspective is more realistic, more charitable, and more productive.


TIP 7: Think about contribution, not blame. 

Conflict is best resolved when the orientation is toward the future, not the past. Earlier in my career, I was a litigator, and in court every day. We looked backward all the time in search of who caused the problem and who was to blame. 

Now as a mediator and facilitator, we look forward and ask, “How did we get here, and how can we make tomorrow better?” We accept that everyone in the conflict played a role and, without assigning people to roles of angels and devils, we try to work together to figure out how everyone can get back on track and make the workplace a more productive and pleasant place to be. However, If we try to avoid or shift blame, we are unlikely to change our actions and likely to see the same issues repeated that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. 

In the 30-plus years that I’ve been in the conflict resolution business, I’ve learned so many lessons—usually by making mistakes. If wisdom is making good decisions and acquiring wisdom comes from making bad decisions, then we all need to make bad decisions sometimes. 

I hope that these tips help you avoid and resolve disputes in your workplace more effectively and efficiently than before. 

And remember, if a conflict gets too big to handle, it’s a sign of wisdom and courage to reach out for help.

This page is for general information purposes. JAMS makes no representations or warranties regarding its accuracy or completeness. Interested persons should conduct their own research regarding information on this website before deciding to use JAMS, including investigation and research of JAMS neutrals.
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