Even if you work to avoid it, conflict is sometimes unavoidable. Earlier in our careers we typically feel powerless and duck to avoid conflict. As our careers progress, we gain more clout, credibility and control. As such, our approach must evolve.
How can we best handle conflict more effectively?
We should begin with the definition of “conflict.” Conflict is when two or more people believe very strongly in differing paths and stubbornness or lack of respect has set in. While it is not always possible to resolve or eliminate conflict, you can always navigate it. We cannot fix everything and need to navigate our way through the challenges of the day, which sets us up when conflicts do arise. Thinking that you need to fix everything is a surefire way to set yourself up for failure.
Below are five basic elements for navigating workplace conflict:
1. Choose Your Battles Wisely. First determine if you are even part of the conflict. Unless it is your job to navigate conflict, stay away from any that is not yours. Should you have a role in navigating the conflict, decide carefully on timing and approach. Has the conflict even risen to the point where you need to get involved? If others are able to navigate and even resolve conflict on their own then they will have learned from the experience.
2. Avoid Assumptions. Our natural instinct is to believe that what is before us is everything and to trust whoever is presenting the information. Instead, look at every picture as a jigsaw puzzle with a few dozen pieces missing. As they say, there are three sides to every story. Those missing pieces are usually enough that there is not yet enough information to make a decision.
You can work on getting the full picture by asking a few key questions:
- What else should I know?
This crucial question will help you uncover valuable information. It shows that you are interested an engaged. It also creates the expectation that you are going to immediately start investigating the issue. As a leader, it positions you are both thoughtful and reflective, rather than being impulsive and reactive.
- What would the other person be telling me?
By raising this question to someone raising an issue to you, you are forcing them to articulate the other person’s position.
When you’re a party to a conflict, before speaking with a superior, ask yourself “what don’t I know about the person’s motivation, intention, reasoning and the topic at hand?” After asking and answering this question, go to the other party to ask appropriate questions. This demonstrates that you are working diligently to understand the other person. This goes a long way in building trust.
3. Investigate. Seek out an independent source of information that provides color to the conflict and access it before you speak to the other party involved. You may then have additional questions for the person who came to you or with whom you have a conflict. Answers to these questions help you understand their perspective.
4. Listen to the Other Side. Let’s assume that the person coming to you with a conflict wants you to take an active role in resolving it. Contact the other person involved in the conflict and ask to meet one-on-one with them. Tell them the agenda in advance so that they are not blindsided when meeting with you. Begin with a pleasant tone and ask a few straightforward questions that have zero to do with the issue at hand. By asking simple questions like “how is your day going” emphasizes that the challenges you are about to discuss is only one element of the person’s overall workday. By ending the conversation in a similar way — by commenting on another aspect of work — reinforces the message.
You should, however, get to the point relatively quickly. “Sharon shared with me that an issue arose regarding X. What is your take on the situation?” Ask a lot of questions. Do not rush the conversation. Maintain a natural demeanor and keep your facial expressions neutral.
5. Decide Next Steps. This step can be tricky if not handled expertly. You have to determine if this is an issue that requires all parties to sit down together and hash out their differences. This is usually the best solution because it gets everyone in a room and the dialogue opened.
If such a meeting takes place, you need to decide on what your role will be. Are you moderating a discussion, mediating a dispute or making an ultimate decision? If moderating, your job is to keep the conversation flowing, civil and focused. If mediating, involved parties will ultimately decide how they move forward. If you are making a decision, depending on the complexity of the issue(s) at hand, either tell them your decision right then, or tell them that you need some time to reflect and do your research. If you do have to delay the decision, do not delay it for long. Your decision will help move things forward.
Navigating conflict is rarely a pleasant experience and it was my goal to provide you with some helpful tools for doing so.