5 essential steps to resolve a conflict at work

Conflict at work

Though Jane enjoyed working as the sales manager of Wilbey & Sons, working with Scott, the financial manager, was a constant struggle for her. At every meeting, Scott would take great care to explain why all her ideas were unworkable. Also, Scott was constantly asking for sales projections and financial data from her and always wanted it in excruciating detail. Supplying these figures was taking up a large amount of her department’s already packed schedule. Frankly she thought, he was nothing but a dry, negative perfectionist.

Scott, on the other hand, thought that Jane was a maverick. She always had to interrup meetings with her harebrained schemes and whenever he asked her for the data he needed to keep the company finances in order, she would always stall and make him have to ask her again several times. Jane, he felt, was nothing but a happy-go-lucky, unrealistic show-off.

It got to the point where neither of them could stand to be in the same room together. The company clearly suffered under this conflict between two of its key employees and something clearly needed to be done. Fortunately the CEO had a simple but surprising solution.

I don’t know about you, but I hate conflicts at work. Spending my work days mad at a co-worker, trying to avoid that person and subconsciously finding fault with everything they say or do is not exactly my idea of a good time.

I used to be an expert at dodging conflicts on the job and I’m here to tell you that it just doesn’t work! What does work is biting the bullet and doing something about it here and now. I have seen what looked like huge, insurmountable, serious conflicts go “poof” and disappear into dust when handled constructively. I have also seen an itty-bitty molehill of a problem grow into a mountain that threatened to topple an entire company.

You can’t win a conflict at work. Winning a conflict ie. getting the outcome you want regardless of what the other person wants can be gratifying, sure, but the problem is that the underlying issue has not been solved. It will simply reappear later over some other topic. Much better than winning a conflict at work is resolving it.

And the price of inaction is high, because unresolved, long-running conflicts result in antagonism, break-down in communications, inefficient teams, stress and low productivity. In short, unresolved conflicts make people terribly unhappy at work.

With all of this in mind, here are five essential steps to constructively resolve conflicts at work. The steps can be applied to any kind of conflict between co-workers with maybe one exception – read more at the end of the post.

1: Realize that conflicts are inevitable at work

Show me a workplace without conflict and I’ll show you a workplace where no one gives a damn. Whenever people are engaged, committed and fired up, conflict and disagreement is bound to happen. This doesn’t mean you have to revel in conflict or create trouble just for the hell of it, but it does mean that when conflict happens it’s not the end of the world. Quite the contrary, it can even be the beginning of an interesting learning process. The very best and most efficient workplaces are not the ones without conflicts but those who handle conflicts constructively.

Particularly when a workplace is changing and new ideas are being dreamt up and implemented, conflict is inevitable. There can be no business change without conflict. The trick is to make sure that you also have no conflict without change, because that is the truly dangerous thing: Conflicts that go on for years with all parties refusing to budge.

The fact that you have a conflict at work does not reflect badly on you – it mostly means that you care enough to disagree strongly. That’s a good thing provided that you do something about the conflict instead of just letting it go on forever.

2: Handle conflict sooner rather than later

SmokingThis is the single most important tip to successfully resolve conflicts: Do it now! It’s very tempting to wait for a conflict to blow over by itself, but it rarely does – in most cases it only gets worse with time. I refer you to this delightful cartoon by Claire Bretecher for an example.

90% of conflicts at work do not come from something that was said, but from something that wasn’t said! It’s tempting to try and smooth things over and pretend everything is normal. Don’t. That’s the most common reason why conflicts at work escalate: Nobody does anything. Everyone’s waiting for the other guy to pull himself together and “just admit he’s wrong, dammit”. It may be unpleasant to tackle the issue here and now but believe me, it gets even more unpleasant after the conflict has stewed for a good long while.

3: Ask!

In the early stages of a conflict the most powerful tool to resolve it is simple: Ask! If somebody has done something that made you angry, if you don’t understand somebody’s viewpoint, if you don’t understand their actions – ask!

Do it nicely. “Say, I was wondering why you did ‘X’ yesterday” or “I’ve noticed that you often do ‘Y’. Why is that?” are good examples. “Why the hell do you always have to ‘Z’!” is less constructive :o)

Sometimes there’s a perfectly good reason why that person does what he does, and a potential conflict evaporates right there. Also: Never assume that people do what they do to annoy you or spite you. People typically have a good reason to do the things they do, even the things that really get on your nerves. Never assume bad faith on anyone else’s part. Instead: Ask!

4: Giraffe language

For more entrenched conflicts that have been going on for a while, use giraffe language. It’s the best tool around for constructively conveying criticism and solving conflict.

An example: You and a co-worker often clash at meetings. It’s gotten to the point where each of you are just itching to pounce on the slightest mistake the other person makes. You can barely stand the sight of each other and have begun to avoid each other as much as you can. This has been going on for a while now.

Here’s how you can use giraffe language to adress the conflict. There’s an invitation and six steps to it:
Invite the other person to talk about the situation. An example:
“Say John, I’d really like to talk to you. Do you have half an hour some time today? We could meet in meeting room B”.

A hurried conversation at your desk between emails and phone calls won’t solve anything. You need an undisturbed location and time to adress the issue. And make no mistake: Giving this invitation may be the hardest part of the whole process. It can be remarkably hard to take that first step. Do it anyway!

At the meeting itself, you need a way to structure the conversation constructively. Otherwise it could easily go like this:
The good thing about giraffe language is that the conversation doesn’t degenerate into mutual accusations. Without a proper structure the meeting could also go like this:
“John, why are you always attacking me at meetings?”
“What are you talking about – I don’t do that!”
“You do. Yesterday you jumped on me for suggesting that we add en extra programmer to the team.”
“We’ve talked about that a thousand times, we don’t have the budget for more people.”
“That was no reason to stomp me and the idea at the meeting.”
“Well that’s what you did to me when I suggested that we review the project model.”
Etc. etc. etc.

Ever had one of those discussions at work? Not much fun and not very productive either! Giraffe language keeps accusations, assumptions and mutual attacks out of the conversation and makes it much more likely to reach a solution.

Here’s how it goes. It’s important that you prepare the meeting thoroughly and write down notes to each step so you know what you’re going to say. After each of the steps (except ii and iii) ask the other person if he agrees with your thinking and if he’d like to add anything.

i) Observation. Identify what you see in neutral, objective terms.
“John, I’ve noticed that in our project meetings, we get very critical of each others ideas. For instance, the other day you suggested reviewing our project model and I jumped on you for suggesting it, though it’s actually a necessary step. I have noticed that we’ve ended up doing something like this in almost every meeting in the last few months. It also seems to be getting worse. Would you agree with this description of the situation?”

This is where you describe the facts of the situation as objectively as possible. What is actually happening? When and how is it happening? What is the other person doing and, not least, what are you doing? You’re only allowed to cite observable facts and not allowed to assume or guess at what the other person is thinking or doing. You can say “I’ve noticed that you’re always criticizing me at our meetings” because that’s a verifiable fact. You can’t say “I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped respecting my ideas” because that assumes something about the other person.

ii) Apologize. Apologize for your part in the conflict.
“John, I want to apologize for attacking you at the meetings. It has a bad effect on the mood of our meetings and I can see that it makes you angry. I apologize.”

If you’re 100%, totally and utterly without fault in the conflict you may skip this step. That doesn’t happen too often, let me tell you, usually everyone involved has done something to create and sustain the conflict. Remember: You’re not accepting the entire blame, you’re taking responsibility for your contribution to the situation.

iii) Appreciate. Praise the other part in the conflict. Tell them why it’s worth it to you to solve the conflict.
“I know we don’t always see eye to eye and that we have very different personalities but I want you to know that I really appreciate your contribution to the project. Without you we would never have gotten this far in the same time. Also the way you communicate with our clients and your ability to find out what they really want are second to none and a boost to the project.”

This can be difficult, few people find it easy to praise and appreciate a person they disagree strongly with, but it’s a great way to move forward. It also serves as a lithmus test: If you can’t think of a single positive thing to say about the other person, you may not be ready to resolve the conflict yourself. In this case see tip 5 (mediation) below.

iv) Consequences. What has the conflict led to for you and for the company? Why is it a problem?
“I don’t like this situation we have now. It’s making me anxious before meetings and it’s making the meetings less productive. I also think some of the other project members are starting to wonder what it’s all about. Jane asked me the other day why the two of us can never agree on anything. I think this is actually harming the project. Would you agree?”

Outlining the consequences of the conflict shows why it’s necessary to resolve the conflict. It also helps participants to look beyond themselves and see the conflict “from the outside”.

v) Objective. What would be a good outcome.
“I would like for us to listen more an appreciate each others ideas more. You have some great ideas and even if I don’t agree with an idea, I can still listen and make constructive suggestions. Does that sound like a good goal?”

It’s essential to set a goal so both parties know the outcome they’re aiming for. That makes reaching the outcome a lot more likely :o)

vi) Request. Ask for specific actions that can be implemented right away.
“I suggest that we introduce a new rule: At meetings when one of us suggest something and the other person disagrees, we start by saying what’s good about the idea and then say how it could be better. Also if we start to attack each other as we have before, I suggest we both excuse ourselves from the meeting and talk about it in private instead of in front of the entire team. Also, what do you say we have a short talk after our next project meeting to evaluate how it went. How does that sound?”

The standard version of giraffe language has four steps and is formulated slightly differently. What you see here is an adaptation of traditional giraffe language to the business world that is more suited to conflicts at work.

Why is it called giraffe language? Because the giraffe has the biggest heart of any animal on dry land (it needs to, to pump blood all the way up to its brain). The great thing about giraffe language is that:

  • It gives structure to a difficult conversation
  • It minimizes assumptions and accusations
  • It focuses on the real problems not just the symptoms
  • It results in a plan of action – not just vague assuarances to do better

5: Get mediation

George, the CEO of Wilbey & Sons, wanted Jane and Scott, his sales and financial managers, to work well together, but he also knew that something new was need to break the ice between them. He invited them to a meeting in his office and as they sat there, next to each other across his desk, the resentment between them was apparent – you could sense how they were each ready to spring into action and defend themselves.

His opening took them both by surprise, though. “Jane, would you please tell me what you admire about Scott.” This was not what they had expected, and Jane needed a moment to get her mind around that particular question.

“Well… he… it’s… I have to say that his reports are always excellent and that his department runs like clockwork. Also he handled that situation with the bank last month quickly and without a hitch”.

The CEO’s next question was “And Scott, what do you appreciate about Jane?” Having heard the first question, Scott was caught less by surprise and smoothly replied “Sales are up 17% this quarter because of her last campaign and it looks like the trend will continue.And I must say that the customers I talk to all like the new pricing structure she introduced.”

From that moment on the mood in the room had shifted, and the three of them could have a real conversation about Scott and Jane’s differences and how to resolve them. Though they never became friends, they were able to work effectively together and appreciate each other’s strengths.

Some conflicts are so entrenched that they can not be solved by the participants alone; outside help is needed in the form of conflict mediation. Mediation involves finding a third party trusted by the people involved in the conflict, and then trusting that person to help find a solution. The mediator can be a manager, HR employee, a business coach, a co-worker, etc. You can still speed up the mediation process by preparing for it by using the giraffe language steps above.

What if all of this doesn’t work?

There is no guarantee that the method described here will resolve your conflict at work. It may or it may not. But even if it doesn’t work you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve tried. You have risen above the conflict for a while and tried to address it positively and constructively. No one can ask more of you.

One kind of conflict at work is particularly tricky, namely a conflict with your manager. With a good manager who responds constructively to criticism, this is rarely a problem, but a conflict with a bad or insecure manager can seriously impact your working situation and needs special handling. There’s a post coming next week about working with bad managers.

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52 thoughts on “5 essential steps to resolve a conflict at work”

  1. While I agree with these in principle, we had a situation in a start-up company with a number of owners where the company got bogged down very badly in well-meaning attempts to resolve every conflict between the owners – to the point it damaged our ability to work and company morale, and the very act of resolving conflicts became something that provoked ill-feeling. Drawing a line, forcing ourselves to _not_ try and resolve every last conflict, actually gave us space to relax, get our breath back, and work out what was important – and we’ve gone great ever since.

    So it’s worth being aware that not every conflict needs addressing, and it is possible to get hung up on resolving conflict and forget the bigger picture – getting on with the business at hand ;)

  2. Wow, this is SO much better than punching people in the face!

    Kidding aside, helpful stuff. What happens if the other person actively resists your attempts at framing the conversation because they realize that you’re attempting to frame the conversation? People hate to feel manipulated on the one hand, but on the other, taking the initiative might change the dynamics enough to where they go along with it just to get relief from the situation.

    This is a very interesting blog – glad I found it. :)

  3. While punching people can be strangely satisfying, I’ve always gone for headlocks and indian burns. I say let’s resolve business issues like we did in the schoolyard!

    You raise a great point Michael – I’ve tried it once, where the other person suddenly said “Hey, what’s going on here, are you trying to trick me?”.

    One thing you could do, is come clean at the start of the conversation and say that you have a suggestion for how to structure the conversation more condtructively – would it be OK to.use this thing called giraffe language?

    Of course the issue goes away when both parties know giraffe language and know how well it works. Also, you’re rarely seen as manipulative because you’re clearly taking pains to be honest and fair.

    And thank you very much for the kind words – I’m really glad you like the blog!

  4. Anon: That is a GREAT point. Let some conflicts be. Disagreement is not bad.

    I remember when Lars von Trier (the eccentric danish director) was making Dancer in the Dark which starred Bjork (the eually eccentric singer). Sparks flew and they’ve since vowed never to work together again. But the result was one unique movie.

    Solve conflicts when they get out of hand and harm people and productivity.

  5. In writing it looks good, but what do you do when the other person thinks he is ALWAYS right and there is no resolution?

  6. Good question Frankie. Have you tried that situation yourself?

    If worst comes to worst there’s always quitting, but sometimes you can find less drastic solutions.

    In any case, it remains important to do something, rather than just wait for the conflict to resolve itself or to blow over.

  7. I had to laugh when I saw the cartoon (https://positivesharing.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/07/smoking.jpg). Here’s the thing: I work 3 feet from a woman who has a whole plethora of very irritating habits. The only one I just cannot deal with is she sucks saliva through her teeth very loudly. She does this in between sentences when she’s talking, or just when she’s thinking, typing, reading, whatever. All the time. It drives me crazy. What can I do about it? (Perhaps I should mention that she’s a manager, allegedly at the same level as me but is the boss’s niece.)

  8. Whilst the tips given in step 4 were helpful, I did find that the examples given were slightly patronising, and I’m not sure that they would go down well with a colleague you didn’t get on with…they sound like the sort of thing a teacher says to a misbehaving pupil!

  9. Thank you for submitting this article. I am going through similar situations at work. I am glad that I read this article. Although my situation has not been addressed I felt good knowing like the article state I tried to resolved.

  10. What is one to do when you have identified the issue(s) and fueding co-worker goes out of their way to ignore and not speak to you. I had a falling out with a co-worker I considered a friend. We often went to lunch, and stress relief walks in the afternoons. I was trying to help resolve a business conflict between her and another co-worker she does not get along with. I was trying to help purely for the best interest of the company and the sanity of all involved. She has accussed me of taking sides and will not speak to me. If I have info she needs she asks someone else, even when I’m right there and they have to ask me in front of her. The whole thing is very childish but no one seems to do anything to try to change it. Somedays it makes me dread coming to work, not that I feel guilty its just a negative enviroment.

  11. Gazelle: Your situations sounds really unpleasant.

    I don’t think there’s any choice for you except to take the bull by the horns and sit down and talk to her about it. Not to try to justify or explain what you did (that’s not what it’s about), but just to tell her that you miss her friendship and camaraderie.

    Could that work?

  12. I have constant conflict with my business partner over everything and am needing tools to help with resolving our not getting along. He’s very in your face and I am more into team building…suggestions?

  13. I particularlly embrace the excellent marriage of humility and self cofidence you use in resolving conflict at work. This article is a good example of how to manage dissension and tesions at work without being a doormat and without looking over or down on another person.

  14. Hi. I came across several conflicts in my workplaces of child care centres. Maybe all the coworkers are females, and there are so many conflicts every day. Here is an example:
    I was hired as a site supervisor of a program. One coworker has been working there for more than 5 years and was in charge of everything before I came. The director did not tell me I would be just a paper supervisor because I have the diploma. I am a very humble and careful person. I know I am new and I should learn first. I never told children or parents or coworkers that I was hired as a supervisor. I tryied my best to be humble and learned. However, she could not let me go. She talked and behaved to show her power at any moment. She talked about former teachers working there and always sounded she was the best and the most professional one. Every day, she gave me orders. like” Please sanitize these toys. Please do the programing.” I am a teacher and have work experience, and i know what i should do. She just wants to give orders, and I feel very uncomfortable.
    She even put pledge form before me and said” please donate money for the program. You should model to the parents and children you donate too….”when there are donation compaigns. I feel it hard to answer back to hurt her, but i did suffer a lot. The next day, I told her “donation is very private thing. We never display to the parents or children who donated and how much they did. Please do not do this to me .It is not your duty.”
    Although I did talk to her several times, she did not change at all. I talked the director about it, but the director never arrange a talk for us. I feel so frustrated and do want to leave the job.

  15. What is the next step if the two people you are mediating with cannot (or will not) come up with something positive about the other person?

  16. I have been bumping heads with a few co-workers and after coming
    Across these 5 steps I was definitely reassured that what I did was the iraffcorrect thing to do ( asking for a moment of their time and discussing the situations) I still have a few co-works to address but none the less I appreciate this kind of language!
    Hope these people under it.) Thx !!

  17. Hi I was really interested in the Blog about conflict with a manager but I can’t seem tpo find it. Did you post that on here? I have those troubles and so far have not come to any resolution between us. I am pretty desperate and feeling very low. Needing all the suggestions I can take.

  18. It is true that is difficult for employers to manage conflicts between employees. Therefore, watch how this comic consultant succeeds in turning around a problem like yours by generating the best collaboration between employees. http://www.themotivatorofchange.com

  19. Dear Alexander, I would ask you looking for some advice based on a situation I’m living. My current position in the company has a Middle Management level (Director of area as we call it here), I have a problem that has not arrived yet but the conflict can become the. I have a pair in another area at my same level, that I think wants to do things by which it has to do with my direct work to gain recognition and prevendas with our boss, that attitude bothers me more when a need arises for trying alleged as a chief issue and it somehow putting me in my task. In the environment where I am and because I could not confirm this need with my boss, and that according to other experiences my pair always acts this way to gain recognition or prevendas at other levels, I am also somewhat tied because I’m dedicated to a project that I have not had the time to find in depth through either the same or by other means their real intentions. This person is intelligent in managing relationships but has the discretion to know everything (he thinks that he knows everything about everything), always considers and questions, but offers no solutions or constructive ideas, criticizes but does not help build. I wonder how I should handle this situation. Looking forward in about two years the two will compete for the top Management Division position, I know that he is working in that direction since now, but based on earned merit of others who work with their own, but I also know that I can be his boss or he will convert in mine, in both cases if I don

  20. I can see where the suggestions on resolving conflict are very helpful and can be applied to many situations. The conflict I have been experiencing for a long while is with a family member in a Mom & Pop business. This family member does not want to grow up and take responsibility. Clearly it is as though they do not like having to share placement of authority. The accounting side has to know what the operation side is doing and decisions must be agreed upon. The person does not see how ugly they respond to the other and always making accusations to the other that they think they are perfect. Prideful, selfish, and childish are the characteristics that come to mind. However, because of this attitude it makes it very hard to resolve issues because the person will not talk once they have become mad. Their ugly responses make it hard to continue to have a professional approach. How do you make a family company become more professional when half of the working party does not want to cooperate. Their attitude affects others to where words are said in anger and nothing will be resolved because they think they do no wrong. No one is telling them they are doing wrong they just think that is what is being said. Offensive to suggestion. What approach or change can I have towards this family member to have a more productive workplace. To sit down and talk the issue out is not helping.

  21. Excellent ideas and a strong confirmation of what I suspected. *sigh* I dread having such a conversation!

    In my particular case, the colleague I have a conflict with feels that I stabbed him in the back by talking about him with others. We talked about this and I apologized and explained where my comments were coming from. During the conversation, though I didn’t know about the giraffe language, I carefully avoided a detailed tit for tat, except to be specific about the incident that was brought to the surface. There were many things that i had noticed about this colleague, but generally just chalked them off to his ambition or personality and moved on. There were stilted hallway conversations, his regular talking over me, and most oddly his effort to “help reduce my workload” by suggesting that i “shouldn’t be on so many projects” in a meeting with one of our superiors. I used to wonder that perhaps he really thought he was helping, but now i feel strongly that it was all a ploy to make himself look better since one part of our evaluation is the number and breadth of our projects. This happens to have been a minor shortcoming of his, though i was never part of any conversation around this. Now he is actively working against my promotion, he is recently promoted and so now part of the conversation about me. He has blocked me on face book, not simply unfriended me. It all adds up to suggest that either i have hurt this person worse than i realize or that they are completely incapable of forgiving and moving on. I received the promotion anyway, but loathe the idea of decades together with this unresolved conflict.

    I tried the conversation, impromptu, but containing many of the things you suggest, though not all. We shook hands and vowed to start a fresh. Then, my colleague continued to work against my promotion. For my part i admit that i spoke too freely about others, but for sure i was never alone in those conversations. The thing is I stumbled into a work place that has a long history of conflict and lack of collegiality. I joined in mistakenly though never with malice, nor in any effort to undermine anyone.

    Now I’m torn about whether now that I’ve weathered this attack, he can feel vindicated that he blemished my promotion and that this will go away, or that his is just the beginning. I’m concerned that this person knows no limit to what he might say to others. He has blatantly lied and i suspect is trashing me at every turn, forging alliances and painting me as the enemy…

    I’m very open to your suggestions as I really want to resolve this…thanks so much for reading this very long post!

  22. my first challenge as an HR manager was conflict resolution. This article is really apt for anyone joining as a management trainee in HR.

    Good read.

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