Conflict Resolution 101: The Step-By-Step Guide To Getting Back On Track With Your Team
Whoa! That was unexpected.
You just had a conflict with your coworker or realized that you’ve made her very unhappy.
Your mind races with how to bounce back.
Should you have handled it differently? They were definitely the one in the wrong, right?
Did anyone see it? If I ignore the problem, will it go away?
Workplace conflict occurs with all of us at one time or another. Everyone has a different conflict resolution style, but start by taking a few deep breaths and maybe take a lap around the block. Then, dive into these conflict analysis steps to open the lines of communications and practice effective conflict resolution skills.
1. Put Yourself in Their Shoes
It’s easier said than done, so start by putting yourself in the shoes of the person with whom you’re having a conflict to get to the root of the problem. Did the other person think you were overstepping a boundary? Could she have misinterpreted your intentions? Were you just plain in the wrong? Are they struggling with other issues, maybe even outside of work?
These situations are seldom cut and dry, so avoid exacerbating the situation by complaining to coworkers or broadcasting your fight around the office. Take the high road, even if the other party doesn’t. Don’t look for allies or ask people to take sides.
Be as objective as possible and play devil’s advocate to look at things from all angles. It can be helpful to enlist the guidance of a trusted friend or colleague. He or she can help you see the conflict from a different angle.
At this stage, your main objective is to cool down, understand a different view and get ready to face the issue head on.
2. Initiate the Conversation
Like it or not, it is often necessary to have a conversation and deal with conflict. An avoidance conflict style or just sending a hasty email will rarely do the trick. Consider popping by your colleague's office to see if they can talk or email and schedule a meeting that day.
The lead up to the conflict resolution process can be stressful and intimidating, but it is typically much worse to anticipate these conversations than to actually have them. You’ll feel much better when it’s over.
3. Make Assumptions
Before you start this tricky conversation, assume that your coworker wants the two of you to have a good relationship. Assume she is reasonable and kind. Assume that you two will close a communication gap during your discussion. Finally, assume that a compromise can be reached and you will both leave happy.
These positive assumptions will help you approach the conversation in a way that is non-combative and geared toward both parties winning the negotiation. All relationships have bumps in the road and there is no reason that you can’t bounce back from this one.
4. Share Your Emotions
Once you’ve settled in a private area, open the conversation with your perspective on the conflict you’ve just had and intention for meeting. Be authentic when you share your motivation for this conversation.
You could say something as simple as, "I feel like we’re not on the same page regarding this project and I really want to understand where we can come together."
If there were raised voices and demonstrated frustrations, you might consider, "It seemed like you were frustrated earlier and I want to work this out" or "I am sorry, I shouldn’t have lost my cool and I want to be sure we can move forward from this issue.”
If there is a chance you have misread your coworker’s reaction, consider mentioning that possibility and confirm whether or not it was correct. "You seemed frustrated. Did I read that correctly?"
The next step is to sit back and listen to their perspective without interrupting. After your coworker has shared, paraphrase what you’ve heard to be sure you are on the same page and ask clarifying questions. It can be really hard not to interject, but thoughtfully listening will speak volumes about how much you value the relationship and want to reach a compromise.
We all want to be heard, so demonstrate clearly that you have heard their concerns. It’s not helpful to pretend like you are listening; actually and actively listen here. Do your best to keep your thoughts focused on what they are saying and resist the temptation to formulate your response while your coworker is speaking.
Once you've listened, explain your perspective and feelings on the situation. Avoid assigning blame or motives to the other person’s actions. Keep the conversation focused on what your intention was during the conflict, how you felt and what you need to move forward.
It’s difficult for someone to argue with something you need. You’ll run into trouble, though, if you start telling people what they need or the motivations for their behavior, so avoid these types of comments.
Instead of saying, "You’re trying to undermine me by going to the boss" say, "I feel undermined when you talk to the boss instead of speaking to me." Small changes like this can make a big difference.
6. Find Middle Ground
Now is the time to restate both of your needs, confirm your commitment to meeting each other’s expectations and negotiate a peace that suits you both. How can you both bend and meet each other’s needs? What will allow you to work well together moving forward?
Close this meeting with gratitude and reiterate your commitments to one another. It’s hard to have these conversations, so acknowledge your colleague’s willingness to get to the bottom of this schism in a positive and professional way.
7. Reflect and Move On
These conversations are tough and they might not go perfectly the first time. Take some time after the situation to reflect on what went well, what you’d do differently next time and how you’ll implement the lessons learned.
After you’ve resolved a conflict with a coworker, let your gripes go. No good will come from continually dwelling on being wronged, especially if you’re involving other people. Constructively resolving conflict means that you are both comfortable with the conversation and are ready to move forward and work together.
What This Might Look Like
Now that you know what steps you can take to resolve a conflict, you might be wondering, how might a conversation like this really go?
Here is an example of the conversation in action:
Within a company's project management department, Tina shares with a colleague that she doesn’t trust Lauren and dislikes working on projects with her. Lauren overhears this conversation. Tina’s comments confirm a sneaking suspicion of Lauren’s, as Tina has been very cold lately. Lauren has no clue why.
Lauren: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Tina. I’m concerned because things haven’t felt very friendly between us lately and I accidentally overheard your conversation with Jo about not trusting me. I was really surprised to hear that and wanted to talk about that feeling and how we can work well together again.
Tina: I was really frustrated when I heard that you went straight to our boss to change a process rather than checking with me. I felt like you went over my head and didn’t involve me in an important conversation. You shouldn’t be making decisions without me when I have to deal with the consequences.
Lauren: You think I went behind your back.
Tina: Absolutely. You did go behind my back and that's a problem. I can’t trust you.
Lauren: My intention was not to go behind your back at all. I was in the office early that morning and so was our boss. I received an urgent request from our vendor and they needed to change a process. This is something I’d normally talk with you about, but you hadn’t arrived yet and they were pushing for answers right away. I went to our boss as a sounding board and then responded to the vendor with the process change. I totally forgot to mention it to you as work piled up and that was definitely my bad. I should have looped you in when you arrived that day.
Tina: I guess I shouldn’t have assumed you would try to take me out of the process, but I only knew about the change when our boss mentioned it. I was blindsided. What can we do to be sure this doesn’t happen again?
Lauren: How about I send you an email next time? Maybe it won’t be very detailed, but I’ll let you know there was a time-sensitive change and that I’ll fill you in on the details later.
Tina: Yes, I’d really appreciate that. I felt like I was thrown under the bus when I didn’t know about a big change.
Lauren: I’d feel the same. I’ll do my best to email you to be sure you get info as soon as possible. If you are concerned about our communication or don’t have information, please come to me first. I have no intention of undermining you and want us to work well together.
Tina: Deal. Thank you for bringing this into the open.
Lauren: Thanks for taking the time.
Tina and Lauren are both clearly professional individuals. Together, they worked through a misunderstanding and repaired their relationship. Of course, nobody loves to deal with conflict, but working through issues to resolve a situation sooner rather that later means that the entire team benefits.