Part 8: Interpersonal communications
8.5 Workplace conflict management
- Have you ever disagreed with someone at work or at school? What happened? Were you able to resolve the disagreement? How?
- How do you feel about conflict? How do you react or cope?
- What strategies do you use when you find yourself in conflict?
Conflict may typically be thought of as being negative, and it understandably can produce feelings of anxiety for many people. However, conflict is not always negative. In fact, conflict can be positive and productive, leading to creative approaches, reinforced working relationships, and more efficient outcomes.
Positive conflict is conflict where there are positive outcomes—that is, the focus remains on the issues and all parties respectfully and professionally search for outcomes that are agreeable to everyone involved. For example, say you and a colleague have to work together to develop a marketing plan for a new product your company has developed and you disagree about what tools to use. If you and your colleague are focussed on discussing the issues—what tools to use, why, and how they might help the promotion of the product—and you listen to each other actively and respectfully, then you will likely reach a solution that works for both of you.
On the other hand, negative conflict happens when the focus shifts away from finding a solution that works for everyone and towards causing harm. For example, say that instead of listening to your colleague as they explained their reasons for the tools they selected, you stormed out of the meeting and refused to answer follow-up emails from your colleague. Or, say that you and your colleague each explained your choices and listen respectfully, but then your colleague refused to use any of the tools you selected. How could these behaviours impact the ability to find a solution and move forward productively?
Harper (2004) suggests looking at conflict as being the result of unmet needs. For example, two people who hold differing view points could have difficulty understanding each other’s perspective in order to move forward productively. In this case, the unmet need could be a lack of empathy or understanding. Another example might be someone who is torn between options. The unmet need in this case might be needing more information or more support.
When incompatible goals, scarce resources, or interference are present, conflict is a typical result, but it doesn’t mean the relationship is poor or failing. All relationships progress through times of conflict and collaboration. How we navigate and negotiate these challenges influences, reinforces, or destroys the relationship. Conflict is universal, but how and when it occurs is open to influence and interpretation. Rather than viewing conflict from a negative frame of reference, view it as an opportunity for clarification, growth, and even reinforcement of the relationship.
Conflict management strategies
As professionals, we can acknowledge and anticipate that conflict will be present in every context or environment where communication occurs. To that end, we can predict, anticipate, and formulate strategies to address conflict successfully. How you choose to approach conflict influences its resolution. Joseph DeVito (2003) offers several conflict management strategies that you might adapt and expand for your use.
You may choose to change the subject, leave the room, or not even enter the room in the first place, but the conflict will remain and resurface when you least expect it. Your reluctance to address the conflict directly is a normal response, and one which many cultures prize. In cultures where independence is highly valued, direct confrontation is more common. In cultures where the community is emphasized over the individual, indirect strategies may be more common. Avoidance allows for more time to resolve the problem, but can also increase costs associated with problem in the first place. Your organization or business will have policies and protocols to follow regarding conflict and redress, but it is always wise to consider the position of your conversational partner or opponent and to give them, as well as yourself, time to explore alternatives.
Defensiveness versus supportiveness
Defensive communication is characterized by control, evaluation, and judgments, while supportive communication focuses on the points and not personalities. When we feel judged or criticized, our ability to listen can be diminished, and we may only hear the negative message. By choosing to focus on the message instead of the messenger, we keep the discussion supportive and professional.
Face-detracting and face-saving
Communication is not competition. Communication is the sharing of understanding and meaning, but does everyone always share equally? People struggle for control, limit access to resources and information as part of territorial displays, and otherwise use the process of communication to engage in competition. People also use communication for collaboration. Both competition and collaboration can be observed in communication interactions, but there are two concepts central to both: face-detracting and face-saving strategies.
Face-detracting strategies involve messages or statements that take away from the respect, integrity, or credibility of a person. Face-saving strategies protect credibility and separate message from messenger. For example, you might say that “sales were down this quarter,” without specifically noting who was responsible. Sales were simply down. If, however, you ask, “How does the sales manager explain the decline in sales?” you have specifically connected an individual with the negative news. While we may want to specifically connect tasks and job responsibilities to individuals and departments, in terms of language each strategy has distinct results.
Face-detracting strategies often produce a defensive communication climate, inhibit listening, and allow for little room for collaboration. To save-face is to raise the issue while preserving a supportive climate, allowing room in the conversation for constructive discussions and problem solving.
Communication involves not only the words we write or speak, but how and when we write or say them. The way we communicate also carries meaning, and empathy for the individual involves attending to this aspect of interaction. Empathetic listening involves listening to both the literal and implied meanings within a message. By paying attention to feelings and emotions associated with content and information, we can build relationships and address conflict more constructively.
Managing your emotions
There will be times in the work environment when emotions run high. Your awareness of them can help you clear your mind and choose to wait until the moment has passed to tackle the challenge.
Emotions can be contagious in the workplace, and fear of the unknown can influence people to act in irrational ways. You can try to recognize when emotions are on edge in yourself or others, and choose to wait to communicate, problem-solve, or negotiate until after the moment has passed.
Learn from experience
Every communication interaction provides an opportunity for learning if you choose to see it. Sometimes the lessons are situational and may not apply in future contexts. Other times the lessons learned may well serve you across your professional career. Taking notes for yourself to clarify your thoughts, much like a journal, serve to document and help you see the situation more clearly.
Recognize that some aspects of communication are intentional, and may communicate meaning, even if it is hard to understand. Also, know that some aspects of communication are unintentional, and may not imply meaning or design. People make mistakes. They say things they should not have said. Emotions are revealed that are not always rational, and not always associated with the current context. A challenging morning at home can spill over into the work day and someone’s bad mood may have nothing to do with you.
De Vito, J. (2003). The interpersonal communication book (10th edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Harper, G. (2004). The joy of conflict resolution: Transforming victims, villains, and heroes in the workplace and at home. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.