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How to Have Healthy Conflict at Work

February 08, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

You won’t always get along with your coworkers, just as you won’t always get along with your best friend, spouse, or neighbor. But there’s a productive way to deal with conflict at the office, whether you’re interacting with a direct report or a desk-mate, and it doesn’t involve giving someone the silent treatment or gossiping about them over lunch. Here’s how to practice healthy, non-toxic conflict at the workplace.

Build a Foundation of Trust

A toxic workplace is one where employees are afraid to share ideas or point out mistakes for fear of being criticized, ostracized, or even penalized. “We stay silent, keep a low profile,” says Dr. Susan Raines, a professor of conflict management and author of Conflict Management for Managers. “We see problems but we don’t tell anyone because we don’t want to be the person who is known as the troublemaker.” That lack of trust shuts down honest communication, which is necessary for healthy conflict; it also creates a breeding ground for gossip and resentment, which are hallmarks of toxic workplaces.

A healthy workspace offers psychological safety, says Alisa Cohn, a global executive coach. “It’s an environment that focuses much more on learning and discussion and working together, rather than on punishment and blame.” When conflict does arise, then, employees feel less defensive and more inclined to absorb constructive criticism.  

Don’t Put People on the Defensive

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“When we have the perception that we’re being attacked, we go on the defensive,” says Robyn Short, a mediator and conflict management expert. “One of the common mistakes people make when they’re confronting a coworker is they say, ‘You did X, Y, and Z, and that’s not acceptable.’ So they begin the conversation with an accusation, which gets internalized as shame and fear, and then [their counterpart] responds in a defensive mode.”

Instead, she recommends trying “nonviolent communication,” a method developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. “It goes like this: ‘When I see you do X, Y, and Z, I feel (and then insert the way you feel) because I need (then insert what you’re needing)—and then make the request.” Let’s say, for instance, a coworker interrupts you at a meeting. Short recommends saying something like, “When I’m interrupted in a meeting, I feel embarrassed. I need to be treated like a professional in the workplace. Moving forward, would you mind allowing me to fully finish my thought before engaging with what I said?”

Conversely, if you notice someone is angry with you and you haven’t been able to have a productive conversation about why, Short advises flipping the script. She recently did so herself, she remembers, when a park ranger repeatedly reprimanded her for illegally walking her dog off its leash. However right he was, she says, “I was witnessing that this person had gotten totally hijacked by this violation.” She told him that she recognized his need for order and compliance, and that she wanted him to know she could hear what he was saying. “You help the other person work through it,” she says. 

Another tool to have in your arsenal, says Cohn, is the ability to separate fact from story. “’You’re a jerk,’” she explains, is a story. But a fact? That would go something like this: You sent that memo out without running it by me and that makes me feel like you’re trying to hide something. I wanted to check that out with you. “My job as the communicator is to have you hear me,” Cohn says, “not to express myself.”

Similarly, Dr. Raines advises against commenting on a coworker or employee’s personality, i.e., “You need to be more approachable” or “You’re too bossy.”

“We don’t ever do that,” she says. “Instead, we stick to very specific behaviors that we’re asking to be changed.” For example, she says, “I had an administrative assistant who’s very New York-ish, very down to business. And I’m in the South here and folks want a little sugar with their medicine. So I asked her, ‘When you’re meeting with deans and department chairs, can you start the meeting with, Hi, how are you? How’s your day going? How was your break? Even if you think it’s an utter waste of time.’”

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

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You don’t want to wait so long to address a problem that it festers or grows, but you shouldn’t rush to tackle it if you think your emotions might get the better of you, either. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is my goal here to knock them down a peg and score a point, or is my goal to solve the problem?’” Dr. Raines says. “If you can say ‘solve the problem,’ you’re ready to engage.” (Cohn also recommends asking a trusted friend for a gut check on whether you sound calm, or to try role-playing.)

Certain issues, like a dignity violation, require immediate attention, Short points out. (“Dignity violations happen when we don’t feel acknowledged, when we don’t feel like we’re given opportunities to participate, when we don’t feel like we’re being heard,” she explains.) But if you need time to collect your thoughts nonetheless, you should at least immediately set forth the intention to address the incident. “‘I sense that there was some tension when this happened, and I think maybe we should all discuss it,’” Short recommends as an opener. “‘Is now a good time, or do you need to think it through and regroup later this afternoon?’”

Everyone’s Different

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If you know, for example, that someone bristles when you’re direct with them, there’s no harm in offering what Cohn calls a windup—some version, she says, of “‘I’m sure that you meant no harm and we all are trying to serve the client, just want to call out that the deliverable got to the client pretty late.’” Similarly, if you know a coworker prefers that you cut to the chase, you can oblige her by respectfully leaving out the fat.

Dr. Raines will occasionally go so far as to let people know her communication style ahead of time, so that she can avoid unintentionally insulting someone. “One of the things I convey to people is, ‘I want to let you know that I communicate very directly, but please don’t take it as a sign of offense, and if there’s anything I say that you find difficult, please let me know,’” she says. “That helps people understand … it’s not a sign of disrespect or a lack of empathy.” At the end of a long workday, that’s the least everyone can expect.