Even if you’re the most non-confrontational person in the world, you can’t avoid conflict. Whether someone on a team project throws you under the bus or a coworker says something that rubs you the wrong way, we all end up in situations where we’re at odds with our workmates.
Steve Dinkin, President of the National Conflict Resolution Center, knows this better than most. His organization works with thousands of people and organizations to help them “manage and solve conflicts with civility,” in situations ranging from work to home to court. He’s a firm believer that there is a solution to every problem — it’s just a matter of finding it.
Find yourself budding heads with somebody — or somebodies — at work? Here are a few of his top tips on how to manage it.
1. Pick Your Battles
Not every small, annoying thing someone does is worth a confrontation — for example, if someone interrupts you once during a meeting or pours the last cup of coffee from the pot without making more.
“Knowing when and how to let go of a conflict is a skill within itself, but… [it’s] really about knowing yourself. It becomes necessary to think about all the aspects of the conflict and question how the conflict affects your ability to have your workplace interests met,” Dinkin says.
If you’re being repeatedly demeaned, belittled or bullied, though, that’s a different story.
“It also requires you to ask about the circumstances that the conflict arose under and to figure out whether or not those circumstances will come about again. There is always the option to walk away from a conflict, but the most important part of doing that is knowing that you can truly walk away,” Dinkin adds. “If you tell yourself that you will let it go, but know that inside you are not able to, then you are just prolonging an inevitable confrontation that will be apt to make things worse.”
2. Identify Next Steps
Once you’ve decided that a situation merits action, the way in which you should proceed will vary depending on the circumstances.
“If it is a serious issue, it is always better to report the issue to your superiors, at the very least to put the issue on their radar. You have to look at the problem and decide whether or not you feel that you have the capacity to confront your coworker in a constructive way,” Dinkin says.
If you do decide to confront them yourself, though, it’s helpful to bring in a third party who doesn’t have as much of a horse in the race.
“The best third party to pull into an issue is always going to be your manager or closest superior, as they have the authority to enforce the solutions that you and your coworker come up with,” Dinkin says.
3. Start With an Icebreaker
You may think of icebreakers as the kind of eyeroll-worthy “get to know you” activities that you’d participate in on the first day of class, but they don’t always have to be cheesy — in fact, they can be quite valuable in conflict mediation sessions.
And take note — icebreakers aren’t all question like, “if you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be?” Instead, it should be “an open-ended question that is both related to the workplace and something positive,” Dinkin says.
“For example, if the dispute involves two employees that are working on the same project, ask both how they got involved with the project and what they hoped to achieve,” he elaborates. “The reasoning behind this is that most people are prepared for battle when they are about to talk about a controversial issue. When you use an icebreaker, it disengages this confrontational mindset, starting the conflict resolution process naturally.”
4. Walk a Mile in Each Other’s Shoes
It’s human nature to get defensive; to think, “I’m right, so everyone else must be wrong.” But as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. That doesn’t always mean that both parties are to blame, but often, it’s not just one person contributing to an issue. Because of this, it becomes very important to try and see things from the other person’s perspective, no matter how challenging it may be. So how do you do that?
“One of the best strategies for getting someone else to see things from a different perspective is to ask them how they themselves would handle the issues that they are causing for another person,” Dinkin shares. “It’s not always easy to get people to understand how others feel, but it is not very difficult to ask them how they would react when being put in certain situations. More often than not, their answers and emotions will mirror the person on the opposite end of the confrontation.”
5. Practice Active Listening
One thing that goes hand-in-hand with seeing things from another person’s perspective is really, truly listening to them.
“Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about him or her and the dispute. Put plain and simply, it’s the best way to get good information,” Dinkin says.
6. Watch Your Language
If you’re already at the point when a confrontation becomes necessary, odds are that tensions are high. Make sure not to exacerbate it by saying anything negative or thoughtless.
“Always think before you speak. Use positive, easy-to-understand language. Don’t fall into repeating, verbatim, paragraphs from your company’s HR manual,” Dinkin says.
And remember to stay away from accusatory statements such as “you said” or “you did.” Instead, use “I” statements that express how someone’s actions made you feel, i.e. “I felt upset/frustrated/taken aback when XYZ happened.”
7. Get SMART
To make sure the resolution to a conflict is sustainable, it has to be SMART, Dinkin says. That means they’re:
- Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where, and how;
- Measurable: Be clear about how you will all be able to tell that something has been done, achieved or completed;
- Achievable: Make sure that whatever solution you agree on fits the situation; that it complies with both the law and organizational policy; that everyone involved has the ability and opportunity to do what is required of them;
- Realistic: Check calendar dates for holidays and vacations; look at past performance to predict future actions; allow extra time for glitches and delays; don’t assume that the best-case scenarios will come true;
- Timed: Create reasonable deadlines or target dates; include a few ideas about what to do if something unexpected occurs; be willing to set new dates if necessary.
Learning how to confront someone might seem difficult, but at the end of the day, it’s an awful lot better than letting yourself be consumed by resentment. And remember: conflict doesn’t just happen in the workplace. Learn how to effectively solve problems with somebody you disagree with, and it might just become one of the most valuable skills you’ll ever learn.