Answer the following question: Is workplace conflict a) uncomfortable, b) necessary, c) preventable or d) all of the above? If you picked D, go to the head of the class.
Conflict is natural and normal, and it helps teams advance their work. In fact, conflict and goal achievement are natural partners. According to Harvard Business Review, conflict can improve ideas, expose risks and generate trust. Healthy conflict also spurs creativity, broad thinking and respectful relationships. Unhealthy conflict, on the other hand, is a Petri dish for distrust, disrespect and infighting.
When I coach clients about conflict, I tell them to look at it like any other key business issue. For instance, if a supplier became habitually late filling orders, they wouldn’t just ignore it. If they received a deluge of complaints about slow customer service, they wouldn’t simply sweep it under the rug.
I believe the same should be true about conflict. But because conflict can be so personally uncomfortable, clients often don’t see that it’s really just like any other key issue that must be addressed. Instead, they tend to look the other way. So, it’s critical to be strategic by first assessing the type of conflict you’re experiencing and then deciding the best strategy to address it.
To begin, I find it’s helpful to figure out what kind of conflict is going on. There are four general conflict categories, according to Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. Those categories are task, process, relationship and status.
• Task conflict is about the actual work at hand. It’s often about the goal or how to perform the work itself. When addressed effectively, I believe task conflict can actually be healthy because it could help a team perform more optimally.
• Process conflict is about logistics, details and how to do a certain job. I’ve found that sometimes, this type of conflict can be a mask for a deeper issue. For example, an argument about logistics might actually be rooted in a conflict related to relationships or status. To some, the true cause of the conflict might seem too risky to bring up, so they focus on a safer topic.
• Relationship conflict relates to personality differences. While this type of conflict is not specifically about a goal or priority, it can derail a team’s performance. Emotions can flare, back-biting can arise and gossip can become infectious.
• Status conflict is about power. Wanting to maintain control, influence and territory are all characteristics of status conflict; you disagree about who’s in control.
Now that the type of conflict has been assessed, it’s time to look at how to resolve the issue. Here are four steps I’ve found useful as I’ve coached clients through conflict situations:
First, ask yourself about the nature of the conflict. Is it a task, process, relationship or status conflict (or a combination of them all)? Next, ask yourself why you feel agitated. What’s really upsetting you? Dig deep below the surface to truly get at the heart of what’s bothering you. For example, you might feel your identity is at stake, your values are being squashed or your role on the team is being sequestered.
Then, look at your own behaviors and how they’re contributing to the conflict. What’s your mindset toward the other person? How do you behave in team meetings? To help you do this, I have a particular technique I often use with clients: Replay in your mind your last team meeting or interaction as if it were a movie and you were the main character, and reflect on the role you played. For example, what was your character’s frame of mind? What was your character’s emotional state? How did your character intensify or reduce the conflict? I find that this technique helps clients assess their own behaviors in a way that feels neutral.
2. Approach the other person.
Now that you’ve examined yourself, the next step is to meet with your colleague. Choose your words carefully. Strike a balance between being candid and empathetic in explaining why you want to meet. Saying, “I’ve noticed some tension between us and am wondering if you’re open to clearing it up,” is clearer and softer than, “You really bug me and need to start treating me better.”
3. Prepare for the conversation.
Before meeting with the person, consider their interests and point of view. How do they see you? What do you think they might say about you? Also, take time to put yourself in an open frame of mind. Make a commitment to remain calm, listen openly and be receptive. To do this, I encourage clients to rely on their breathing. In my experience, deep breathing both before and during the conversation can help you remain calm and clear-headed.
4. Reach an agreement.
Be prepared to agree about what needs to change so the conflict is reduced, if not completely solved. Just like any business issue, both sides need to give and take. One of my top tips for reaching this resolution is to remain calm. If you aren’t calm, it likely feels impossible to truly listen. Breathing deeply can help calm the body, allowing adrenaline to slow down and listening to prevail. Another technique comes from the world of improv which is “yes, and.” The concept of “yes, and” points you in the direction of paying attention to what you can agree with rather than disagree with. Finally, I encourage clients to write on a piece of paper or repeatedly say in their head a word that reminds them to be calm. Words such as “peace,” “tranquil” and “relaxed” are examples of that.
So, the next time you find yourself caught up in workplace conflict, take a strategic approach. Assess the type of conflict, and then choose the best strategies for addressing it.