Workplace conflicts among colleagues are not only common, they are necessary. Despite most people’s desire to avoid or minimize them, conflicts are normal. In fact, conflicts are not even a bad thing. Most of them are positive, we just tend to remember the ones with negative outcomes.
Simply put, conflicts are differences in perspectives, opinions, viewpoints or values. When viewed through a more neutral lens, conflicts have the potential to be positive agents for change.
So how do you make a shift from experiencing a conflict as destructive to experiencing it as a positive agent for change? In short, you learn the various levels of conflict and how to navigate them effectively.
Start by Striving to Understand
At the heart of every conflict, both parties want to be understood. The thinking process goes something like this: “I’m a reasonable person. If I can just get the other person to understand what I’m saying and where I’m coming from, they will agree with me, and the conflict will be gone.” Then you try your hardest to convince the other person of your perspective. The problem is, both parties have this same desire and both want to be understood first. The result is an impasse, which usually feels negative since there is no helpful resolution.
Since you cannot control what others do, it is best to focus on what you have control over, namely yourself.
Be the first person to listen. Ask clarifying questions that will allow the person to express his thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge that you have heard what he has said and that you recognize how he feels about it. (That last point is very important.)
Feelings are often overlooked. If you simply repeat what someone has said, hoping she will feel understood, you will likely be met with a “yeah, but you still just don’t get it” reaction and get a repeat of the person’s original message. That repetition is a sign that the speaker does not feel her message (content and feeling) has been understood and acknowledged.
Most Conflicts Aren’t About What You Think They Are About
The next step in navigating a conflict in a positive way is to recognize what the conflict is actually about. A helpful resource for breaking down conflicts is “Getting to Yes,” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s a classic, easy-to-read book on the topic.
Conflicts are made up of different levels. Breaking conflicts into these levels can help focus your efforts and prevent you from getting stuck on the surface. The framework of “issues, positions and interests” is one way to break down a conflict.
- The issue is the question. (Should the firm take this client?)
- The positions are the answers that each party gives to that question (yes and no).
- The interests are all of the reasons why each party has chosen their position.
Interests are rarely discussed directly. Most conflicts get stuck at the positions level, and many assumptions are made about the other party’s interests.
Positive outcomes from a conflict require a mutual understanding of each other’s interests, identification of shared interests, and collaborative decision-making. To be overly simplistic, remember these steps:
- Think of conflict as a potentially helpful interaction.
- Assume less.
- Be the first to listen and reflect the other’s statements and feelings.
- Communicate your interests.
- Look for common interests.
Conflicts Do Not Have to Be Harmful
When you seek to understand, you gain confidence in the interaction, learn more than you knew before, and develop stronger connections with others. Hopefully, you will also feel more comfortable with your colleague. You may still disagree, but at least you will foster understanding and respect for each other.