Few people enjoy conflict, but it’s a necessary part of the workplace. It’s the only way we can work through tough choices.
Allowing a discussion to get mean spirited or disrespectful, however, is not productive and will often lead to bigger issues. Yet a workplace dominated by artificial harmony—where issues are pushed aside or glossed over in an attempt to keep the peace—is almost as bad as one filled with unproductive conflict.
You want people to engage in energetic, ideas-focused conflict in your workplace every day. You want to see productive and respectful debates in which everyone feels included and everyone contributes to the ultimate choices made around the office.
In order to transition unhealthy conflict into its productive counterpart, you need to address the root misunderstandings between yourself and other parties. With the following three-step process, you can begin building the self-awareness needed for better understanding and healthier workplace conflict.
(Before we begin, an important note: You should work through this process before you are in the swirl of a heated discussion, as it is tough to think and reflect when you are in the middle of the storm. This process is a preventative measure, not necessarily a solution for a team already in the midst of negative conflict.)
Step #1: Become Aware of Your Reactions and Behaviors
Step one is to become aware of your own reactions and behaviors during conflict situations.
Reflect on some difficult conversations that you have been involved in recently. Your first thought might be that another person in the situation was the problem. Frankly, that doesn’t matter. You can’t control what another person chooses to say or how they choose to act. You can only control how you respond to it.
Think about how you might have handled things differently if you applied some extra awareness of yourself and the others involved in the conflict. Make a list of things you said or did that may have contributed to the unproductive nature of the situation.
Really challenge yourself to understand how you might have played a part in things not going well. You don’t have to show the list to anyone else, so go ahead, be completely honest.
Step #2: Decide How You Want to Respond in the Future
Then, in step two, armed with the benefit of self-reflection, decide how you want to respond in the future.
What choices will you make to act in a way that keeps the conflict healthy and productive, improving the communication and decisions for the group? Commit to those changes and remember your commitment the next time you start to sense that conflict is shifting from productive to unhealthy.
To stay on track, you can keep a journal and record how each conflict evolves and how effectively you improved your own responses. A journal can help you maintain motivation and keep the process at the top of your mind.
Step #3: Establish Accountability
When you are ready, you can take things one step further by sharing your goals with your colleagues and asking them to help hold you accountable.
Gather together a few people in your work environment whom you trust to be honest with you. Then ask them, “Are there things that I do that make it more difficult for us to reach a resolution? What do I do that gets in the way of our communication and our work together?”
Since we all have a somewhat limited or biased view of ourselves, it’s very likely that these people will see qualities you display that you aren’t aware of. The truth for most of us is that we aren’t always aware of our own tendencies, particularly in moments of conflict, when our minds are focused elsewhere.
Expressing your desire to improve your behaviors during conflict can lead to several benefits. You commit to self-improvement, and others commit to helping you achieve that goal. In turn, they are more likely to open themselves up to the same process of self-improvement.
A Conflict Feedback Loop
This isn’t a one-time exercise, and you shouldn’t expect to expertly avoid every unproductive reaction in your next moment of frustration or tension. Instead, think of this process as a feedback loop for yourself as you work on improving your skills in conflict situations.
Repeat steps one and two after every situation that did not go as well as you would have liked. Take the time to reflect and see how you can more productively help the conversation the next time. Then, be sure that others are holding you accountable, as this will not only help you but also encourage them to work on their own reactions to conflict as well.
By continuously building self-awareness, committing to improve your behaviors, and establishing accountability, you can begin ensuring that your workplace conflict remains productive and achieves more impactful results.
For more advice on handling workplace conflict, you can find Solving the People Problem on Amazon.