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Conflict At The Office? A Simple Start to Fixing It.

Two Caucasian women arguing and distrusting each other

Friction is a part of life. Without it, the world would fall apart. Without friction between physical objects your car tires wouldn’t grip the road and your shoelaces would not stay tied. The world holds together because we have learned to harness friction when we need it and minimize it when we don’t.

Friction exists in human relationships as well. It’s natural, to be expected even. We’re all different. We each have different goals and dreams; different drivers, and different constraints; and we each see the world from a slightly different perspective. These natural differences are amplified when you put us together in a work environment. If left unaddressed, they create conflict, dysfunction, and stress.

For some reason, we’re reluctant to address conflict at work — reluctant to identify it, harness it when we need it, and minimize it when we don’t. Strange. It doesn’t have to be that way.

A quick Google search on ‘resolving conflict’ reveals no end to good advice: 5 steps — or 10 Tips — or 12 Steps – with illustrations, no less! What if we’re making this waaaay too hard?

Granted, some conflict resolution IS hard — say, resolving conflict in the Middle East. But in our personal and work lives, there’s an easy place to start. All you have to do is embrace three basic imperatives.

1. Communicate

You must talk about things. You can’t let stuff lurk below the surface. Kvetching to a sympathetic ear doesn’t count. Discussing things neutralizes them, while not talking about things allows them to metastasize and become toxic.

2. No Judgement

When you open the door to communication, people will say the strangest things. They will articulate ideas and feelings that are in stark contrast to your understanding or your way of seeing the world. That’s okay. Remember, your understanding or belief may be just as odd and incomprehensible to them.

Just let everything come out without judgment. People are who they are. They believe what they believe, and they feel what they feel. Don’t take it personal, and don’t let yourself feel attacked. Their feelings are legitimate even though the critiques may not seem that way.

It’s also important to not hold the person to what they say. Our minds are often muddle and our thoughts confusing, especially when it comes to areas in conflict. They will most likely have a different — and hopefully deeper — understanding tomorrow. That’s okay, too. Don’t hold them to what they say today.

3. Commit to Working Together

When I work with teams, one of the first questions I ask is whether they want to work together. I get a verbal commitment from each member of the team as they look each other in the eyes. “I want to work with you. I want to work with you.”

If people want work together — want to be together — then the rest is just details in the how. Once you have a commitment to work together you can put the issues on the table and you’ll soon be able to see a way forward.

It’s All or Nothing

These three imperatives must be taken in their entirety. If you endeavor to communicate — with no judgment — while committed to working together — you will have less conflict and tension in your life. Guaranteed.

Be forewarned, however, that if you omit even one of the three imperatives you will make matters worse, not better. If you pick only two of the three, you are certain to stir up a hornet’s nest.

Try using the three imperatives with someone in your life with whom you are experiencing tension or conflict. Let me know how it goes. My guess is that it will make a huge difference in both of your lives. Along the way, you will make your lives a little better, and your office environments a slightly better place to work. This will make me very happy.

Want more?

Part IV of Helpful goes into great detail in understanding and building healthy relationships at work. From understanding influence and power (Chapter 26), to exploring people’s drivers and constraints (Chapter 28), it provides key insights and step-by-step guidance for engaging with colleagues in a healthy and vibrant way. Check it out!

Or reach out for a call. I would be delighted to help you explore your situation. You will be amazed at how much a little outside perspective can do to shift your understanding and empower you to be part of the solution.

Originally published May 15, 2014. Updated and revised July 16, 2019.

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About Heather

Heather Hollick has been helping others become better leaders and craft more meaningful careers for more than 25 years. Her experience spans both business and technology, operations and organizational development. Oh, and she was born in Canada, so she can't help but be helpful. 😉

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