Let’s Talk About Conflict

By Serena Keith

Two of Me360’s (tryme360.com) leadership skills became radically more popular since the start of the pandemic: Resolving Conflict and Facilitating Conflict Resolution (helping others resolve conflict). While conflict resolution skills have always been important, I believe the recent rise in demand is caused by the shift to remote work. In this still new environment, we are finding it difficult to build strong interpersonal communication with our colleagues. Indeed 37% of employees say they now feel less connected to their colleagues in the absence of physical proximity. [1] And 49% of employees are now opting to address workplace conflict asynchronously through messaging apps rather than through live video or audio conversations. [2] Without strong communication practices, conflicts arise more often and become much harder to resolve. So let’s take a look at what workplace conflict is and what causes it, then explore a few core techniques to practice the next time we encounter one at work.

First, it’s important to understand that conflict is a perfectly natural occurrence at work. Collaboration is the fuel of modern companies and it creates ample opportunity for clashing opinions between people invested in having or getting to the right answer. These clashes themselves aren’t a problem – in fact they’re usually the driver for positive breakthroughs. But clashes become problematic when they escalate from professional to personal. Once clashes feel personal, participants get emotionally triggered and struggle to adopt a constructive problem-solving perspective to harness conflict for positive outcomes.

If you find yourself devoting time regularly to a conflict that feels personal at work, you’re not alone. Even before the pandemic, US employees were spending almost 3 hours per week dealing with the fallout from work conflict – which is at least $359B in lost annual productivity not to mention all the unrealized gains of positive resolution. [3] Yet one of our big professional blind spots is self-awareness around how skilled we are at workplace communication. As many as 95% of us think we’re self-aware around our interpersonal skills at work, but studies show only 10-15% of us really are. [4] So provided we’re open to trying new techniques to address a particular conflict, here are a few best practices to experiment with:

  1. Keep conflicts cognitive: Before addressing a conflict, step back far enough to the point where it doesn’t feel personal and you can assess it neutrally. If this is too difficult, make an effort to pause and reduce your emotional temperature before resuming. (Tip: it can take 8-10 minutes to reduce adrenaline and find your way back to a neutral, constructive state)
  2. Secure the relationship: The first conflict resolution step in several models including the ‘Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach” is to directly reaffirm the priority of the relationship with the person you’re in conflict with. “I want you to know that I respect your opinion, and we need to talk” is a good example of how to explicitly give relationship affirmation before inviting a conflict resolution.
  3. Set out the facts / Listen first, talk second: Part of keeping conflict in the cognitive realm is viewing it as a project to work through with the other party. Use your fact finding skills and active listening skills to authentically work to lay the relevant points on the table. And remember, by inviting the conversation you’re also taking on the responsibility to host and guide the conflict all the way to a resolution.
  4. Explore solutions together: Once you reach a full picture of the issues causing the conflict and discrepancies in fact or opinion, explore solutions together as a team.

The next time you find yourself in a workplace conflict, try the above techniques. The more you treat conflict resolution as a skill that takes intentional practice, the sooner you’ll find that you become more confident and successful in addressing these key scenarios.

Digging deeper

  1. Learning, Linkedin (2021). “Workplace Learning Report: Skill Building in the New World of Work,” https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/business/en-us/amp/learning-solutions/images/wlr21/pdf/LinkedIn-Learning_Workplace-Learning-Report-2021-EN-1.pdf
  2. Pieniazek, J. (2021). “The Blow-by-Blow on Remote Work Conflict” [2021 Study], MyPerfect Resume, https://www.myperfectresume.com/career-center/careers/basics/remote-work-conflict.
  3. CPP Global (2008). Human Capital Report, July 2008. https://www.themyersbriggs.com/-/media/f39a8b7fb4fe4daface552d9f485c825.ashx.
  4. Eurich, T. (2018). “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)”, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/01/what-self-awareness-really-is-and-how-to-cultivate-it.

About the Author
Serena Keith is the CEO of Me360 (tryme360.com), a leadership development platform that blends live 1:1 skill training with innovative software. Contact her via her Email.

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