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6 tips for handling conflict at work

An office is a diverse place. During your working life you’re likely to come into contact with people with all kinds of backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that you’ll inevitably run into some disagreements. They might be over something as simple as a misunderstanding, or it could be something more substantial, like the direction a project is taking.

Whether you’re an established leader or just starting your career, dealing with conflict well is one skill which is sure to stand you in good stead. And dare we suggest it, it may also help you be more successful in other areas of your life too.

These are our top tips for how to handle disagreement at work.

1) Don’t ignore it

First things first, don’t make the mistake of failing to address disagreements. If you don’t act, the problem you see might simply continue to grow until it’s far harder to manage. More than that, having open conversations about areas of difference is healthy; letting your feelings fester is not.

Pick your moment – try not to go to for a time when either person is likely to be stressed by deadlines or spending the day moving from one meeting to the next – and address it, one-on-one.

2) Put your emotions to one side

Emotions are bound to come up during disagreements, but they won’t help you resolve them. At least, not in a way you’ll look back on with pride.

Emotions can ambush us and lead us to speak and act in ways that are hard to overcome in a professional setting. So wait until you’re calm before you talk it through, and make sure you stay calm throughout. Think ahead to what might trigger your emotional response during the conversation – if you’re expecting it, you’ll find it easier to keep control. And if you need to, give yourself time to get yourself in check before you speak. It takes about six seconds to get over the response from the less rational parts of your brain. Which is exactly why ‘count to 10’ is such classic advice.

3) Try not to think of disagreement as a battle to be won

This is, let’s face it, the approach most people take. We talk about ‘wars of words’, and we draw up strategies. We aim to win, not to understand.

The biggest problem we see here is that it wastes the potential for a disagreement to be a tool for improvement. Your colleague’s perspective may genuinely change your mind or develop your thinking, but only if you’re open to it.

And if your viewpoint really is more practical or your idea more likely to bring success, an open discussion is a better way to demonstrate that and bring your co-worker on board.

4) Listen close

To be open, you need to listen. Be curious and give your full attention to understanding your colleague’s argument. That doesn’t mean just looking for weaknesses in what they say, but understanding what they believe and why.

Give them the opportunity to speak without interruption. At the end of the process, you should understand their position well enough to be able to summarise it back to them.

You might find yourself convinced, or willing to compromise. And even if not, allowing the other person to be properly heard will make it easier to find a resolution.

5) Find common ground

If you only concentrate on the things that divide you, the gap between you will get wider. Instead, look for the things you have in common, whether it’s getting a project done on time, or making the team successful.

When you both know that you want to get to the same place, finding the way there becomes a lot easier.

6) Concentrate on the facts, not the person

Of course, there might be times when you do need to manage a situation where someone’s actions or behaviours have caused issues.

In that case, don’t make it personal. Concentrate on the facts of what happened rather than judgement about the individual. It will be much easier to move forward if any criticism is depersonalised.

Take things a step further with our breakdown of how to be a great leader in the workplace

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