Workplace conflict: how to nip it in the bud

You’ve noticed things don’t seem too cheery in the office. There’s palpable tension in the Comms team and you’re beginning to wonder what on earth is going on. Did Hannah really walk out of the room the minute Sam walked in last week? And that sniping in the yesterday’s meeting! What was that all about?

You know that not everyone has to adore each other to work together well but team members do need to respect and value each other’s contribution to get the job done.

How to resolve conflict through listening

It’s all a bit awkward

Tackling negative conflict can be tricky, I know. I hear senior leaders in their coaching sessions say they’re just keeping their fingers crossed that a workplace disagreement will work itself out. Sometimes they do, of course. But other conflicts rumble on, behaviour gets worse and very soon a toxic atmosphere is unpleasantly brewing.

You need to take the lead

I know it’s tough to tackle staff about their interpersonal relationships. You don’t want to be the parent to squabbling children, do you? But you do need to nip things in the bud before they have a serious impact on the team and the important work you’re all so committed to doing.

Below is an approach which I encourage my coaching clients to take. It’s quite radical. Your people may not be used to talking about how they feel in this way. It isn’t easy, and it requires a light-touch, coachly style from you and an open mind from those involved. But it’s a very powerful process which can shift resentments and misunderstandings in a short space of time.

And the best thing is that you’re not playing the role of parent to bickering children. You are all adults in the room with this approach.

How to resolve conflict by listening

  • Invite both parties to meet with you together in a private space. Let them know that you see tension between them, that it is having a negative impact on work and that you’d like to reach a resolution. Check they are willing to find a way to move forward together.
  • Invite each one in turn to speak about how they are feeling about the situation. Allow plenty of time. No interruptions. No comments. No character assassinations. Encourage each speaker to stick with their own feelings and observations of what they see as having happened and for the other to simply listen. Guide them back to their feelings if necessary. Things may get emotional, and that’s ok.
  • After each one has spoken, reflect back what you heard (in their original words as far as possible) using the words “I hear…” for example, “I hear you are angry that you were missed out for the interview panel. I hear you feel hurt your opinion wasn’t taken into account.” Seek clarification by saying “Have I got that right?”. If not, let them speak again until you do.
  • By the end of this process, both people will have been heard without judgement or confrontation. That’s all. It’s not about challenging each other. It’s not about deciding who is right or wrong. It’s just about being heard.

It is amazing how tension and misunderstandings dissolve when you feel heard

  • When this stage is fully complete. Ask each one, “What would it take for you to move on from this situation?” They may make a suggestion for themselves or make a request to the other (in which case, encourage a positive and specific action, rather than a negative request to stop doing something).
  • Get agreement that they are both willing to do their best to meet these requests. Thank them for their time and ensure that everyone leaves feeling reasonably positive. Schedule a check-in for you all soon.

Over to you

What do you think of this idea? I’d love to hear how you get on giving this a go. You might be very pleasantly surprised.

What next?

If you’re a leader who needs support resolving conflict in your workplace, drop me a line at katie@be-the-change.org.uk or give me a call on 07958 501 427. I’m happy to have a chat about how coaching can help.

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