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How to handle conflict at work

Unless you work remotely, it is pretty likely that you will experience conflict in the workplace at some point

From squabbles over lunches stolen from the shared fridge to personality clashes that create more tension than a TV talent show final, there is no profession exempt from dysfunctional behaviour that can seriously affect both overall productivity and the emotional health of those involved if left unchecked.

Be prepared for your automatic response

A lot of everyday human reactions are of the kneejerk variety, but these can be reprogrammed once you become aware of them. When it comes to conflict, the typical responses are:

  • To avoid it completely, whatever this takes.
  • To triumph at all costs, regardless of who gets hurt.
  • To make sure everyone else is OK, even if this means ignoring their own needs.
  • To identify and implement a solution that partially pleases both parties.
  • To mediate a workable solution for all involved.

None of these reactions is 100% useful, but identifying your personal weaknesses helps you to develop strategies to take a more balanced approach.

Identify the players

It is entirely possible that the worst kind of disagreement with a close friend or relative can be worked out pretty quickly and not affect things between you, as this kind of relationship generally has a built-in resistance to quite an elevated level of conflict. Problems in the workplace can be a bit different, and your coping strategy may depend on who else is involved.

If a same-level colleague does something annoying, taking a rational and objective view of their behaviour may be more sensible than simply ignoring it. If there are added elements, such as early signs of bullying, documenting things immediately with a supervisor can help to avoid them escalating to breaking point.

Turn the volume down

A simple yet key way to maintain control and order in a conflict situation is to always keep the volume down. Shouting may feel more immediate and even more useful, especially in serious situations, but it rarely achieves anything productive. It is actually more likely to trigger a chain reaction and force everyone else involved to follow suit.

The plain truth is that raised voices triggered by powerful negative feelings, such as jealousy, anger or even fear, cause temporary changes in brain function.

All energies are diverted away from the section that handles rational thought, making it almost inevitable that hurtful verbal insults completely bypass our usual control filters. On the other hand, calmness encourages productive and empathic discussion and is more likely to produce a reasonable outcome.

A workable strategy is always to maintain a calm voice and manner regardless of what others are doing. If others continue to shout, acknowledge that it will not be possible to resolve issues right there and then and find a way to exit the situation before considering how to approach it again later.

Work takes up a large part of our lives, so getting a handle on conflicts there is important; otherwise, it can damage your health, prospects and happiness, and the company’s productivity and reputation.

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