How to handle conflict at work

6 Jul 12
Conflict is part of everyday life and when handled well can lead to new and creative ways forward. Pam Jones explores some tips to make life easier when the going gets tough
Conflict is part of everyday life and when handled well can lead to new and creative ways forward. Pam Jones explores some tips to make life easier when the going gets tough

Handling conflict, Illustration: Natalie Wood

We face conflict in all sorts of situations in the public sector. When people are passionate about what they do, when there are conflicting goals, and when time pressures are mounting, relationships can get strained and result in conflict.

It often occurs when there is disagreement around the objective and how to get to an agreeable solution, particularly in times of stretched resources. As conflict is about something important, it can also cause an emotional reaction in affected staff. If you are not careful the situation can escalate from focusing on the problem at hand to focusing on the relationships between individuals.

However, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. When handled well, it can lead to new and more creative solutions, better teamwork and improved understanding of the situation and the people involved. If it is ignored or handled badly, it can lead to a downward spiral where relationships and teamwork disintegrate, goodwill is destroyed and people fail to look for areas of common ground and possible agreement.

The tips below will help you to reflect on how to manage conflict more effectively both with individuals, teams and across departments, so that you can work towards a productive and acceptable solution for all concerned.

1. Listen first and talk second
The first thing you need to do is listen, rather than react. By listening, you not only give the other person the opportunity to air their views, you also give yourself the opportunity to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is important to listen not just to the words, but to their voice and body language, so that you can pick up what is important to them and how they feel about the situation. You can also listen for any areas of possible agreement.

2. Think of reasons to agree before you disagree

Looking for agreement rather than disagreement might not be easy but it will help in looking for creative solutions. So often we are too keen to launch in with a counter argument rather than explore a way forward. Another idea is to try to link and build on what others are saying. Try to respond to them by saying ‘Yes AND…..’ rather than ‘Yes BUT……’ and see how this opens up the discussion.

3. Maintain rapport
A big secret in managing conflict is to maintain good rapport. If you try to do this, the chances are that you will have more of an open conversation. This means that you need to maintain respect for the individual and focus on the problem. Think about your body language, breathing and voice tone and try to keep the conversation on an even keel. This will prevent things from spiralling into raised voices, defensive body language and counter arguments.

4. Look for common ground
An important thing is to look for common ground. Are there things that you both want? Are there higher, more strategic, goals that you can both buy into? Often both parties ultimately want the same thing – which might be to deliver a better service, to work more efficiently or to reduce costs. Once you have some common ground and have identified the real problem, it is easier to move forward.

5. Put yourself in their shoes
Try to see things from the perspective of the other person. What are their issues? What do they want to achieve? Why is this so important for them? How are they feeling about the situation? What pressures are they facing and how might this be influencing their views and behaviour? If you know what their concerns and issues are, you can show you recognise them and try to tailor a solution that meets some of their needs.

6. Ask questions, don’t argue
Rather than going in with a counter argument, ask some open questions. Why do you think that? What do you think the consequences might be of doing X? In this way, you are helping the other person think more about their ideas and potentially identify some problems with their proposals. You are also gaining more information about them and the situation. Try to check out any assumptions they might have that are preventing them from moving forward.

7. Take charge of your own feelings
In any conflict situation, the more self-aware you are the better. Take notice of how you are feeling emotionally. You might be aware of your heart rate rising or of feeling uncomfortable. If this happens, slow down and breathe. Stay as objective as possible and try to label your feelings rather than expressing them emotionally. For example, if you are feeling frustrated, rather than raising your voice and getting angry, it is better to say, ‘I’m feeling really frustrated.’

8. Brainstorm possible solutions
One way to focus on the issue in a creative way is to brainstorm a range of possible solutions. Try to invite people who are not involved in the situation to the brainstorm session as they will see things from a different perspective. If possible, find someone to facilitate the session and you might come up with some new ideas. Another approach is to look at the issue from a different angle and reframe the situation – a change might not always be seen as positive but if you reframe it, it can be a chance to develop new solutions, save time and be more efficient.

9. Take a break
When the going gets tough or you reach a stalemate, take a break. It is often valuable to have a bit of time out and to reflect on the situation. This also provides the opportunity to gather more information and explore new avenues. Often when both parties have had a chance to reflect, they come back with a different frame of mind and are in a better position to move forward.

10. Keep the ball rolling
Working towards an agreement can take time, and it is important to identify some next steps to keep the conversation moving. Try to agree a way forward so that you can continue to work on the situation. Think about involving other people and perspectives and agreeing some time lines and actions to move the situation forward in a positive way.


CIPFA logo

Did you enjoy this article?