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How to Resolve Conflict at Work

Why are these conversations so hard?

LAS VEGAS — An annoying e-mail from a colleague has you stewing and unable to concentrate on work. Your boss is micromanaging you or has added a project to your plate without adequate resources to get it done.

Such common workplace conflicts threaten to drive us crazy—until one day you decide it is time to voice your concerns. But things go terribly wrong.

Why are these conversations so hard?

"I think sometimes it's so difficult because of a problem called listening," said Jennifer Lee, director of learning and development at JB Training Solutions near Chicago, during a June 25 concurrent session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition. "If as organizations we could get better at listening, we would probably have more productivity."

Employees are distracted by external noise, such as their smartphones, laptops or co-workers' conversations in an open office setting. Or they're preoccupied by internal "noise," such as worries or emotions. People listen selectively, based on their own experiences, hearing what they want to hear, Lee said.

To be a better listener, she suggested, make eye contact, paraphrase what you hear someone saying and ask questions.

Before you head over to unload on your colleague or boss, she advises shifting your mindset. Instead of being certain you're right, be curious. What might have prompted the other person to make that comment that you found so disturbing? Assume he or she had good intentions. Ask yourself: "Why would a perfectly rational, well-intended person do this?"

Move from a focus on blame to a focus on contribution. You can't be 100 percent right all the time. Usually, when there's a conflict, more than one person is to blame, Lee said.

Before you schedule a meeting, check your mood. Are you ready to sit next to—rather than across from—this person? Are you ready to listen to his or her response?

When you prepare for the talk, limit yourself to two or three issues. Bringing in a laundry list of grievances saved up over months will overwhelm your boss and make him or her disregard what you're saying, Lee warned.

If your complaint is about a matter of personal style, let it go, she advises. However, you should ask for a sit-down with a colleague when the issue is a matter of clarity, accuracy, division of labor, timeliness or effort. You should schedule a meeting with managers when you are unclear about directions or have competing priorities or inadequate resources.

"Have a positive attitude and hope for the best," Lee said. "But plan for the worst."

Put yourself in other people's shoes. How might they react?

"People go into these fight-or-flight responses, especially when they're not prepared for what the conversation is going to be," she said.

Think of yourself as a lion tamer, and you must get the lion to work with you. You have two options: Use the whip or offer meat. While you can force a direct report to follow your directions, you have to make your suggestions enticing to colleagues or a boss because they are not your subordinates, she said.

Here's how to get through conversations about a conflict:

  1. Lead the way. State your intentions upfront. You won't get anywhere if you don't gain the other person's trust. State your intentions clearly. Ask questions such as "Can you help me understand?" or "How do you see things?"

  2. Feed encouragement. Acknowledge the other person's points and show empathy. You might say, "Interesting point" or "I didn't think about that."

  3. Seal the deal. Discuss solutions and ask for a commitment. Try "What do you think would work?" or "When can we start?"

When talking to your boss, realize that even good bosses might get offended, take revenge or shrug off your concerns. To gain their attention and respect, "you have to make a business case," Lee said.

Describe the current situation; don't dredge up the past. What is the impact of this situation? Be specific, and suggest a solution. If possible, share the responsibility. Use the word "we." You might say, "I think we can keep this project on track if we stay in touch."

Conference attendee Vilma Bragen, SHRM-CP, an HR consultant at BBSI in Chino, Calif., said she found the session helpful, offering practical tips that will help her coach others. Alan Cabelly, SHRM-SCP, executive director at the Portland Leadership Institute at Portland State University in Oregon, liked that Lee provided "a back door into working with your boss."