How to Defuse Workplace Conflict

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. August 7, 2023

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the email address at the end of this column.   

Employees and managers spend an average of over four hours each week dealing with conflict, and 36 percent of employees say they deal with workplace conflict either "often" or "all the time," according to a recent HR Magazine article. That's a huge chunk of time and energy devoted to a problem that threatens employee safety, productivity, quality and retention.

What can HR do to address this problem? The answer is to teach, coach and apply the following three rules and one tip:

The Rules

Employees and managers should practice:

  • Civility.
  • Candor.
  • Active listening.

The Tip

Employees and managers should ensure conversations are forward-looking

Over the years, I have found that when the parties involved in conflict apply the three rules and one tip, better outcomes inevitably ensue. Let's break down each element:

Civility. We can convey whatever message we think is important as long as our words, tone and facial expression are acknowledging basic human dignity and communicating respect. Why is this critical? It has to do with our limbic system. Harsh words, tones and expressions trigger a fight-or-flight response, which can quickly extinguish any hope of a constructive resolution.

Candor. Every elephant in the room should be invited to take a seat and participate in the conversation. Too often, a conflict gets prematurely "resolved" by papering over underlying causal tensions. As a result, the wound doesn't heal, and eventually the conflict resurfaces, often in a more virulent way than before.

Active listening. Virtually all conflicts are built on mutually reinforcing sets of negative assumptions, many of which are erroneous. Active listening is therefore essential. This means that parties to the conflict are free to express their contrary views, provided they first confirm that they understand the other parties' positions. 

Forward-looking. Where do we go from here? What ultimately matters is not determining who's right or wrong about what happened, but instead finding a clear path forward that works for all of us.

These rules and the tip can be applied in two ways: 1) when you're a direct party to the conflict, and 2) when you act as a third-party mediator or facilitator. Here's how they are applied. 

When You’re a Direct Party to the Conflict

Let's say you and I are working on a project together and encounter tension. We're not working well, and there's occasional aggression with harsh words, as well as passive aggression and a lot of mutual frustration and aggravation. Yet we seem to be stuck in this energy-sucking dynamic.

Determined to break this pattern, you approach me at a time when conflict is not raging. "Jathan, I think there's a problem in our working relationship. I'd like to discuss it with you."

Skeptics might argue that you've just made yourself vulnerable and created an opening for me to attack.  Although that's a possibility, if you approach the topic during a period of relative calm, it's highly unlikely that I'll respond with an attack. Why? My limbic system is calm, and I'm also frustrated with our relationship.

I agree to have the conversation (even if grudgingly), and you say, "Let me suggest three rules for both of us: We practice civility, we practice candor and we practice active listening. Let's be open and direct with each other while maintaining mutual respect and making sure that we understand each other. OK?"

Now, let's say you have two "elephants" regarding my behavior, and suspect (but aren't sure) that I have elephants regarding you. I recommend opening the discussion by either a) describing the lesser of your two elephants, or b) inviting me to go first.

If you choose a), get right to the point and be sure to ask questions: "Jathan, one thing that really bothers me is ___________. What are your thoughts?" If you choose b), make sure to draw me out by asking, "What's your perspective? Tell me more. Can you share an example?" And make sure to follow up with confirming questions, such as, "Jathan, if I understand you correctly, _______ is what I've been doing that causes your greatest frustration. Is that right?"

The next step is to model the tip. After each of us has described our respective elephants and confirmed understandings, you can shift to the path forward by saying, "Jathan, based on what we've just shared with each other, what do you think of this suggestion for us going forward: _____________?"

If I still seem stuck in the past, you can say, "It's clear we have different views about what happened in the past and who's most responsible. I respect your views and position. Now I'd like us to focus on what we can do to create a better path for both of us going forward."

Most "Jathans" aren't incorrigible, even if they seem that way. Give the reset button a chance. There's no downside, no matter the outcome. 

When You’re Acting as a Mediator 

The approach as a mediator is similar to the one I just described, but with a few extras. Let's say that as an HR professional, you become aware of a problematic relationship among other employees. As the third party, you invite the direct parties to a facilitated discussion and begin with a description of the three rules to get their confirmation that they will follow them. You also introduce the tip by explaining that your goal is to help the parties reach a better place going forward.

Your goal as the mediator is to: 

  • Encourage candor while resisting the tendency to declare a superficial victory.
  • Model active listening.
  • Don't allow venting. The second a party starts to vent, interrupt and say, "You can be as direct and candid as you want, provided you remain civil."
  • After the direct parties have had their say, and based on what you heard and observed, suggest possible next steps: "Based on what I've learned from listening to you, what do you think about _________ as a path forward?"
  • Confirm the path forward in a Same Day Summary.

As the HR Magazine article points out, workplace conflict is a very real thing. Yet conflict itself isn't always a bad thing. A successful resolution can lead to positive outcomes, such as new ideas, innovations and vastly improved relationships. Rather than avoid or repress conflict, apply the three rules and the one tip. Hopefully, you'll see how conflict can morph from the negative to the positive. 

Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year" and author 
of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). Jathan is Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching®, and faculty member, University of California San Diego HR Masters Series. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to



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