Managing Interpersonal Conflict at Work

April 16, 2013

by Veronica Vaiti, LCSW-R

In every work setting the potential for conflict is real and unavoidable. Most of us have experienced those uncomfortable moments  when caught in a conflict with a co-worker, supervisor and/or customer where were stumped as to how best to proceed. Or, when we do respond, we feel dissatisfied with the result and obsessively replay in our minds a different course of action that, “we should have taken” which may have yielded a better outcome.

There are certain facts and rules that exist in the workplace that undoubtedly add to the complexity of managing conflict there. First, we need our jobs and depend upon them, not just for financial necessities, but also because our jobs are connected to our self-esteem and identity.  Second, there is usually some form of a hierarchical order or political code at work and that governs the office/organization.  As such, conflict in work settings is so often perceived as a fragile and very difficult task to manage because there is so much at stake. There is no doubt that to be successful in most work settings, we need to know how to manage interpersonal conflict with the utmost finesse.

The truth is that most of us are never really taught the tools for managing conflict in a productive or useful way. Instead we are often taught that conflict is either something to be avoided, repressed or something to dive head first into with the motive to “win” at all costs.  All of which are not the most beneficial strategies.

Here are some tips to keep in mind to help you think about how you can manage conflict better:

  1. Conflict is not life threatening : We all will experience conflict multiple times in our life and that it is by no means a life threatening experience. Like any storm, it comes and goes.
  2. Embrace conflict as a learning opportunity: Your best teachers in life are the ones who will challenge you. Try to reflect upon what you learned in every conflict and view every new conflict as a learning opportunity.
  3. Try not to take it personally: co-workers, supervisor and customers will provoke you because of their own innate motivations and reasons which might not be in your control. Provocation can be as a result of jealously, top-down supervisory demands or a customer that simply had a bad day. This is all out your control so don’t try to remedy it.
  4. Try to understand your co-workers motivations and values: We are all built differently. Some of us value social connections,  others value data and organization, while others value power and control. Try to understand who you are dealing with and how best to approach them.
  5. Do not let your emotions guide you: Often reacting in accordance to a felt emotion can be impulsive and destructive, especially in the workplace.  For instance, if I am angry, it’s advisable to take a time out at the water cooler and cool off before reacting.
  6. Try to solve conflict early on: Don’t wait for it to explode in your face. If you know that an honest  discussion with a co-worker and supervisor can limit the potential of an explosive conflict in the future than seize the moment to do so.
  7. Be the bigger humble person: reaching out to apologize about the circumstances at hand, even if you believe you were not solely responsibly can go far.  Own up to your fair share of the situation and see what follows from there.

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