De-escalate conflict at work with these communication skills

Learn how to handle workplace strife so it can be resolved quickly and productively

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Fun fact: Conflict in the workplace can be a good thing if everyone is able to utilize productive communication skills and keep it within professional boundaries. But sometimes conflict is just conflict; it splits the team, brings productivity to a halt and requires resolution as soon as possible.

If conflict is putting a negative spin on your otherwise positive work environment, it’s important to take action to resolve it. Here are five ways you can use communication skills to help root out workplace issues and restore a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect.

1. Set parameters around appropriate conflict

Author and team effectiveness advisor Liane Davey says that for a competitive, innovative company, having tensions between different roles and departments is not just normal, but healthy—especially when everyone understands how these tensions can yield positive outcomes.

To help employees embrace conflict, she recommends that leaders take their team through this step-by-step exercise:

  • Draw a circle and divide it into wedges, one to represent each individual role
  • One by one, talk about the various roles, the value they bring, the stakeholders they serve and the problems they solve
  • Talk about the unique tensions each role causes; whom do they usually upset and why?

According to Davey, this activity helps coworkers see that conflicts exist for a reason; they serve a purpose for their respective positions, helping to move employees forward.

“With heightened awareness and a shared language, your team will start to realize that much of what they have been interpreting as interpersonal friction has actually been perfectly healthy role-based tension,” Davey says. “They’ll realize that conflict and tensions are not the antithesis of cross-functional teams; they’re one of the main benefits of them.”

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2. Adapt your communication skills to various conflict styles

Just as people have communication style preferences, they also have unique ways of coping with conflict. Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at the Harvard Business Review, says there are “avoiders” who abstain from confrontations, and “seekers” who love brutal honesty and a great debate. Her advice for dealing with these different personality types includes the following:

  • If you’re an avoider, challenge yourself to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. If you’re with a group of seekers, you’ll have to be forthright about your preferred communication style—without ruffling feathers, of course.
  • If you’re a seeker working with other seekers, prepare ahead of time so there’s less pressure to speak off the cuff. And when working with avoiders, be patient with the slower pace of the conversation, listen and be careful not to come across as domineering.

“Knowing how the other person typically reacts in a tense situation is useful information,” Gallo says. “So assess your coworker’s style, if you’re not already familiar with it.”

3. Challenge yourself not to react right away

If you’re directly involved in conflict at work—or have to step in as a manager to mediate—it’s more important to listen than to talk, and to ask questions instead of providing answers.

“Resist the urge to get defensive and instead ask questions that clear some ground for the other party to express themselves,” writes emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf. “By allowing the other person to simply feel heard, you can head off a nasty fight and open up a conversation.”

Cinnie Noble, an executive coach and the founder of Cinergy, agrees. In an interview with Forbes, she outlines a few steps that every leader should take if they find themselves embroiled in conflict:

  • Practice active listening, without making assumptions or getting defensive. “Just saying, ‘Tell me more’ until the person’s entire viewpoint is expressed is a major strategy,” Noble says.
  • Get some physical and emotional distance, allowing you to return to a place where rational problem-solving, decision-making and critical reflection is possible.

4. Think ‘out of site, out of mind’

Workplace conflicts inevitably arise in workplace contexts; so sometimes, the most effective solution for two feuding colleagues is for them to have a conversation away from the confines and triggers of the work environment. They may find that, in a casual setting, they have more in common than they think.

That was the experience for John Rampton, an investor, entrepreneur and founder of Due, an online invoicing and payment services platform. “I decided to invite a colleague I was clashing with out after work to see if talking outside of the work environment would help us work through things,” Rampton writes. “By the end of the evening we were laughing together like old friends. This camaraderie actually stuck with us the rest of the time we worked together. It turned out all we needed was time alone to get to figure out where we each were coming from.”

5. Practice compassionate listening and communication skills

One of the most powerful communication skills for managing conflict is to provide an empathetic ear and give colleagues the benefit of the doubt. After all, you never know what’s going on with other people.

“The truth is that everyone’s privately fighting a battle nobody else is fully aware of … and emotionally intelligent people are aware that others may be having problems they themselves have no way to gain access to,” Deutschendorf writes.

Even if you find a colleague’s words or actions offensive, he suggests showing empathy by following these simple steps:

  • Without prying, try to get to the source of the problem. You might discover that it has nothing to do with you. And keep in mind that you might never know the whole story.
  • When you have a better sense of what the conflict is actually about, see how you can help solve it, without letting the other person walk all over you. “Sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable to lend one hand but not both,” Deutschendorf says.

Conflict can help make your company stronger, but only if it’s not sowing hostility and negativity among your team. When things get tense, reach into your toolbox of productive and empathetic communication skills to address it, rather than contribute to the tension yourself.

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