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Workplace Conflicts? 4 Ways to Improve Communication

Workplace Conflicts? 4 Ways to Improve Communication
Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

A manager inadvertently assigns two employees the same project without telling them. An employee makes a comment that is misunderstood and causes an argument among his team. Someone makes a complaint to HR about another employee, and the HR manager makes an assumption about the situation without gathering the facts — only to find out that the complainer caused the problem in the first place.

These are issues that can happen in any workplace — and perhaps they occur more often than they should. In looking at these common problems, it's clear that most workplace tensions and disagreements stem from breakdowns in communication.

"Poor, ineffective communication ... results in missed deadlines, missed opportunities and misunderstandings," said Caren Merrick, founder and CEO of Pocket Mentor. "[People] send mixed messages, say one thing and do another, don't follow through, or don't listen."

However, conflict isn't always a negative force — in fact, it can push an organization to find solutions they'd never have come up with otherwise. In their book, "The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook" (Career Press, 2015), authors Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell write that working through conflicts gives colleagues the opportunity to exchange information and hear different ideas, which ultimately leads to innovation.

"Workplace conflict is often creativity and innovation trying to happen, and savvy organizations look for ways to embrace and optimize conflict," Mitchell said.

Here are four ways to resolve conflict — and improve colleague relationships — through better communication. [Problems at Work: Are They All in Your Head?]

When a conflict arises among your team members, action should be taken quickly to resolve it.

"It should be addressed with all parties as soon as possible," Merrick said. "If a leader ignores a workplace conflict, it can fester and erode the credibility of the leader and the [company] culture."

Erin Wortham, people engagement manager at Insights Learning and Development, agreed that fast resolution retains a sense of harmony in the workplace, and advised leaders to encourage open dialogue during these discussions. Similarly, Gamlem said getting to the source of a problem involves honest conversations and a little detective work.

"Get good information by varying the types of questions you ask, such as open-ended questions, close-ended questions, fact-based questions or opinion-based questions," Gamlem said.

Managing expectations — both in terms of what you expect from others and what they expect of you — is one of the most important things a team can do to facilitate better communication. Anything you or your colleagues need from each other should be clearly defined and expressed.

"It is common to see managers or supervisors ask for something to be done by one of their staff, but then fail to explain or communicate clearly what they expect in terms of timeliness, structure/format, quality or other key factors associated with the work," said Michael Pires, CEO of JetPay HR & Payroll Services. "Simultaneously, the employee often does not ask or clarify the request and the result is both parties walk away assuming the other truly understand the expectations which were effectively unspoken and ultimately unclear. The supervisor typically feels the employee did not do what was asked and the employee feels as if he or she wasted time and effort."

"If people don't understand what the organization, their manager, or their teammates expect, confusion and conflict can result," Mitchell added. "Set expectations early, beginning with the job interview and again during the first days of employment." 

You may be hearing or reading what your colleagues have to say, but are you actually listening to them? People's minds often wander when others are speaking, especially in a group setting, and they don't truly absorb what's been said. Even in digital communications, it's easy to read a message and immediately forget about it. Gamlem emphasized the importance of creating a culture where people really listen to each other.

"Listening is such an undervalued skill, and it can have a real impact on how often conflicts arise and how they can be avoided," she said.

Pires noted that, especially during conflict resolution, it's important to communite clearly and honestly — and listen when others are trying to communicate, too.

"An HR manager or supervisor sitting down with the co-workers and/or supervisors and talking through what has occurred, what each party's expectations were, identifying where and how the disconnect occurred and then working to reset expectations going forward will usually go a long way in resolving the conflict," Pires said.

Opposing viewpoints, behaviors and work styles can cause a lot of arguments and misunderstandings among colleagues, Wortham said. If clashing personalities are the root cause of a lot of your team's problems, work on being more aware of the differences in how you view a situation.

"Whether it be how a meeting was run, how a strategy was deployed or how stakeholders were engaged, recognizing that other people can interpret the same event in different ways is important to remember in order to resolve conflicts when they arise," Wortham told Business News Daily. "[Knowing] how you prefer to communicate and being able to recognize others' communication styles can help build the bridges of understanding."

"Each of us sees and experiences the world differently using our own experiences, values, individual diversity and culture," Mitchell added. "We each interpret what we've heard or seen, give it meaning, and draw conclusions based on our experiences. Recognizing that differences exist makes it easier to begin having discussions that help resolve workplace conflicts."

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.