Employees are bound to have disagreements from time to time. Whether it’s a misunderstanding over who did what, a clash of ideas or a tangle of personal relationships, conflict is inevitable in any workplace. But how you handle those conflicts can make a world of difference to your company’s success. There are several communication strategies employers, managers, human resources directors and employees can master to resolve workplace conflict successfully.
Here are five ways to resolve workplace conflict — and improve employee relationships — through better communication.
When a conflict arises among your team members, action should be taken quickly to resolve it. Instead of ignoring or avoiding conflict, accept it and work toward addressing it immediately.
“Not addressing the conflict until a later time allows resentments to simmer,” Nick Kamboj, CEO of Aston & James LLC told Business News Daily. It’s essential to address the issue immediately and transparently.
Erin Wortham, former director of talent at Headspring, agreed that fast resolution retains a sense of harmony in the workplace and advised leaders to encourage open dialogue during these discussions. Similarly, in their book The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook (Career Press, 2015), authors Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell 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. [Related article: Communication is Key to Genuine Employee Engagement]
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.
Miki Feldman Simon, executive coach and founder of IAmBackatWork, made it a point to have set expectations at her company from the start.
“I once worked with a company where people would often interrupt [each other],” she said. “I established a principle where [interruption] was not acceptable. Consistently applying this principle changed the communication habits within my company, making it possible for everyone to voice their opinion.”
Knowing what is expected of them can help employees feel more comfortable, thus preventing conflict-causing tension.
“If people don’t understand what the organization, their manager or their teammates expect, confusion and conflict can result,” said Mitchell. “Set expectations early, beginning with the job interview and again during the first days of employment.”
You may hear what your colleagues say, but are you listening to them? People’s minds wander when others speak, especially in group settings, and they don’t truly absorb what’s been said. Even in digital communications, it’s easy to read and immediately forget about a message. Gamlem emphasized the importance of creating a culture where people 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.
Additionally, with the application of good listening skills, conflict can be helpful.
“Differing opinions and ideas can lead to great innovations,” said Lindsay Anvik, CEO at See Endless. “Take the consistent stance of being open to someone whose opinions differ from yours. This allows you to see things from a new light and decide when to go to bat for your idea.”
When engaged in a conflict, it’s natural to want to be closed off — but this only hinders the chance of resolution. Give yourself (or those in the conflict) time to cool off first. When managing the conflict, speak in a calm, agreeable manner.
Use neutral language and separate the other person from the problem. It’s better to speak in “I” language instead of “you” language to avoid the other person feeling attacked. For example, saying “I feel undervalued in my position” is going to be more effective than saying “You don’t value my work.” Using “you” language only causes the other person to get defensive, which doesn’t bode well for conflict resolution.
In addition to choosing your words carefully, do not underestimate the power of body language and tone. Often, it’s not what’s being said that propels conflict further but how someone is saying it. Use open body language to signify your willingness to resolve the conflict and reach an agreement. People tend to mimic those around them, so this can help elicit a calm, open demeanor from anyone else in the conflict.
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 to resolve conflicts when they arise,” Wortham said. “[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 said. “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.”
Resolve workplace conflict by addressing the issue immediately, setting clear expectations, applying active listening skills, using neutral terms and open body language and respecting personal differences.
Workplace conflict can result from several situations; however, the root cause is often poor communication. For example, employee expectations may be unclearly communicated, team members may feel as though they don’t have a voice (due to a lack of open dialogue) or the tone of someone’s words may be misinterpreted. Whatever the case may be, miscommunication is often the source and it can be mitigated through proper skills and policies.
Other causes of workplace conflict can include but are not limited to:
Effective conflict resolution skills and policies are imperative in the workplace — here’s why:
Workplace conflict is nothing to fear. When you address it appropriately with strong communication strategies, it can be a learning experience for everyone. Finding reliable, consistent ways to resolve conflict can improve your company culture, work quality and everything in between. No, conflict isn’t avoidable, but you can always make the best of it.
Max Freedman and Skye Schooley contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.