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Updated Nov 20, 2023

Workplace Conflicts? 5 Tips to Improve Communication

: Use these five communication strategies to effectively resolve workplace conflict.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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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.

>>Read next: Signs Your Employees Hate Their Jobs (and What to Do About It)

Communication tips for conflict resolution in the workplace

Here are five ways to resolve workplace conflict — and improve employee relationships — through better communication.

1. Address issues immediately and openly.

Two colleagues with conversation bubbles above their heads

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]

2. Set clear expectations.

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.”

3. Build active listening skills.

Colleagues sitting around a conference table

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.”

4. Use neutral terms and open body language.

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.

5. Recognize and respect personal differences.

Two colleagues talking inside of circles

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.”

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
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.

The causes of workplace conflict

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:

  • Harassment: An employee is bullying or harassing someone in the workplace.
  • Increase in workload: An employee’s workload has increased significantly and they feel they are being pushed too hard.
  • Lack of skills or training: A staffer doesn’t have the skills or training to do their job properly.
  • Negative work environment: Your company culture is negative or toxic, causing employees to feel unhappy or unsafe.
  • Opposing personalities: Team members have drastically different personalities and don’t “like” each other. Employees can also have a falling out, making it difficult or uncomfortable to work together.
  • Poor management: A manager has poor management skills or lacks the appropriate leadership style their team needs.
  • Unfair treatment: An employee is treated unfairly, often the result of someone in a management position favoring or disliking someone.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Employees or managers have unrealistic expectations.
Did You Know?Did you know
Not all disagreements are bad. Healthy workplace conflict can help your business grow.

The importance of resolving workplace conflicts

graphic of colleagues collaborating around a table with a circle that says "productivity"

Effective conflict resolution skills and policies are imperative in the workplace — here’s why:

  • Saves time and money: While a mismanaged conflict can be detrimental to your business, a properly handled conflict can save your business time and money. With fewer missteps and disagreements, your team will get where it’s going faster, without any needless spending on extra steps along the way.
  • Improves co-worker relationships: Employees do their best work in stress-free environments. Conflict resolution is a direct route to these environments. In contrast, it’s hard not to be stressed when the tension of conflict hangs in the air.
  • Boosts employee performance: It follows from how resolved conflicts alleviate stress that conflict resolution also improves employee performance. You’ll likely notice substantial quality improvements from team members involved in a conflict directly after you resolve it.
  • Strengthens employee retention: Workplaces filled with conflict aren’t comfortable and few people would want to show up to them every day. Amid these conflicts, your retention rates could plummet. Conversely, if you proactively resolve conflicts, your retention rates will likely remain strong.
  • Sharpens communication skills: Every conflict you address is an opportunity to pinpoint the miscommunication that caused it and work on avoiding it in the future. With the right communication strategies in place, you can turn a potential crisis into a productive discussion.
  • Fosters superior company culture overall: No team will ever entirely avoid conflicts, but the best teams take a measured, level-headed approach to discussing and resolving them. This openness and free sharing of ideas and emotions make for a stronger company culture overall. Your current employees will benefit from this welcoming culture, which will also make it easier to attract new team members. As you resolve conflict, you build a future.
TipTip
Another incentive to avoid workplace conflict? Having work friends is great for reducing stress and improving employee mental health.

Conflict is an opportunity to turn a new leaf

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.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Kiely Kuligowski is an expert in project management and business software. Her project management experience includes establishing project scopes and timelines and monitoring progress and delivery quality on behalf of various clients. Kuligowski also has experience in product marketing and contributing to business fundraising efforts. On the business software side, Kuligowski has evaluated a range of products and developed in-depth guides for making the most of various tools, such as email marketing services, text message marketing solutions and business phone systems. In recent years, she has focused on sustainability software and project management for IBM.
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