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.
The root cause of conflict, however, is often poor 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."
Here are four ways to resolve conflict – and improve colleague relationships – through better communication. [Quiz: Are you handling workplace conflicts correctly?]
1. Address issues immediately and openly.
When a conflict arises among your team members, action should be taken quickly to resolve it.
"Not addressing the conflict until a later time allows resentments to simmer," said Nick Kamboj, CEO of Aston & James LLC. It's important to address the issue immediately and transparently.
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, 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.
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.
"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 alleviating conflict-causing tension.
"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."
3. Build listening skills.
You may be hearing 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.
Additionally, with the application of good listening skills, conflict can be helpful. "Differing opinions and ideas can lead to great innovations," said Lindsay Anvik, a business coach specializing in leadership and productivity. "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. Recognize and respect personal differences.
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 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 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."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.