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Resolve Conflict at Work: A Step-by-Step Conversation Guide

Conflict can be a stressful experience, but it doesn’t need to be.

A healthy resolution to a conflict is actually a way to bolster any type of relationship, personal or professional. It develops trust and strengthens bonds knowing both sides can work through challenges together.

Dealing with conflict also builds a healthy relationship between you and conflict, itself. It builds your confidence so you can continue to take on the many conflicts and challenges we can all expect in life.

How do you resolve conflict? In the broadest sense it requires three actions (in order of importance):

  1. Listening
  2. Understanding
  3. Talking

While many articles may explain why you should stop avoiding conflict at work or the philosophy and psychology of conflict resolution, I’d like to provide more of a step-by-step conversational guide.

1. Purpose and Hope

Start with your purpose for having a private conversation and a sense of what you hope to achieve. Your purpose should be an I-message and your hope should be focused on the two of you together (i.e. “we”) coming to a resolution.

  • (P) The reason I want to talk is that I feel as though I’m suffering at work because I’m distracted by this issue between us, and…
  • (H) I really hope the two of us can work together to resolve it so we can get back to crushing it.

2. Agenda

Next, cover the outline of the conversation you are about to have. Maybe there is only one issue that needs open discussion. Maybe there are multiple points (or past events) that each need to be discussed in order to find common ground and move past grudges. An important aspect of this is to get input from the other individual.

  • (A) In order to achieve this, I think we need to discuss X, Y, and Z. Do you agree with that? Is there anything else you think we should talk about?

Getting input helps make sure they don’t feel like you are just controlling the conversation to get what you want. I encourage you to write this on the whiteboard and be sure to add, in writing, the feedback you receive.

You must be — and be perceived — as objective and solution-oriented as possible. If you are, it is much more likely the other person will respond in kind, which is necessary if you want to resolve this without a third party.

3. Logistics

These are the rules of the conversation. Conveniently, they are also the best practices of conflict management! Again, I encourage you to write these on the board and reference them throughout the conversation.

It’s important to let the other person in the room give input. However, what’s most important here is that you both agree to follow these rules so that the conversation does not spiral in an unhealthy way.

Stick with I-messages

Keep discussion around events focused on your reaction to them, not blaming or interrogating the other person about them.

Be active listeners

The best way to describe this is to listen in order to understand, as opposed to listening in order to figure out the best response in order to “win” an argument.

Avoid emotional and verbal escalations

Escalations spiral quickly. Things get heated. Threats can be made. Escalation can quickly pile on top of escalation. Agree that if you recognize escalation, you will try to stop it.

Respect the silences

Reframe silent moments from awkward to important. Give yourselves time to reflect and contribute something thoughtful instead of filling silences with whatever pops into your heads.

Find compromise

If there is a strong disagreement, look for middle ground. Understand where you are willing to budge in order to achieve a resolution for the greater good.

It’s ok to disagree

Compromise is ideal, but it’s ok to disagree! Disagreement and conflict are not the same. Conflict usually comes from a deeper emotional issue manifested as disagreement. If the deeper issue can be addressed, it doesn’t mean you need to agree on everything!

Stay outcome-focused

Is your ideal outcome to “win,” make the other person ashamed of themselves, or to resolve a conflict? Asking yourself this question helps bring back perspective if the conversation spirals.

4. Outcomes

Outcomes are a little different than hopes because outcomes are focused on this one conversation. It’s important to note that for any outcome, it is OK if there are still steps that can lead to a healthy resolution.

And it’s once again important that you get input and agreement from the other individual.

  • (O) We might find that it is too hard to have a healthy conversation about this. If that happens we should stop and get someone to help us. However, we might resolve this by the end of the conversation and that would be great. Sound ok?

5. Have the conversation

You have now both agreed to why you are meeting, what you need to discuss, how you should communicate with one another, and what outcome you hope to achieve. All that’s left is to have the conversation.

Be sure to remember your own guidelines (i.e. logistics) throughout the conversation and you will be fine. Be honest about your emotions and give the other time to express themselves. And remember: this all boils down to three easy steps, in order of importance:

  1. Listen
  2. Understand
  3. Talk

Next Steps

Whether or not the conflict gets resolved in a single conversation, there will undoubtedly be some next steps. Maybe this is the need to recruit a mediator or maybe this is list of possible actions that can be taken in the future to avoid a similar conflict.

Make sure the next steps are discussed and agreed upon. Some people go so far are to write contracts that can be signed. But for the most part, simply discussing next steps, agreeing to them, and shaking hands is sufficient.

Don’t be scared of conflict when it arises. Face it head on and you (and your relationships) will be the better for it. Just frame your conversation around the purpose, hopes, agenda, logistics, and outcomes; get buy-in from the other individual; then work to listen and understand in order to find a healthy resolution.