Waste Advantage Magazine

Four tips for having conflict-busting conversations in the workplace


A long-time consultant is offended by something a new employee said on a conference call and is threatening to leave. An employee in marketing is furious about being passed over for a promotion in favor of her coworker and is trying to discredit her. These are just a couple of examples of the workplace conflicts that take up 42 percent of the typical manager’s time. The trick to moving past these conflicts and on to increased productivity for everyone at your organization is knowing how to broach the topics in a way that leads to improved working relationships.

Disagreements, disputes and honest differences are normal in any workplace. When these normal occurrences are treated as opportunities for exploring new ideas about projects, they can become catalysts for increased energy and productivity. Getting to that place starts with an honest discussion.

Conflict Resolution Model

Thankfully, proven tools exist for resolving emotionally charged disputes. The Exchange is a four-stage, structured conflict resolution model used successfully by mediators at the National Conflict Resolution Center for more than 25 years. It includes constructive techniques to use in face-to-face meetings with disputing or disruptive employees.

Often, workplace conflict resolution begins with the manager and ends with employees meeting with the manager to develop effective solutions. A key difference between managers and mediators is that managers are not expected to be neutral. They have the responsibility of reinforcing the interests of the department and the company for which they work.

When you find yourself in this role, it’s important to encourage discussion of all the issues in a dispute— even the intense, emotional issues—in ways that are more productive than a gripe session. Resist the temptation to simply tell people what to do. Actively engaging your employees in problem solving helps them take responsibility for the problem and for the solution. When you know how to address workplace conflicts properly, these challenging situations can lead to creative resolutions that re-energize the workplace and bring new ideas to old problems. The following tips will teach you how to turn your next meeting with conflicting employees into a productive conversation.

#1: Start with an Icebreaker

Most people will be ready to complain, debate or argue at the beginning of any conflict-based conversation. They have marshaled their most compelling arguments and are ready for battle. If you go straight to the topic of controversy, most people will quickly get stuck in defending their positions and attacking their opponents.

That’s why you need to do something different. Begin with an icebreaker. This is not just a light introductory activity. It is a way to non-confrontationally initiate a conversation about difficult issues. An ideal icebreaker asks for a person’s own take on something that’s both workrelated and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two employees involved in the same project, you might break the ice by asking each of them how they became involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve.

#2: Listen

Conflict resolution is tricky because too many managers ignore the fact that sometimes what they aren’t saying is more important than what they are saying. Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about him or her and the dispute. Put plain and simply, it’s the best way to get good information.

Ask an open-ended question. It can be as simple as, “So, tell me, what’s going on?” Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. You’ll know it’s time to insert yourself into the conversation when the discussion turns negative.

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