Navigating Conflict in the Workplace

If you have worked for a while, you have undoubtedly had to face an inconvenient truth — sometimes conflict is inevitable. It is just what comes along when two or more people work together over a period of time. Though conflict is uncomfortable, it does not necessarily mean relationships or situations are irreparable. There are effective ways to navigate conflict that minimizes prolonged discomfort if both parties involved desire resolution.

Assessing your part

Oftentimes, it is easy to point the finger at someone else when a problem arises, especially if someone else may legitimately be at fault for a mishap.  However, before attributing blame to someone else, a crucial part of finding a way to a solution requires reflecting on yourself. “Have I played a role in this matter? Could I have handled it better? Can I handle it better now? Is my reaction proportionate to the situation?”

Measuring your reaction

Assessing your reaction when going through a conflict is a necessary step toward the goal of attaining resolution. The wrong kind of reaction can exacerbate an already-fraught situation. Ensuring you are communicating in a way that leads to resolution or at least a mutual understanding is crucial. What is your communication style?

Are you aggressive? Being overly aggressive can put others on the defensive. Assigning blame before listening to the other side, operating off of too much emotion and too little information, not respecting boundaries or personal space, raising your voice unnecessarily, making public what should be a private conversation can all be considered examples of aggressive behavior.

And what about passive aggression? Do you hold your ill feeling in and allow it to manifest in less obvious ways? Aggressive behavior in any form is detrimental to the workplace because it signals there will likely be prolonged conflict. Instead of relegating the conflict to one particular situation, aggressive behavior engenders bitterness that usually lingers past the current situation and does not always subside easily.

On the flip side, are you passive? Do you allow others to take advantage of you? Are you your own sponsor?  Choosing to stay silent when a situation calls for your input can be just as detrimental to your success and the success of your organization as aggressive behavior. Passive behavior also forces others to be responsible for your input, which is not only unfair to you, it is also unfair to them. The workplace functions better when all involved parties assume responsibility for themselves. And there may arise a situation in which you are forced to stand up for yourself because not doing so could have deleterious effects on your career. Do you have the communication tools necessary to do so? I once read a sign with the following quote, “You never realize how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.” Can you rise to this challenge in a way that is helpful for you and the overall environment?

Finding the sweet spot

One of the most important tools you can add to your arsenal of valuable workplace skills is learning how to communicate with assertiveness. Assertiveness is the desired balance between aggression and passivity. When implemented correctly, you can become masterful at communicating your positions in ways that lead to progress and respect. I once took a course on assertiveness and remember being in awe at how much more improved my communication was with others when I implemented the lessons. The course addressed and contrasted both aggressive communication and passive communication.

There is indeed an art to communicating a position in a strong manner that does not put another on the defensive. I strongly recommend finding a local class in your area and enrolling. It could prove beneficial for both your work and home life.

For more information about conflict management, you can check out these related articles: How Conflict Can Be Good for Your Team and 6 Strategies for Managing Group Conflict

Tamara Key is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Jana Choi

This was a great read. Thanks for sharing tips for making my and my coworkers have better working relationships! The idea of a sweet spot between leaning too far in and not being engaged enough is really important. I will definitely keep that tip in mind next time there’s an issue at work.

Catherine Andrews

“Assertiveness is the desired balance between aggression and passivity.” – Love that line, and I will be thinking about it for a long time!