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Constructive Paths Through Workplace Conflict

Without the right tools, conflict resolution can be as fraught as the dispute itself. What’s more, working things out is about way more than a productive conversation. It involves body language as much as spoken words, although those matter, especially the tone in which they’re said, according to Kevin Coleman, an Empowerment Coach and General Services Administration Analyst, who spoke at the 2021 NextGen Government Training Virtual Summit.

“We’re always going to have conflict,” Coleman said. “When you see it, you’ve got to know how to navigate through it vs. being absorbed by it.”

What Causes Conflict in the Workplace?

The top instigator is harassment, including bullying, Coleman said. Others common ones are:

  • Increased workloads
  • Lack of skills and training
  • Negative work environment
  • Opposing personalities
  • Poor management or leadership styles
  • Unfair treatment, such as a leader favoring or disliking someone
  • Unrealistic expectations from managers

3 Ways to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

  • Stop the problem before it starts. “When you are in a situation where people are not accepting your ideas, bring notice to it,” Coleman said. “You could say, ‘I think my idea hasn’t been heard fully, so I’d like to reiterate my idea so I could really get it out so you can get a good understanding of where I’m going with this.’”
  • Seek third-party help to find common ground. “Any time you see culture, values and beliefs, when they all intersect, the only thing you can find is common ground to get everyone on the same sheet of music,” Coleman said.
  • Move on but stay vigilant with the help of a coach. “A coach doesn’t pour in information. They ask you those questions that you won’t ask yourself,” Coleman said.

Learn to Recognize Constructive vs. Destructive Communication

Characteristics of constructive conflict

  • A focus on the issues, not tangents
  • Cooperation
  • A commit to resolving the conflict
  • Respect for others, especially by listening to them
  • Honesty and openness
  • Encouraging all stakeholders to speak up
  • Promoting self-awareness, such as word choice, posture and facial expressions

Coleman’s Cue: “When you seek first to understand rather than be understood, that’s listening.”

Characteristics of destructive conflict

  • Emotion-driven, rather than logic-driven engagement
  • Argumentativeness
  • Ignoring others’ ideas and input
  • Rejecting information without fully understanding it
  • Refusal to agree or concede on an idea or information
  • Criticism

Coleman’s Cue: “When you start changing the paradigm from a negative mindset to a positive mindset, it gets people to think deeper into the conversation. It’s easy to sit back and criticize, but it’s so much more challenging when you think in depth about how [you] can make a positive change.”

6 Benefits of Constructive Conflicts

  • Increased participation in decision-making
  • Better information as people feel comfortable engaging
  • Better choices based on that additional information
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Greater collaboration
  • Increased understanding

Coleman’s Cue: “When you’re looking at changing the paradigm for those situations, it starts with you. You are the object of change. You are the catalyst for change.”

6 Ways to Prepare for Important Conversations

  • Strategically prepare. Do your due diligence before the meeting, asking yourself what potential outcomes you want to see, what you need to discuss and how you want to approach it.
  • Express intention. Be clear on why you want to have the conversation.
  • Make it a safe space, no judgment zone.
  • Uncover assumptions. That way, you go in open-minded.
  • Recognize and respect. Recognize what the issue is and respect the reason why the other person feels how they do. You don’t have to agree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable.
  • Model the way. Show the other stakeholders the preceding characteristics to keep the conversation productive.

Coleman’s Cue: “Communicate with others the way they want to be communicated with. When you know how to communicate with people the way they want to be communicated with, that’s half the battle to resolve conflict.”

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