Minor interpersonal conflicts play out right under our noses in the workplace daily. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a warning before one of them spirals into something much more challenging. So much so that many people go out of their way to avoid conflict at all costs. Dealing with hurt feelings can be unpleasant, to say the least, and the worst workplace conflicts can have terrible consequences for everyone involved.
As hard as it is to look conflict straight in the eye and get all those feelings out in the open, it’s the only way to move through it with a chance of making amends. Every once in a while, we’re rewarded for facing conflict with some surprisingly good outcomes. Former Secretary of State John Gardner said, “We’re continuously faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” The challenge is knowing how to navigate through those problems to uncover the opportunities behind them.
Every organization can benefit from one or two brave souls with conflict-resolution skills. We spoke with one such person during a Leadership Conversation webinar: Chris Sheesley, conflict management consultant and President of In-Accord Inc. Keep reading to learn the four major barriers that get in the way of solving workplace conflict and how to work through them to create understanding and repair relationships.
The Cost of Conflict
You’re probably familiar with some of the repercussions of nasty conflict in the workplace: loss of productivity, wasted time, burnout, frustration, low morale, and of course, turnover. These symptoms can be hard to measure, so many people don’t realize how much conflict at work is costing them.
Chris shared a few statistics about the cost of conflict from his research:
- 65% of performance problems are caused by the inability to get along with other people
- 50% of departures can be traced back to the inability to work together effectively with peers or coworkers across the hierarchy
- Managers spend about 18% of their time dealing with conflict between employees, about one whole day per week
Chris shared the truth behind the idea of “conflict spirals:” conflict begets more conflict, and it only grows over time. That’s why it’s so important to engage all parties involved in sorting through a conflict to come to an understanding and make things right as soon as possible.
4 Barriers To Solving Workplace Discord
Most often, the version of the story you hear from coworkers in conflict is just the surface level of something happening on a deeper level. You have to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to get down to the real issue, but some common barriers can get in the way.
Here are the four barriers and the most effective strategies for working through them:
1. Violated Expectations
People break rules that are important to us and do it in ways that really feel offensive and challenge how we think people should treat us. Chris shared that in his experience, the triggering event in conflict situations is almost always an expectation that has been violated in some way. Unfortunately, these expectations are often unspoken and unknown until the damage has been done. The trick is to change the conversation from “you did x, y, z wrong” to “I wish you would have done x, y, z instead.”
Solution: Reveal and Deal With “The Rules”
In these cases, the best course is to bring unspoken “rules” or expectations to the surface by asking good questions. After you’ve done this, there are three ways to move forward: the offending party can reject the other person’s expectations (which rarely happens), they can agree to comply in the future, or you can all work together to find a middle-ground solution.
- What was your expectation?
- How do you want people to treat you?
- What specifically would you like her to do differently?
- Why did you find it so frustrating when she did blank?
- What is she asking you to change about how you communicate with her?
When this kind of violation has occurred, the hurt party can begin to feel like they’re being targeted and start playing the role of the victim. They might come up with reasons why the other person could be intentionally harming them. Interestingly, the other party usually feels the same way once the conflict spiral begins. Being called out doesn’t make anyone feel good, and they may not yet understand why their behavior was problematic. The important thing to remember is that 99 percent of the time, people don’t stir up the conflict to make themselves look better. They legitimately feel victimized, and it’s important to validate those feelings.
Solution: Deep Impartial Listening With the Intent to Sow Doubt
The first step to solving victimhood is acknowledging these feelings as a reality—because they are real to that person. Listening and acknowledging feelings of victimhood instills trust so that when you’re ready to speak as a conflict resolution facilitator, they will follow suit and listen to you.
Once you’ve established that trust, you’ve created an environment where you can sow some doubt about the other person’s destructive intentions. This might seem like strange advice from a professional peacemaker, but there are very few cases in which one person is a 100 percent victim, and the other is a 100 percent culprit. Both sides will likely have to move past their own feelings, doubting them just a bit, to see from a more neutral perspective.
- If you were to redo that conversation, what would you do differently this time?
- When I talk to him, what’s he likely to say about you?
- Which parts of their critique have merit?
Of course, once person A starts acting the part of the victim, person B is cast as the villain. Again, this is the idea that they have caused harm intentionally, that they’re a bad person, and that they might be out to do more damage. As soon as a “victim” is certain that the other person is a villain, it can be very hard to convince them otherwise. And again, the reality is that most people are somewhere in-between.
Solution: Ask Questions to Develop Alternative Explanations
From this place of uncertainty, you’ve gotten to by sowing doubt; you can begin building curiosity about the “villain’s” real motives by exploring alternative explanations. Ask questions that rattle the victimized person’s convictions just a bit.
- What would a reasonable person do, and why would they do that?
- Why might they say that?
- What message were you hoping to convey when you did that?
- What do you appreciate about each other?
4. Buried Root Causes
Everything we’ve addressed so far is about perceptions, feelings, and likely a few misunderstandings. It only takes one little spark to set off a bonfire, but the inciting incident can be hard to trace once that flame has grown. Everything said and done can seem aggressive, and escalation just adds fuel to the fire.
Solution: Ask What’s Really Important
At this point, effective conflict resolvers go back in and try to figure out what’s really important to the offended party. Don’t ignore everything that’s been piled on since the feud began, but try to refocus on the initial problem. At least try to draw a divide between the inciting incident and the aftermath so you can understand why the “bonfire” was started in the first place.
- What was really important to you at the core of this at the beginning?
- Why was that important to you?
- Why did you first come forward with that proposal?
- What were your core concerns?
Knock Out Conflict in 2 Moves
When each person’s true motivations and the root cause of the issue are all out on the table, the only thing left is to see what can be done to rectify the situation. The key is to stay impartial while helping the two sides find a way forward that satisfies them both.
Behold, The Surprising Power of Impartiality
Do you think you’re a neutral force in your organization? Unfortunately, no one with a pulse is genuinely 100 percent neutral. The best mediators know they have their own opinions and reactions, but because they’re aware of them, they can act impartially. The lesson here is that you can’t be neutral, but you can be impartial. That means noticing your own judgments and setting them aside to facilitate without bias.
Allow Participants to Develop Their Own Solutions
People are generally quick to come up with their own solutions once they understand what’s really going on. The “victim” may have an idea of how the other person can make it up to them, or the “villain” may want to set things right in a specific way. Mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said, “People are generally better persuaded by reasons they themselves have discovered than those that have come into the minds of others.” The conflicting parties may come up with solutions you would never have dreamed of as a facilitator, but ultimately, they’ll be happier with the solutions they come up with themselves.
Keep Fighting the Good Fight
Conflict situations tend to put everyone on the defensive, and getting people to see past their perceptions can be challenging and can be done! Remember that conflict isn’t harmful: it can actually be productive. The harm comes from acting without thinking, holding onto anger and pain longer than necessary, and letting your ego do the talking.