Conflict is a disagreement or argument that can arise in various circumstances and settings, including in the workplace. Conflicts are a normal part of healthy relationships and work environments, so it’s important to understand how to navigate and resolve them. To successfully resolve conflicts, you’ll often need to read both verbal and nonverbal communication cues, remain calm and control your own emotions, and work to understand the position of the conflicting parties.
In this article, we offer conflict resolution skills, steps to resolve conflict and examples of conflicts that can arise in the workplace.
What is conflict resolution?
Conflicts in the workplace can arise when two or more parties have different objectives, opinions or styles. Conflict resolution is the art of addressing those differences and finding common ground that enables everyone to work together peacefully. Sometimes, the person who resolves a conflict may be a neutral party or mediator while at other times, they may be someone involved in the conflict who takes an outside perspective to find a solution.
The ability to resolve conflicts is often seen as a leadership trait. People who can identify conflicts, acknowledge different opinions and build a consensus are valuable to many organizations. They make it more likely for personal differences to be set aside so work can continue.
Read more: 5 Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies
Examples of conflict in the workplace
In the workplace, you may experience conflict with a coworker, manager, vendor or client or customer. Here are several examples of common workplace conflicts:
Conflicts between coworkers
Conflicts between coworkers may arise because of different work styles and personal habits. They can also arise from personal prejudices and cultural differences.
Here are a few examples of conflicts between coworkers:
Sarah regularly cleans out the shared refrigerator in the break room. One day, she unknowingly throws out Martin’s leftovers. The next day, Martin discovers his food is missing and erupts at Sarah. She responds by saying he should have clearly marked his food. They both leave this exchange feeling angry: Sarah feels under-appreciated for the work she does to clean the office while Martin feels that no one respects his personal belongings.
Connor and Eli are assigned to a new project. Connor already has an overwhelming workload while Eli has more availability. Assuming that Eli will take the lead, Connor doesn’t attend a few meetings and neglects several tasks assigned to him. Meanwhile, Eli doesn’t have insight into Connor’s existing workload and interprets his lack of initiative as laziness. Eli begins loudly complaining about Connor in shared workspaces. Connor overhears these complaints, which exacerbates his existing work stress.
Conflicts between supervisors and supervisees
There is an inherent power imbalance between managers and their direct reports, which can make conflicts between them difficult to navigate. However, with patience and understanding, both supervisors and supervisees have the ability to resolve these disagreements.
Here are two examples of conflicts with leadership:
Nadia is a sales manager who often steps in to help her team members when there are challenging moments. While some people appreciate this, others have complained that she is overly involved and micromanaging. A few people on her team go to HR with their complaints about her management style.
Derek is an outspoken leader who responds well to people who are similarly vocal and extroverted in group settings. However, a member of his team, Sam, is shyer and prefers to express themselves in one-on-one settings or writing. After several of their ideas are overlooked in strategy sessions, Sam tells Derek that they feel demoralized and is considering other job opportunities.
Conflicts between service providers and clients
Disagreements between vendors and their clients or customers can often arise because of unclear communication or expectations.
Here are two examples:
During the holiday season, Diana places an order online for a gift for her daughter. She receives an email after the order is placed informing her that the item is out of stock. She calls customer service, upset that she will not receive the gift before the holiday
Carly’s company is redesigning its website. She is working with a design agency to create a new website. It was her understanding that the project fee includes sourcing images for the site, but the agency believed that her team would do that portion of the project. Carly is highly frustrated and says she will have to reduce the payment amount as a result.
It’s important to note that some conflicts can arise because of prejudice, discrimination, bullying and harassment. These types of conflict can cause lasting personal harm. While using conflict resolution skills can help navigate these situations, it’s important that this type of behavior is documented and dealt with at a higher level. If you are experiencing or witnessing this kind of conflict in the workplace consider talking to your human resources department.
Example conflict resolution skills
Before we discuss the steps you can take to resolve conflict, let’s cover the skills that can help you navigate it successfully. With each skill, there is an example of how to apply it in different scenarios.
Active listening is a crucial part of conflict resolution. An employee might be approached by someone about a way in which their behavior is disruptive, and by actively listening, they can understand the origin of the complaint and what to do about it.
Bias for action
Having a bias for action means assertively seeking out the next steps rather than waiting for someone else to do something. In conflict resolution, this could manifest as a coworker noticing they may have upset someone else and actively seeking to address that with them as soon as possible. A manager could also realize there is a conflict taking place and step in to resolve the conflict before too much time has passed.
Perspective-taking is the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. You can ask yourself: "What are their thoughts, triggers and observations?" For example, a client may call customer service because they are confused about how to use the company’s product. Even though the customer service agent who receives the call may understand clearly how to use the product, they can benefit from understanding the client’s confusion. In fact, these conversations can help reveal potential improvements to product design or training.
When there is conflict, you can arrange the environment around you to make resolution easier. For example, a manager who oversees two different groups might bring those groups together in a comfortable conference room to address points of disagreement on a joint project. Providing time and space for discussion can facilitate a speedy end to the conflict.
Mediation is when a neutral third party is involved in the resolution of a conflict. A mediator can be a trained professional, someone from an outside group (such as HR), or a person outside the conflict who can provide an objective perspective. In addition to all the other skills listed here, a successful mediator has the ability to summarize what they are hearing and observing to demonstrate progress and agreement.
Problem-solving skills help you determine the source of a problem and find an effective solution. During conflict resolution, a manager might use their problem-solving skills to identify areas of compromise between two team members who disagree.
The ability to hold people responsible for their actions is important in conflict resolution. For example, when an agreement is reached, an HR representative may need to check in a few days later to make sure everyone is still on the same page.
How to resolve conflict in 10 steps
The ability to resolve conflict is helpful to any organization. The steps listed below can help you resolve most conflicts that arise in the workplace:
1. Stay calm and maintain steady body language
Before approaching conflict resolution, it can be helpful to take several deep breaths. Sitting, rather than standing, and pulling your shoulders back can also calm you. Feet can both be placed on the floor, rather than crossed. Keep arms open and to your sides, rather than crossed or in motion.
2. Find a private, comfortable place to discuss the conflict
Both conflict and conflict resolution can be distracting to others. Find a place where you can work on the problem in private. Participants in the conflict resolution should be given equal seating arrangements. Consider having water available during the conversation.
3. Acknowledge that a problem exists
For the best chance at having a productive conversation, it’s helpful for all parties to agree there is a problem in the first place. Begin the conflict resolution by calmly sharing your take on what the conflict is and asking for the other individual or parties to share their experience. It’s important to use “I” statements, such as, "I feel like my ideas are not valued” instead of "You never listen to my ideas.” Avoid blaming the conflict on an individual and instead create a safe place for everyone to voice their opinion.
4. Agree to find a resolution
Once the problem has been acknowledged, everyone needs to agree that a resolution should be reached. If you are mediating a situation and one party does not readily agree to find a resolution, you may want to take them aside separately to understand why and how you can convince them to participate.
5. Work to understand the perspective of everyone involved
In most workplace conflicts, people are not trying to cause problems. Rather, most conflict commonly arises because of misunderstandings. Taking the time to listen to and understand the experience of your colleagues can make it easier to resolve a disagreement. (There are cases when people are actively trying to cause conflict. In these cases, HR may need to be involved sooner.)
6. Take note of what triggered the conflict
People may be under numerous unknown stressors which led to conflict. Factors such as deadlines, tiredness, family, health, hunger, burnout and others can all lead to heightened emotions that ignite conflict. Learning the triggers and stressors of the other involved parties can help you navigate or avoid a potential conflict in the future.
7. Identify opportunities for compromise
For most conflicts to be resolved, one or more parties must agree to a compromise. Being able to set aside pride or stubbornness at this stage of the resolution is essential. The resolution will feel best to everyone involved if all parties are able to compromise in some way. As you arrive closer to a resolution, look for areas where compromise is possible.
8. Agree on a plan for resolution
Ideally, at this point, each person should know how they contributed to the situation and be processing what they can do to make it better. Before ending the conversation, aim to create a plan for resolution that involves steps for each person involved. The resolution plan might include apologies and changes in behavior to prevent the same conflict from arising again. For example, if an employee feels like their ideas are not being valued by their manager, the plan for resolution may include the manager setting aside time in 1:1’s to listen to ideas the employee has written down throughout the week.
9. Check in to make sure the agreement is lasting
Follow-through is important in conflict resolution. The conversation may have gone well, but it will lose meaning if the plan for resolution isn’t being followed. Set expectations by scheduling a check-in point within a few days or weeks to revisit how everyone is feeling and ensure that everyone is following the agreed-upon plan.
10. Involve HR or another third party if the conflict continues
Hopefully following the above steps allows for the conflict to be resolved. However, there may be situations where one or more parties fail to cooperate, or the conflict escalates. In this situation, it’s best to involve HR or higher-level leadership.
If you are applying or interviewing for a job that requires conflict resolution skills, prepare examples of how you’ve managed conflict in the past. Be sure to include these examples on your resume in your skills or work experience sections. Practice discussing conflict resolution out loud so you’re ready to answer interview questions on the topic.