Follow these three steps to manage interpersonal conflict in the workplace.

Among the most critical and important skills employees on all levels of an organization can possess is the ability to manage interpersonal conflict.

Job insecurity — fueled by fears of downsizing, mergers, the unstable economy and an unknown organizational future — produces fertile ground for the development of conflict.

Moreover, advances in technology, which often are viewed as threatening, magnify the potential for anger and frustration in the workplace.

Unresolved or insensitively managed conflict negatively impacts productivity and morale. Ultimately, the bottom line is affected. On the other hand, allowing conflict to surface and skillfully resolving it can be a platform for enhancing employee trust, team building and creativity.

The good news is you can easily learn conflict resolution strategies, put them into practice and teach your employees.

Several self-assessment questionnaires have been developed over the years giving people insight into how they react in typical conflict situations. The insight derived from scoring these questionnaires provides an understanding of what “buttons” get pushed when a person is provoked.

People resort to their own, idiosyncratic behavioral habits when experiencing conflict with others. These reactions include:

Non-productive behaviors: confronting, dominating, defending, using sarcasm, hostile humor, repressing emotions, insisting on being right, stonewalling and blaming.

Neutral behaviors: avoiding, cooling off, apologizing and giving in or backing off to avoid confrontation.

Positive behaviors: active listening, empathizing, disarming, inquiring, using “I feel” statements and recognizing how internal
dialogue impacts emotional reactions.
The goal is to eliminate negative and neutral behaviors and practice positive confrontation reduction skills until they become new habits. On average, these skills can be learned in only 21 days of concentrated practice.

The key to all interpersonal communications is genuine listening, as opposed to defensive listening during which you think about your retort while the other person is talking to you, thus not really listening.

To begin to really listen, start by paraphrasing what the other person says in your own words, without judging, agreeing or disagreeing. Listen to and reflect the content, needs and feelings of the other person.

For example, if someone is telling you about what they think is unfair in the way they were overlooked for a raise, the listener might reply: “It sounds like you believe we don’t really care about you enough to consider what you’ve done this year in determining whether to give you a raise.”

Notice this is not agreeing nor disagreeing with the complainer but is simply paraphrasing the words and emotions the listener believes the complainer is expressing.

Next, ask for feedback to determine whether you interpreted correctly. If you haven’t, ask for clarification. Continue this process until you’re sure you’ve heard what the other person is saying and feels emotionally.

By simply getting clarification to be sure you’ve heard what the complainer is talking about will go a long way toward defusing the negative emotions, changing them to a sense of feeling respected and listened to.

Once you’re certain you understand the message and feelings expressed by the other person, respond. The other person then listens and paraphrases for you. This process continues until you’ve both clarified your positions and are certain the other person also really heard and understands you.

Empathizing involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world through the other person’s eyes, taking into account cultural, racial, gender and experiential differences.

Remember, empathizing is understanding the complainer’s position from their perspective and with the information they have — it’s not necessarily agreeing with them. For example, “I understand you believe your work has been as good as Joe’s and he did receive a raise. So, you view this as unfair and personal.”

The fastest way to defuse an argument is to find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you don’t agree with the basic criticism or complaint. For example, saying “I can understand how you’d feel angry with me since you believe Joe’s work is no better than yours and I did give him a raise,” acknowledges and validates the angry person’s feelings without actually agreeing with what was said.

This opens the door to clarification, feedback and reconciliation. By asking for clarification of ideas, needs and feelings you signal a feeling of respect and can then work toward mutual understanding and compromise.

“I feel” statements are a primary skill in interpersonal communications. Expressing yourself with such statements as, “I’m feeling sad and hurt because you believe I’m being unfair to you” is much more productive than the accusatory, “Now you’re making me sad and hurt, and I don’t like feeling that way.”

In the first scenario, you take responsibility for your own feelings and share them; in the second, you escalate the confrontation by blaming and putting the person on the defensive.

In addition, you tell the other person specifically what you need that will make you feel good or what can be done to improve the relationship and avoid further misunderstandings and confrontations.

For example: “I have a list of criteria involved in determining when someone is entitled to a raise. You’re only looking at one of them when you decide I’m being unfair. Let’s discuss how you can improve in the other areas so you can earn a raise next time.”

The key to analyzing your vulnerability to being provoked into confrontations is to understand how your automatic thoughts, including your assumptions and conclusions, cause every emotional reaction.

Examples of these distortions include: “He shouldn’t keep bugging me about a raise.” (using “should,” “must” and “have to” in judging someone’s actions); “My employees don’t really care how difficult my job is” (reading your employees’ minds about what they must be thinking and feeling); “Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this job … it’s constant pressure” (fortune telling about your incompetence or the future); and “I must have been stupid for taking this job” (negatively labeling yourself instead of describing your behavior as unfortunate or unproductive).

Once you learn about the distortion habits in your automatic thinking, you can learn how to challenge them and develop more rational, alternative thoughts. The end result is actually dissolving negative emotions and a healthy, reasonable outlook on every situation in which you find yourself.

Interpersonal conflict is healthy when it brings a rich sharing of ideas, mutual respect and an understanding and appreciation of diverse opinions, needs and values.

Teaching your employees to understand how they traditionally react in conflict situations and how to develop skills to reduce confrontation leads to greater trust, less stress, more creativity and can ignite the team. The ultimate benefits are enhanced quantity and quality of products and services.

Dr. Jack Singer is a licensed industrial/organizational and sports psychologist, professional speaker and consultant to Fortune 1000 corporations from Miami to Malaysia. The author of four stress mastery books, Dr. Jack presents customized growth and development, motivational and inspirational keynotes and workshops for organizations, conferences and associations. Dr. Jack can be reached at or 800-497-9880. Visit for additional information.


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