Dealing with conflict at work - holding honest conversations

Conflict crops up sooner or later at work and what can start as a small feeling of discomfort or unease can escalate into misunderstanding and then onward through a sudden (or maybe not sudden) discernible tension and ultimately to crisis.

Holding honest conversations at work at the first stage of this 'conflict curve' is how to deal with it in the most healthy way.  If you leave it any later then short exchanges turn into longer, poorer communication, laden with negative attitudes.  If you've reached crisis then normal functioning becomes difficult, behaviour is affected and extreme actions are contemplated or even executed.

So to repeat - viewing conflict as a healthy way to resolve things is the right attitude to have.  If you haven't had to hold an honest conversation or it's the last thing you want to do - don't avoid it.  It can be daunting, but at some point emotional maturity has to kick in and you need to view it as a learning and growth opportunity.

Checklist for difficult conversations

Work on yourself - prepare for the conversation. Before going into the conversation, ask yourself some questions:

  1. What’s your purpose?
  2. What assumptions are you making?
  3. Which buttons (your values) are being pressed?
  4. What's your attitude?
  5. What about the other person?
  6. Needs, fears and concerns
  7. How have you contributed? 

Taking each of these in turn:

1. What is your purpose for having the conversation? What would be an ideal outcome?  You may think you have honourable goals only to notice that your language is excessively critical or condescending. Some purposes are more useful than others. Work on yourself so that you enter the conversation with a supportive purpose.
2. What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions? You may feel intimidated, ignored, disrespected, or marginalised, but be cautious about assuming that that was their intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent.
3. What “buttons” of yours are being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Take a look at your “back story,” as they say in the movies. What personal history is being triggered? You may still have the conversation but you’ll go into it knowing that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.
4. How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it? If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.
5. Who is the person on the ‘receiving end’? What might they think about this? Are they aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What solution do you think they would suggest? Begin to reframe the recipient as a partner.
6. What are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Have it out with yourself, don't resist them or use them as a weapon against yourself or others.
7. How have you contributed to the problem/challenge/issue? How have they?

Getting better every day

  • Practice, practice, practice! The art of honest conversations is like any art – with continued practice you acquire the skill.
  • You can create better working relationships, ease communication problems and improve the quality of your work and team environment. 

Five suggestions

  1.  A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (supportive, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say.
  2. Acknowledge emotional energy – yours and theirs – and direct it towards a useful purpose.
  3. Know and return to your outcome at difficult moments.
  4. Don’t take verbal attacks personally.
  5. Don’t assume they can see things from your point of view.