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Conflict is unavoidable. As human beings with competing needs and priorities, we are bound to have moments of disagreement and tension. Now that many of us are returning to the office after a year of working from home, we may be reminded of how easy it is to butt heads at work.

If handled correctly, conflict can serve as an opportunity for creative solutions and innovation in the workplace. In fact, studies have shown that when teams of people can successfully navigate through conflict, they feel more bonded and trusting of each other on the other side. However, when conflict is repressed or when it escalates without proper conflict management tools, it can result in passive aggression, gossip, vindictiveness and other behaviors that can bring down the entire team. 

In addition, if the underlying source of the conflict is not addressed and resolved, it can cause the conflict to resurface, resulting in the same arguments over and over again. This can feel exhausting, overwhelming, and even reduce a person’s willingness to try to work towards compromise or mutually beneficial solutions.

If you are facing conflict in the workplace over any issue, big or small, here are five proven strategies that will help you communicate more effectively and ultimately achieve win-win solutions.

  1. Take time to cool off. When individuals are upset or angry about an important issue, their nervous systems are often activated in what is called “fight or flight’ mode. Adrenaline is pumping, the stress hormone cortisol is flooding the system, and it can be difficult to think calmly and logically. This is the body’s way of redirecting energy to protective mechanisms and often means that having an effective conversation will be challenging if not impossible. If you find yourself in the middle of a conflict, take time to yourself to calm down before engaging in a discussion about potential solutions.
  2. Listen for the other person’s needs. Humans share a set of basic needs. This includes physical needs like food and shelter, but also includes intangible needs such as respect, affection, autonomy and consideration. When these needs are threatened or are not being met, people sometimes take unhealthy or unhelpful actions in a desperate attempt to meet these needs. When involved in a conflict situation, try to focus on the needs of the other person—which are the same needs you have—as opposed to the specific points of disagreement. This will help you work toward a situation that benefits both parties.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Remembering that individuals in conflict situations are just trying to get their basic needs met can help increase empathy and can also reduce the temptation to take another person’s words or opinions personally. When you hear another person’s perspective or attitude as an attack or affront against you or your way of living, it is almost impossible not to get defensive. This will almost certainly exacerbate the situation instead of helping you find resolution. Try to remember that another person’s emotional state and outlook have much more to do about them than they do about you.
  4. Take turns. Shouting or talking over another person are never effective ways to work through conflict. In the heat of the moment, individuals often resort to these strategies when they are worried their voice won’t be heard. Ironically, it is difficult to take another person seriously when they are yelling at or interrupting you. If you are working through a controversial issue with another person, take turns speaking, listening and reflecting what the other person has to say. You may even want to set a timer to ensure each party has equal and adequate time to express their thoughts.
  5. Enlist the help of a third party. In matters of intense conflict, it is not always possible for two parties to resolve the issue on their own. In such cases, it can be helpful to have a third party moderate the conversation. Even if the third party is just a silent witness to the discussion, you may find the conflict is easier to work through when in the presence of another person. If you find yourself stuck in the same patterns of conflict, enlist the help of a neutral third party such as a trusted friend, a therapist, a lawyer or a professional mediator.

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