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How to deal with workplace conflict directly, even when you feel afraid

Addressing issues head-on will prevent future problems from compounding.

How to deal with workplace conflict directly, even when you feel afraid
[Photo: Vincent van Zalinge/Unsplash]

People generally think of conflict as a negative experience and want to either avoid it or suppress it. But conflict is a fact of life any time people are working together—and it has benefits as well. The key is knowing how to handle it effectively—and developing awareness of your style and advancing your skills.

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Despite conflict’s bad rap, it can be helpful when it’s managed well. When conflicts emerge, they can point to issues that are causing problems, or that need to be improved. Conflict also can be a signal that people feel empowered to share their points of view and differences of opinion openly—a sign of a healthy culture. And healthy conflict also can drive conversations forward, uncovering underlying assumptions and creating the opportunity to learn from each other. As the saying goes, “A boat that isn’t going anywhere doesn’t make any waves.” Conflict can be an indication of people who have passion and situations that are progressing forward.

The benefits of confronting conflict

But for people and companies to recognize these benefits, conflict must be healthy. It must exist in a culture of overall respect for people and their differences. Your own approach to conflict can make a difference in your own experience, but it also can contribute to positive conditions around you.

Too often, people default to one conflict style and overuse it. For example, people may avoid conflict or procrastinate on dealing with issues, allowing the conflict to fester and become magnified over time. Or some people may be aggressive or confrontational about everything from significant issues to minor challenges. A better way to deal with conflict is to be aware and intentional about situations and about your responses to them.

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Tuning into your awareness

When you’re deciding how to deal with a conflict at work, it’s wise to start with personal awareness. When you feel yourself getting frustrated or emotional, reflect on your reactions. Ask yourself whether you’re annoyed with the substance of someone’s points or whether it’s their style that’s pushing your buttons. Also consider whether you’re especially emotional due to your unique circumstances. Consider whether someone else in the same situation would also be as concerned, and give yourself permission to back down from your frustration by reframing. Perhaps someone has challenged data you’ve developed for a report. Your emotional reaction may be driven by the huge investment of time you’ve made in pulling together the analysis or your penchant for perfectionism, but you can reduce your frustration by realizing the benefits of criticism to make the report better overall.

Also be aware of your context. If the culture of your organization leans toward open discussions and especially assertive opinions but you’re more comfortable with less confrontation, you may struggle. In this case, you might seek to build your tolerance for disagreement and shore up your confidence for healthy debates in which you stand your ground and make a strong case for your opinions.

Further, empower yourself to choose your battles. The country has become increasingly polarized, and debates can be divisive. Within this climate, every disagreement can feel like a battleground, and every infraction can seem monumental—but you can manage your thinking and your responses and recognize that there are some conflicts that don’t warrant a lot of your energy.

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A colleague may prefer a certain approach for a workshop you’re co-facilitating, and you prefer an alternate approach—but you may decide the matter isn’t that important to you. On the other hand, you may be making a joint customer presentation in which you deeply believe in your preferred messaging and want to advocate for it strongly. Be intentional about when you stand up for what you prefer, and in which cases you can stand down because the issue is more important to someone else than it is to you.

Your options

Another hallmark of well-managed conflict is the ability to choose your own path and be intentional about it. You can strengthen your credibility when you’re able to adapt and make choices about how you respond to conflict.

  • Choose to confront. Sometimes, an issue is highly important to you, or you feel like a fundamental value has been compromised. If you’ve experienced a colleague being dishonest, this would be an example in which you may want to confront in an assertive and respectful manner—not backing down and not giving in.
  • Choose to acquiesce. On the other end of the continuum, you may choose to give in or stand down. This kind of response is perfectly appropriate when you have an opinion, but the issue isn’t as important to you, or when you know your coworker has more conviction about it than you do.
  • Choose to avoid. Avoiding conflict can also be a legitimate choice. Ask yourself whether the issue will be as important next week, next month, or next year. Sometimes, things that seem like a big deal today will be less important over the longer term. Picture yourself in the future and consider whether today’s issue is worth your energy or your emotion. Pull back and avoid when it’s not worth your investment.
  • Choose to compromise. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense for you to give in on your opinions, but neither does your colleague want to give up on theirs. In cases like this, compromise can be the best of both worlds. Neither of you gets your needs fully met, but you both get some of what you wanted. Perhaps the proposal can be organized around their preferences for the flow of ideas, but include the terms that were most important to you.
  • Choose to collaborate. For some things, the issues are highly important to you and also to others. In these cases, it makes sense to put more time, energy, and effort into sharing differences of opinion and coming to solutions that may be better than what either side originally considered. In the debate about product features, you develop a new solution none of you had originally considered or recommended—and the confrontation results in a completely better alternative.

No matter what approach you take, be sure it fits with your own values, with the culture of the organization, and with the issue you’re facing. No style works for everything, so your ability to adapt and shift will be key to your success and the best outcomes.

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Conflict can feel like a gut punch; but you can talk yourself down, take a breath, and make good decisions about how to approach the situation so others can hear you and so you can work through issues constructively.

You also can be a positive influence on people and situations around you when you take the high road and retain positive relationships. You will disagree with others. You’ll have different political beliefs. You’ll see things through a variety of lenses, but a deep respect for others and for their rights to differences of opinion are core to cultures in which everyone can learn, grow, and feel part of a respectful community.


Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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