How to encourage conflict conversations at work

If handled constructively, workplace conflict can lead to improved relationships and enhanced performance, writes Tania Coke.

When workplace conflict is handled badly, the outcome can be ugly: toxic atmospheres, destructive relationships, shattered self-esteem and high rates of sickness absence and employee turnover. But when handled well, conflict can deepen relationships, raise self-awareness, spark creativity and fuel financial performance.

If we treat conflict as something inherently negative that must be eliminated at all costs, we lose out on all the inherent positive potential. In many situations, we should, in fact, be trying to encourage conflict – of the right kind. Here are some tips on how to create constructive conflict conversations in the workplace.

Five ways to open up conflict conversations

1. Invite everyone to share their perspectives. When discussing a controversial topic, make it your aim to discover perspectives that you had never thought of, rather than imposing your perspective on others. Make a point of inviting opinions, especially from people who don’t often speak up.

2. Ask questions to delve deeper into people’s perspectives. Don’t be content with a superficial level of understanding. Enquire further, to understand the reasons behind their thoughts and feelings.

3. Check whether you have understood correctly. Reflect people’s opinions back to them to check your comprehension and tease out any misunderstandings.

4. Brainstorm alternative perspectives. Having heard from everyone in the meeting, take time to uncover your collective blind spots through questions such as: How else could we think about this? What if we look at it from a different angle?

5. Seek out additional perspectives. Consider how the conversation might be opened up to other staff members on other occasions. Who else in the organisation or beyond could be consulted? Where and when could the conversation be continued in order to shed new light on the issue?

There is, of course, the risk that opening up a conflict conversation in this way will stir up bitterness and rivalry and fail to result in closure. But there are ways to minimise this risk.

Five tips to guide conflict conversations

1. Remember there are multiple perspectives on every issue. No one has a monopoly on the truth. Even if you disagree with someone’s opinion, it can be helpful to understand where it comes from.

2. Establish a principle of confidentiality, if appropriate. Often, we hold back from expressing ourselves through fear of the repercussions. For sensitive and controversial issues, it can help to agree at the start that what is said will not be repeated outside the room.

3. Take responsibility for what you say and do. Look for things that you can do to make a difference, rather than pointing the finger at others and making demands of other people.

4. Remember that people express themselves in many different ways. Often in conflict situations, logical people are driven crazy by the expression of emotions, while emotional people feel enraged when forced to express themselves through cold logic. When everyone acknowledges the diversity of human expression – logic, emotions, body language, doubts, inconsistencies – conflict becomes a springboard for personal development and the deepening of trust and relationship.

5. Distinguish between different stages of the conflict conversation. Conflict conversations are made up of two fundamental stages: the open exchange of perspectives, and the process of making decisions and designing solutions.

Both are important, but Western culture is heavily biased towards the latter. Ideally, we should be clear whether the conversation needs to cover both or just one of these stages. If a decision is needed by the end of the meeting, plan for it: by what time must it be made? Who needs to be involved in the decision making?

It may be that everyone in the team needs to contribute to the broad lines of the solution, but only a smaller group is needed to finalise the details.

If we can encourage these types of conflict conversations as early as possible, workplace mediation and formal process should become a last resort for employees.

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