3 Ways to Have a Successful Conflict Conversation in the Workplace

Posted by Ash Wall on Jun 7, 2016 12:47:07 PM


Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Dealing with the conflict through a meaningful conversation is always preferable to letting it simmer, and to have that conversation be a success, it pays to prepare. We all prepare for these conversations in some way. Often times, not constructively. “When he brings up this point, I’ll bring up that one!,” we think, like George Costanza in Seinfeld and his famous jerk store line – planning out the moment when you’ll prove your coworker's point wrong with a witty repartee, solving the issue once and for all.

Like many of his plans, the jerk store line didn’t work for George partially because it’s George, and organizing a trip around saying just one line is almost never a good idea, but also because that’s not how conflict conversations work. Not everything can be resolved in a single sitting. Yet when we have that conversation with a colleague too often we focus on resolving the disagreement when there are other, more productive approaches to take.

Expand Your Thinking:

Not every conflict conversation should, or can, lead to resolution. If you and a colleague fundamentally disagree about the direction of a project, and you enter a discussion with the mindset that the only thing that will qualify as success is resolution, you will often be disappointed. Even if one of your directions prevail, the other person can leave the conversation resentful, frustrated, and disengaged. The matter may be "resolved," but that's not a positive outcome. Resolution is just one of three possible outcomes of a successful conflict conversation:

  • Resolution: Creating a practical solution to the conflict that results in a definitive solution or a meaningful step forward.
  • Relationship Building: Finding greater connectivity and bonding between people involved in conflict.
  • Learning: Generating additional information, perspective, or understanding about the nature of the conflict.

Really any conversation that advances one of these three without torpedoing the others is a success. Think carefully before you have a conversation. Which of these approaches would be most productive here? Is there something I’m missing that would help me understand the current situation or our entire relationship better? Sometimes the best conversation is the one that sets up the next conversation.

George Costanza spent all that time and effort coming up with and delivering the "jerk store” line. What he should have done was put the need to resolve the conflict aside and focus on building the relationship or learning what his colleague’s motivations were. But that’s just not George’s style. Perhaps it’s something that could have been addressed at the next Airing of Grievances.

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Topics: Organizational Culture, Workplace Culture, Conflict, Navigating Conflict