Some people feel comfortable with conflict. They see it as a necessary step on the path to positive change. Others avoid it like the plague. Whatever your tendency, it is an inevitable part of life, and, in the workplace particularly, it pays to know how to address, manage, and overcome friction and conflicts.
Those who face and resolve workplace conflicts successfully typically possess a particular attribute—emotional intelligence, or EQ. EQ is the ability to look at a situation objectively and without allowing our biases or emotions to cloud our judgment.
This article explains what it takes to resolve conflicts for others and ourselves, the role of emotional intelligence, and offers tips on how to handle conflict in the workplace.
Conflict resolution strategies find a path where two parties can move forward toward a mutual goal. It begins in a place of contention and ends at agreement, and, ideally, partnership.
When two parties are in conflict, they are at different ends of a spectrum. Unless one party is forced to accept the will of the other, a meeting in the middle (resolution) requires negotiation. But conflict management skills and negotiation calls for something not everyone has—EQ.
The ability to empathize is a large component of EQ. People with high EQ recognize that they have innate biases, but they strive to put them aside and take a more objective stance so that they can understand a conflict situation from all points of view.
For example, let’s say a software engineer has developed a product that they want to take to market, but the product manager has decided to shelve the product. The software engineer disagrees completely with the decision, so executive leadership is pulled in to resolve the conflict.
The executive, regardless of what they think of the product in question, should consider both the software engineer’s perspective and the product manager’s reasons for shelving the product and then try to find a way for the two parties to agree on an outcome.
Only by assuming a neutral stance can the executive suggest a path that works for everyone. Here’s how to hone your EQ, take an objective approach, and resolve conflicts.
When challenged, our default is to become defensive. But good leaders with high EQ recognize defensiveness as an indicator of either innate biases, emotions, or a trigger that they should really address.
For example, let's say a product manager decides to allocate engineering resources to one product. However, management later directs them to reallocate resources to another product the manager considers nonviable and certainly less profitable. The product manager is likely to be defensive and cling to their original decision for valid reasons and because they are emotionally invested in the initial product.
Rather than becoming defensive, a better and more objective approach is to first understand the rationale behind the management decision and then to use data to show why it is not a good idea.
Part of not being defensive is learning to listen actively. Make it your mantra to listen first when assessing conflict. Why? Because listening is data gathering. Active listening is understanding the whole message that is being transmitted. That means not only hearing the words but understanding the context and watching for non-verbal communication.
In order to reach a resolution, you first have to understand two opposing points of view. Listening skills include understanding that you have innate biases but silencing them so that you can understand the other person’s perspective. Biases can be based on culture, experiences, education, or beliefs, so cultural and leadership training is useful in helping us be more aware of our shortcomings and more open-minded.
Part of listening is also interpreting nonverbal cues. A person’s body language can reveal whether they are open to negotiation (sitting forward with interest) or resistant (sitting with arms folded). What a person is saying may not align with their behavior, so take this into account.
Resolving conflicts for others is one thing, but if a conflict is your own, it’s another. That said, there is a way to practice EQ and approach conflict management rationally. It is hard to put your own emotions aside in a personal conflict, but you can be aware of them and manage them.
For example, try to depersonalize the situation. If a peer, manager, or team member has a complaint about you, take a step back and role-play the context. Would someone else have made the same decisions you made if they were in your situation? Is it about you, or is it about the decisions you made? If you can feel confident that the decisions you made were the right ones, that will help you to stand your ground.
It might be a good idea to bring in a facilitator from human resources or a third party if your efforts leave unresolved conflict. A third party will look at a problem objectively and identify solutions. However, it is up to the parties involved to be open to a resolution and to work toward problem-solving.
Feeling angry is natural. It is not something to be ignored but something to be used to your advantage. However, there is a time and place for processing anger, and the workplace is not one of them.
Great leaders and people with high EQ recognize their anger and compartmentalize it. Try channeling your anger in positive ways, at the gym, or when you are tackling a difficult task and need motivation. It’s easier said than done, but remain calm and composed in the workplace.
In the first place, both parties must be willing to work toward a resolution. If one party refuses to address the conflict, progress will stall. If a mutual goal can be identified, that often helps to start a conversation.
Sometimes just being open to a discussion can be the first step in seeing others' viewpoints and finding a path forward. Still, there has to be a goal in mind. Start small. The first goal could simply be that each party agree to a meeting with a third party to explain their position.
Being in conflict is an unpleasant and even painful experience. Human beings are built to escape pain as quickly as possible. However, conflicts can take time to resolve, and those with high EQ keep calm and are patient while a situation plays out. Many of us try to rush and resolve an issue in the quickest possible way, but doing so may not uncover the underlying issues that must be addressed.
Effective conflict resolution requires taking the time to investigate and resolve the root causes of conflict. It's not just treating the symptoms.
Conflict is stressful, and it can be easy to feel negative. However, it’s important to stay positive in the work environment and use your communication skills to set a good example for those around you.
Encourage team building, and include everyone in decisions to address team conflict yearly. Focus on staff well-being , and advocate stress management with work-life balance policies. There is always a way to resolve a conflict, and doing so is easier if everyone feels supported. This will promote working toward a common goal, however gradual the steps.
Learning leadership skills takes self-awareness, and developing EQ takes practice. The more you exercise your EQ muscles—practice staying calm, listening objectively, staying positive, and not taking things personally—the more EQ will become second nature.
The bottom line is that conflict is inevitable, and it leads to progress. It’s about getting two opposing ideas to meet on common ground where both can move ahead toward a mutual goal. Even if the distance between the involved parties seems far, just one step can bring them closer together and is a win-win. Practice EQ, and you’ll soon have everyone coming to you with their problems!