Four Mindful Ways to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

Interpersonal and Communication Skills - © Performance Management Consultants

Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence. And while we can’t eliminate conflict in our personal and professional lives, what we can do is work with it to minimize negative impacts and use any dispute to our advantage, as a learning lesson to glean wisdom from in the future.

At a base level, conflict occurs when two or more parties disagree with each other on an issue.  At times conflict is easily resolved, while in other cases it can prove much more difficult, causing high levels of stress and anxiety.

Conflict can occur anywhere, in any type of setting and with any type of relationship. But of all the places you may encounter conflict, the workplace is one of the trickiest and most stressful. Your job is important to you; it’s your livelihood and your day to day, and any conflict within that space can trigger self-doubt, nervousness, anxiety and lower productivity based on the energy that goes into processing and resolving the conflict. The way you approach conflict can have a positive or negative impact on your work life, depending on the route you chose.

While conflict is unavoidable, there are ways to cope with it mindfully and consciously, for the greater good of all involved. Heck, you might even learn something valuable if you’re able to mitigate the conflict in a mindful manner.

But wait – what exactly does it mean to resolve conflict mindfully? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. Resolving conflict in a mindful manner simply means being aware of all sides, remaining as calm as you can, and keeping your wits about you. It means remaining focused on the issue at hand and being determined to reach resolution fairly and respectfully. If you’re feeling stuck with a conflict in the workplace, no matter the size and shape of that issue, taking time for careful consideration of your next step and looking at the problem honestly often leads to faster and more authentic problem solving.

Taking a mindful approach to resolving conflict involves going within to take an introspective look at the disagreement before responding. It means carefully considering all angles and truly putting conscious thought into resolution.

When you can tune into your thoughts and feelings while simultaneously considering the thoughts and feelings of all parties involved, that brings on a power that’s difficult to argue with. Empathy and perspective have a miraculous ability to break down walls, so if you can master them, you’ll be well on your way to calmer waters.

Here are four tried and tested ways to mindfully manage conflict.

1. Take some space.

Ever hear the saying “Cooler heads prevail?” Well, it holds a lot of truth. If someone comes at you with an unexpected conflict, the first few moments are crucial. You’re likely to be feeling a variety of emotions, from anxious to confused, and maybe even angry and resentful.

Often the best thing to do while conflict is new and fresh (and may well have caught you off guard) is to step away and take some personal space before someone says or does something they may regret later. Simply say something like, “I can see that we have something we need to resolve here. This is a priority and I don’t want to downplay it, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment and I need time to process it.” Let the other party know when and where you wish to revisit the issue (whether it’s in five minutes after you’ve had some time to check in with yourself or the next day over coffee), and hold yourself to your word.

You don’t want to use space as a blow-off tool; rather, you want to use it to your advantage by allowing it to diffuse the tension so that the conflict can be revisited from a calmer place with fresh clarity.

2. Listen.

Now, this may seem like a no-brainer, but the truth of the matter is that it can be very difficult to really listen to someone you’re involved in a conflict with. Even after you’ve taken the space we discussed in step one, chances are that emotions are still running high — and we can all admit that it’s tough not to be defensive when you feel you’re being called into question.

When you’re hearing things you may not like or agree with, the urge to interrupt and state your case can be a challenge to fight off. This is particularly true if the other person involved is displaying angry or accusatory behaviour. Of course, if you’re being screamed at, name-called, or bullied in any way, that’s something that should never be tolerated, and other measures should be taken.

However, if the other party is expressing anger, disappointment or frustration in a non-threatening manner, do your best to really hear them out. You may learn something from what they’re saying, but if your ears and mind are closed to another perspective, resolution will be difficult to find.

Listening is not simply about waiting for someone else to finish speaking so that you can have your turn. We all have an intrinsic desire to express our own thoughts immediately, but you’ll get your chance. Maintain eye contact, don’t interject, and really hear what’s being said. To do this, you will need to get in touch with the inner voice that wants so badly to interject, and you will need to kindly tell it to be quiet. This requires restraint and self-control both of which are essential to solving conflict mindfully. All sides must be heard and considered in order to reach a resolution that works for everyone.

3. Meet eye to eye.

Literally. Do not, repeat, do not attempt to resolve substantial conflict through technology, unless you have no other choice. Conflict can certainly be resolved with email, however, if you can make an eye-to-eye or voice-to-voice conversation happen, it’s worth your while to do so. Emails and text messages leave a lot to be desired in terms of tonality. Something that was not meant as sarcastic or condescending may well come across that way when communicated in writing.

Consider also that the recipient’s mood at the time they receive the email will greatly impact how they interpret (or misinterpret!) your intended message. A face- to-face meeting is the best way to approach conflict resolution, so that you can gauge tone, body language, and engage in eye contact.

If you absolutely can’t resolve the issue in person, insist on a video chat or phone call, unless the conflict is so minor and easy to resolve that a quick email can clear it up. Engaging in a video or phone conversation eliminates the anxiety of waiting in between responses, lending an immediacy to the resolution. Crossed wires, missed emails, miscommunication — as wonderful as technology is, it doesn’t always have a place in certain situations. Humanizing conflict is one of the best ways to rectify it.

4. Shift your language.

This simple trick is an extremely effective way to reduce the tension and steer the ship away from chaotic conflict towards more serene shores. The words you choose, and the manner in which you say them, are everything. Here are some tips on how to frame your case with positive language:

• Try to avoid “You Statements”, as they can get people’s backs up immediately. “You did this, you said that, you started it”, these are all phrases that do nothing to ease the conflict and instead come off as attacking and accusatory.

Try using “I Statements”. Instead of calling the person out, shape the statement based on how the action made you feel and what it made you think. For example, instead of saying, “You are being difficult”, “You are so confusing”, or “Why are you acting this way?”, try something like, “I feel that this is a difficult situation and would like to resolve it”, “I am confused by this”, or “I am trying to understand your perspective, and I need your help with this.”

When humans feel that we are being questioned or accused, defensiveness is a natural response. And during conflict, the last thing you want to do is create more opposition, so be mindful that you are not making statements which could come off as an attack.

“I” Statements are clear, concise, blame-free statements taking ownership of your thoughts and feelings. They allow you to disagree in a respectful, non-confrontational way. Unlike “Accusing Statements” they don’t put others on the defensive.

• Kill it with kindness. We’re not suggesting you get all sycophantic with this — we’d never suggest trying to solve conflict through false flattery. But if you can find one redeeming quality about the person to mention during the conflict, it shifts the situation into more positive and less tense territory. For example: “I appreciate you coming to me with this. It takes courage to bring up difficult topics”, “I disagree with you about [A], but I want to mention that the way you handled [B] was really impressive. Maybe we can apply a technique like that to this situation.”

When you can genuinely find the good in someone even as they’re coming to you with negativity, they won’t be able to stop their brain from responding to the positivity. It will soften and lighten the mood and open up smoother communication.

• Use the Assertiveness Formula. This formula is a comprehensive, virtually foolproof way to put assertiveness into action and resolve conflict respectfully and mindfully.

Here’s an example of the Assertiveness Formula: “When you leave your papers all over the conference room, the clutter makes me feel disorganized and unprofessional. Out of respect for others, I would prefer if you would clean up when you’re done and leave the room the way you found it.”

When you’re stating feelings, remember these tips:

• State feelings, not evaluations
• State feelings, not solutions
• State feelings directly
• Avoid yelling and certainly avoid negative words. Keep your tone calm and level, and match your words to it. Use positive affirmations like “I hear you/I am listening/I see your point/let’s resolve this together”, etc. Make it clear to the other party that you consider this conflict to be a team project, not a personal attack and not necessarily even a bad thing. Approach conflict as a team and you’ll walk away from it as a team.

In the modern workplace, conflict is impossible to evade. But with a little finesse, a lot of heart and the willingness to look within as well as to open your mind to the perspectives of others involved, you can resolve any conflict in a mindful manner. With these tips, you should be able to shift your next workplace dispute, transforming conflict and creating positive change through effective, co-operative resolution.

To learn more about this important topic, why not register for a PMC workshop on Assertiveness and Conflict Resolution? You’ll have the opportunity to practice dealing with conflict in a safe environment. Register today online or call us at 613-234-2020 and we’ll do the rest.

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