How do you manage conflict and disagreements with workplace colleagues?

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert
Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

By Irvine Nugent

By Irvine Nugent

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Let’s face it, conflict happens, and happens quite a lot. Today I want to focus on eight ways that can change some of the conflict and disagreements you’re having and help you to make them constructive.

How do you approach conflict?

A recent survey I looked at said that 80% of people are presently having some sort of conflict at work, and 80% of those said that they needed some ideas, some form of tool that would help them resolve that conflict. Well, I hope they’re watching today because we’re going to look at eight ways that can help you move from conflict to agreement. When it comes to conflict, all of us have a story. All of us have a unique way of approaching conflict. Do you know your conflict story? You see, how we approach conflict is incredibly important. Are we self-aware enough to know what conflict does to us? Now there are three main ways I think that people approach conflict. One is to avoid it. So basically, conflict should be avoided at all costs and the behaviors that are generated here is that people will either shut down conflict, they’ll run away from it, or they’ll leave a situation that needs to be dealt with ever so long in the hope that the conflict will just go away. Then the second approach is that in some way we accommodate, we give in. So basically, a person comes, we’re in conflict and we just put our hands up and say “okay, whatever you want.” Now that’s a resolution in one way, but it’s really not going to resolve the underlying issues that are going on in that conflict. The third is to compete. This is the person that has to win at all costs and so conflict is something that is encouraged, something that they rush into and something that they need to win.

Where are you in that conflict continuum? Do you need to win? Do you avoid? Or do you just give up too soon? Those are important answers because it will help you deal with how you approach conflict.

Do you know how the other person approaches conflict?

The second approach is – do you know another person’s conflict story? So now that you know yours, are you able to look at the behaviors and the signs of others as they approach conflict? Because depending on where you land, it can lead to ever greater frustration. Let’s take an example: say you like to avoid conflict, the conflict has to be avoided at all costs, and say that you’re in a conflict with a person who likes to compete. What will happen will be frustration for each of you. Therefore, it becomes really important. Say that you like to compete, that you like to get stuck-in, that you like to really dive into an argument. Then you have to be sensitive to the fact that you could be dealing with someone who is uncomfortable, who does not like to be in the midst of conflict, and you may have to change your strategy if you are to bring that person to the table and have a really good discussion. Likewise, if you are someone who feels uncomfortable in conflict, you may have to adjust as well, knowing that a person who is comfortable in conflict might not necessarily be as aggressive as you think they are, but rather it’s just because of your discomfort that their comfort level makes that an uncomfortable situation for you. Learn the other person’s approach to conflict that can help you come to the beginning of a conversation, knowing how you feel and knowing how they feel when it comes to conflict.

Don’t make it personal

Try not to personalize the conflict. I see this happening time and time again in the workplace. What happens should be a discussion about an idea, a discussion about something over which there might be some tension or conflict and then, all of a sudden, a person personalizes it and takes it on themselves. Recently I was working with a marketing company and they had just won this amazing contract where they had to come up with this out of the box thinking for a new advertising campaign, and around the table all of these people were coming up with these wild ideas, and there was one person at the table who was asking questions. You know, for them it was “okay, these are great ideas, but how do we make this practical?” “How would we actually do this?” They were interjecting some thoughtful questions about how this would happen, and then all of a sudden one person they were asking questions to totally personalized it and said, “you’re always doing that to me. You’re always attacking me.” And really what the person was doing was just try to ask some good questions. But what had happened is that it had been personalized. A way that you know that you’re personalizing is that you’re using a lot of ‘you’ language. “You did this…”, “You make me feel…”, and a better way to approach that is to change the ‘you’ language into ‘I’ language. “This is how I feel when this happens”, “This is how I feel when you do this.” That in some way distances us and helps us really look at what’s at hand.

Listen Well

Number four is our ability to listen well. You see, sometimes we’re in the midst of conflicts and disagreements. We kind of only hear what we want to hear and that’s a problem because what we really want to hear is the whole conversation. Everything that the person is saying to us, we also just want to listen to the words. We also want to listen to all the other channels that that person is speaking through. Are we aware of some of the facial expressions? Are we noticing what’s happening in the body? Are we able to listen to the nuances of the person’s voice? That depends on really good listening skills. Are we able to be attentive to everything that is coming towards us? So therefore, it’s important that we develop our listening skills and notice the bias and notice if we’re not fully listening, but rather listening in order to win the argument.

Ditch the email

Always try and have the conversation in person. The reason I say that is because one of the problems with email is that we’re taking out of the conversation the recognition of what’s going on in their body and their face. We’re not hearing their voice, we’re just hearing words, and so often we have misconstrued words because they are in an email. If meeting a person is just not possible then pick up the phone, have a video conference if possible, give yourself enough data to really read what’s happening in that other person. So if you’re about to have a discussion that is somewhat emotionally charged or contentious, try and have that face to face. You’re going to get much more data to help you manage that conversation.

Use nonverbals to your advantage

Remember to use body language to your advantage. Whenever we are in conflict with another person, the worst thing that we can do is sit down at a table face-to-face. Why is that? Because face-to-face can spiral a conversation and it may become anger and angrier – the conflict may become more intense. Let me give you one nonverbal suggestion for de-escalating what could happen when we are face-to-face: why not sit side-by-side? It’s much more difficult to be in conflict with a person who is side-by-side. You know, I told this recently to a friend of mine and they came back to me a few weeks later and said “Oh my God, that’s amazing. I was having this real issue with my son and you know, we’re always in conflict at the moment. He’s a teenager, doesn’t want to listen to what I have to say, and we had one of the best conversations we’ve had in weeks. And you know what happened? You know where we had that conversation? Driving on the way to a school retreat that they had. We were an hour on the road and all of a sudden, we found ourselves having a really nice conversation for the first time in months” and she said it must have been that ability to sit side-by-side, which really helped. It’s amazing, some of the wonderful conversations we can have in the car whenever we are side-by-side.

Knowing when to let conflict in

Realize that there is a continuum when it comes to conflict. Patrick Lencioni, who wrote about the five dysfunctions of a team, when he was talking about conflicts said that at times, you know, most teams exist in artificial harmony. They exist in artificial harmony because they’re terrified that if they get into conflict they’re going to go to the other extreme, which is horrible infighting and backstabbing. And so, people would rather not raise issues. But we know that if we’re really going to be effective as a team, then we really have to argue about some of the important issues. And so, what he says is it’s really important that we have to move along and introduce some conflict into the discussion, because that’s what makes team meetings interesting, and that’s at the core of making really effective decisions. The important question therefore is: “are you living in artificial harmony, or have you the ability to introduce some areas of conflict which will lead to fruitful discussions about ideas?”

Be at your best

And finally, conflict takes energy. So, show up when you’ve got the most alertness and highest energy. You know, some of us are morning people, some evening people, afternoon people. Know where your peak energy is and use the time of day. Make sure you’re coming with full energy because then you’re going to be more alert, and you’re going to be able to recognize your triggers and be better able to manage some of the emotions that inevitably come up with conflict.

There you are, eight things to think about, to have better discussions and to manage perhaps the conflict or disagreements we have with colleagues. One of the common threads that’s weaved through all these eight tools that we’ve just mentioned is self-awareness. So, if you want to build your self-awareness, you need to watch the next video: ‘What is self-awareness and why is it important?’ Because it will give you tools to build that self-awareness and help you have better conversations and avoid some of the conflict we’ve been talking about in this room.

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

Irvine possesses fifteen-plus years in senior leadership roles in various organizations. Dr. Nugent is an approved Paul Ekman International Trainer and offers a wide range of workshops in the areas of emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, executive presence and lie detection which are based on the practical application of scientific research.
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