In a team atmosphere, conflict can be perfectly healthy—but handling it can be difficult if you don’t have the right norms in place.
In our Dec. 10 Quartz at Work (from home) workshop, consultant, coach, author, and podcast host Dian Killian offered a framework for effectively managing workplace conflict. It starts not with confrontation, but rather with a four-step exercise in self-management that makes it much easier to isolate the problem and find a resolution.
Watch the replay by clicking the image above, or read on for our recap. You can also learn more about Killian’s work at workcollaboratively.com.
The four steps
Step one: Observe and recap. Think of something challenging you recently heard—a boss telling you an account would be handed to someone else, a colleague making a comment that you found to be insensitive, a direct report telling you the project won’t be finished on time. Recall the words that triggered you and write them down verbatim if you can.
Step two: Connect with how you’re feeling. Are you annoyed? Fatigued? Confused? Concerned? Disconnected? Uncomfortable? There are literally dozens and dozens of words you might choose from—Killian shared a handy list of them, along with another handout geared toward common feelings and needs in the workplace. When you determine what you are feeling, you want to be as precise as possible, while also avoiding any judgment about it.
Step three: Understand what you want. What are you looking for at work, or from this particular situation—not in a strategic way, but at a core level? Maybe it’s support or respect or inclusion. Maybe it’s engagement, commitment, or accountability. Maybe it’s growth, balance, or fun (you’re entitled to all of that at work, too). Articulate the thing you need, the thing that’s not being met in this moment of conflict.
Step four: Decide what will move things forward. If it’s something requiring an action from someone else, make the ask—as a request, not a demand. But you might even find that the thing you need is something you can ask of yourself.
Other tips to keep in mind when you’re engaged in conflict
Recap, recap, recap. In the midst of a heated discussion—or any discussion, really—it can be useful for each person to recap what the other is saying. This involves using statements like, “So what I hear you saying is…,” and repeating what you’ve heard without passing judgment.
Why bother with this? It fosters connection, which is a key ingredient to conflict resolution, while promoting accuracy and a shared understanding. It can clear up misinterpretations or even de-escalate a heated moment if the other person, upon hearing their words reflected back to them, decides to recant and choose their words differently. (Another worksheet Killian shared offers more detail on recapping skills, including how to ask the person you’re sparring with to recap what they’re hearing from you.)
Make your requests concrete and doable. Want more teamwork? Tell your team what that looks like. Want more support from your boss? Explain specifically what you need. Otherwise, you’re bound to sow confusion and frustration. “Especially if you’re a manager or collaborating with other people,” Killian says, “be clear about what you’re asking them to do.”
Don’t be afraid to confront in the moment. If you’re interrupted in a meeting, you don’t have to accept it, stew on it, and then awkwardly raise the episode with the offending person at some later date when they might not even remember having done it. Just speak up, Killian advises, saying something along the lines of, “I hear you coming in with an idea; I just need a minute to finish what I’m saying.”
Empathizing with the other. If a conflict has you thinking about how you’re feeling and what you’re needing out of the situation, don’t forget to also ask yourself what you think the other person is feeling or needing. It might be at odds with your own needs, but you’ll be able to go into the next conversation with a lot more empathy, another key ingredient for conflict resolution.