How To Professionally Resolve Conflict With A Coworker

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No matter your title, company, or industry, work will most likely cause you stress at some point. But one of the worst kinds of stress — the stomach-clenching, keep-you-up-at-night kind — occurs when there's friction between you and a colleague or boss. While varying opinions are crucial to making companies successful, they also mean disagreements are pretty much inevitable. So if you find yourself amidst some contention, it's essential to know strategies for resolving conflict in the workplace. And, for those focused on advancing their careers, these skills will only continue to benefit you as you progress in your career.

Ahead, two company leaders and a career coach — who've seen their fair share of animosity in the office — give their best advice for easing workplace tension. With insights on how to broaden your perspective, plan your approach, and decide when it's time to cut ties, these women are experts at navigating coworker conflicts. Whether you're at odds with a colleague or a supervisor, or you're a boss trying to mediate, you'll be able to feel more peace at work while contributing to a positive company culture. After all, when it comes to your job, there's nothing worse than a toxic work environment.

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Figure Out The Root Cause

Career coach Avery Roth says the first step to logically resolving a conflict is to view it objectively by depersonalizing it. In her experience, disagreements often stem from deep-rooted insecurities. "Understand that this conflict is not really about the details of the argument or the two of you in particular, but is instead likely to be an old storyline from your early years playing itself out in the work arena," she explains. For example, "It could be that your colleague’s constructive criticism of your work is triggering these old memories for you, and that’s why you feel defensive." She adds that certain dynamics can also spur tension, as opposed to the disagreement itself. "Look at the issue as if from above so that you cannot see the details. Is it a case of two people feeling threatened by each other? When you can interpret the dynamic, you can address it."

Whether you're working to make peace with a colleague or mediating between coworkers, Galena Stavreva, CEO of sparefare.net, says the rift often boils down to a lack of communication. "Most workplace issues I’ve seen are mainly due to a misunderstanding or misinterpreting a situation or statement," she says.

Go Directly To The Source

Many people avoid confrontation at all costs. But if there's tension brewing between you and a colleague (or boss), Andrea Blieden, U.S. general manager for The Body Shop, says the best thing to do is to go to them directly. In other words, there's no need to gossip with your work friends, or anyone but the other person involved. "This requires preparation, maturity, and being able to receive feedback in addition to giving it in a professional, non-antagonistic way," she continues. "This exercise also flexes the 'listening to learn muscle,' a communication skill which is critical in conflict resolution."

It may be a tricky subject to broach, but once you've worked through it, they'll probably appreciate that you took time to talk to them instead of going directly to your superior (more on that later).

Be Mindful Of Your Approach

When it's time to chat, it's best to approach your coworker with an easygoing demeanor and an open mind. Blieden says that these conversations are best done in person, in order to "pick up on social cues and reduce ambiguity."

Further, Stavreva recommends, "Smile and stay calm. Body language is just as important as what you say." As far as facilitating the conversation? "Explain what the issue is, and say how this makes you feel or how it is affecting your work. Ask them why they did or said the thing which is bothering you." The last, crucial step, is to listen. "Really try to understand where the person is coming from."

Roth adds that respect is key. "Respect yourself and the other person; your colleague’s ego is likely feeling threatened in some way if the disagreement scales into a conflict. So is yours. See that the solution here is compassion on both sides. Be the bigger person and prepare to discuss with your colleague in a neutral, respectful way so that you can both feel safe." She suggests using phrases like "I understand where you’re coming from" and "I’d really like for us to understand each other a bit better," while avoiding assumptions, judgements, or finger-pointing.

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Know When To Enlist Help

"If a one-on-one conversation does not seem to change anything, then I suggest direct managers get involved," Blieden says. "[It will] help solve the problem at their level and hold their team accountable to what needs to change on both sides." If this still yields no results, or the conflict in question is with your direct manager, she advises getting senior management and HR involved.

Be Willing To Apologize & Move On

Apologizing can be difficult, especially if you know you were in the right. But for the sake of re-establishing harmony — and proving you're a team player — it's an important step to take. "The power of a simple apology is often underestimated," Stavreva points out. And chances are, somewhere along the way, there was a bit of fault on both sides.

Roth says to take it a step further by learning to be grateful for the growth opportunity. "See [the person you disagreed with] as your teacher and appreciate that they came into your life to help you resolve this conflict. Taking this 'attitude of gratitude' will allow you to build a relationship with them, or at the very least to smile and mean it."

Realize When It's Time To Part Ways

Unfortunately, there are situations where conflicts linger on. Roth says it might be time to seek other employment opportunities "when you sense your voice is not being heard or respected, and it makes you feel uncomfortable in the workplace."

"All issues have to be talked about and resolved," Stavreva adds. "If [your boss is] a good leader, they will be happy to hear you out and take steps to improve the situation. If that does not happen, perhaps this is not the right company for you. No one should put up with a toxic work environment for the sake of a paycheck."

Blieden shares that turbulence with superiors is, in fact, a major cause for quitting. "Ninety percent of people leave their job because of their bosses," she says. "This is something managers need to constantly remind themselves of. People work for people, and managers have a huge role in employee retention."

But on the flip side: If you're a boss who's been dealing with quarrelsome employees? "You have to assess if these people are the right fit for your company culture and ask, do they have the qualities you want working on your brand?"