In all long-term relationships, including professional ones, interpersonal friction is bound to arise. For many people, the natural (and comfortable) response to confrontation is to avoid it entirely, but this is not always the most sensible option. If you believe that a dispute may have an adverse impact on your workplace, it is generally wiser to intervene early and decisively, before the issue has time to fester.
That said, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. The same qualities that contribute to individual professional success—like drive, ambition, creativity, and self-confidence—can cause members of a team to butt heads on occasion. Knowing how to manage this discord, and even channel it in a constructive direction, is an indispensable leadership skill.
Hear out all sides before drawing any conclusions. If a conversation is particularly heated, it may be useful to separate the parties involved, allow each to articulate her own position and objectives, and make a note of the key points each individual raises. Listen attentively, ask open-ended questions, and avoid taking sides during this process. Once all parties have had a chance to make their case, try to identify points of potential compromise, as well as areas that appear irreconcilable. This will allow you to map out workable solutions (and alternatives) that you can then discuss with each of the adversaries.
Identify the low-hanging fruit. Many conflicts are the product of trivial disagreements, inadvertent miscommunications, or misunderstandings. By listening carefully, you will be able to identify concerns that you can easily address.
Keep your eye on the ball. In emotionally potent situations, it’s easy to point fingers. During an impassioned argument, there is a common tendency to bring up the faults of one’s opponent, regardless of relevance to the matter at hand, purely in order to score points or inflict damage. But senseless bickering will only beget more of the same. In order to resolve a dispute favourably, maintain an assiduous focus on the source of the disagreement, avoiding distractions and ad hominem recriminations. If you find two or more members of your team engaged in an acrimonious exchange, you may find it useful to call a temporary ceasefire, and allow the contenders to cool off, before gently directing them back to the heart of the matter.
Maintain a sense of self-awareness if you become engaged in a conflict. This is another area in which emotional intelligence comes in handy, particularly an understanding of how your feelings affect you physically and psychically. Self-awareness is a precondition for keeping one’s passions in check at a stressful moment, which in turn is crucial for evaluating the facts and claims in a dispute, reasoning, problem-solving, and negotiation.
Conflicts can create opportunities, not just headaches. If approached calmly and rationally, disputes can yield novel perspectives, ideas, and solutions that may not have arisen in the absence of confrontation. When most people hear the saying, “Two heads are better than one,” they imagine a relationship that is largely collaborative and amicable. But real life tends to be messier than what we envision in our minds’ eye!
The key is to channel potentially antagonistic sentiments toward constructive goals. This can best be achieved by listening, keeping the conversation as respectful as possible, and focusing on concrete sources of disagreement and objectives, rather than personal failings.
This point is worthy of re-emphasis: if you believe an interpersonal issue is serious enough to generate animosity or discomfort in the workplace, it is almost always better to address it quickly and comprehensively, than to allow it to progress and harden.