From War to Peace

Don't let a conflict at work fester—be assertive and get it resolved

Sooner or later it happens. A client gets angry with you; your manager disagrees with something you did; your co-worker gets annoyed at you for not doing a task that you don't recall agreeing to do. Conflict in the office is unpleasant and stressful—but inevitable. Learning how to resolve work-related disputes effectively is vital to success in your career. So what to do?

PHOTO: JOHN LAMB/GETTY IMAGES

Here's an instance from early in my career that taught me the importance of conflict resolution. When I was still a junior engineer, I was working on a transportation project to find ways for buses to avoid morning traffic congestion on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel into New York City. I sent some drawings to Richard, a senior traffic engineer whom I knew pretty well, to get his comments.

When I called him a few days later, Richard seemed very cold. Sensing something was wrong, I asked him, "Are you angry with me for some reason?" I think Richard was startled by such a direct and personal question, because he paused and then said, "Yes, Carl, as a matter of fact, I am angry with you." Then he told me why; his beef was that his unit hadn't been brought in sooner to help develop the alternatives to be considered.

I immediately offered to meet with him in his office to discuss the situation, and that same afternoon, we hashed out our differences. We not only resolved the conflict; we became much closer colleagues. I recall thinking that my prompt action—rather than doing nothing—had worked to defuse an uncomfortable situation.

So what makes work-related conflicts different from other conflicts? While you can usually get emotional at home with a bit of yelling and screaming, you can't or shouldn't raise your voice and argue too aggressively at work. If you do, you can face serious consequences—not just losing your argument but losing your client, your good relations with co-workers, and, of course, your job. And, interestingly, avoiding confrontation often leads people to stew about their differences rather than openly discussing them, as my friend Richard probably would have done if I hadn't asked him what was wrong.

So what are some constructive ways to deal with conflict at work? First, never confront the other person when either of you is still angry. Let emotions cool down. Rash responses will only make the situation worse.

Second, confirm that there is a disagreement. You can ask (as I did with Richard) if the person is upset with you. Or if you are the one who's upset, you can simply tell the person. Either way, you will get the matter out in the open. It could turn out to be no big deal, or maybe you perceived there to be a problem when there wasn't one. However you handle it, it's best to do this in private, one-on-one.

If there is a problem that needs resolving, you should next clarify the nature of the conflict. Usually, a conflict involves a disagreement about information, so make sure that you both know what you disagree on. For example, you can ask the person to reiterate his or her views and follow up by asking, "What assumptions are you making?" Maybe something very simple will emerge as the root cause of the dissent.

Further ways to probe for the reasons for the disagreement are asking questions like: "What would you accomplish by doing that?" or "Based on what's presented here, what makes you think that's the way to do that?" Of course, the tone of your voice is important. Said the wrong way, such questions could come across more as a challenge than an honest inquiry.

Try to resolve the conflict quickly. Explain what you would like to see done and then negotiate an agreement. Perhaps you're simply differing over a deadline, or a sum of money, or the scope of your responsibilities. Once identified, those issues usually can be resolved easily. If not, you might ask a third party to listen to both sides and offer thoughts.

If the matter resists a resolution, acknowledge that you disagree. Then you can say, "I'm not sure that I agree with you" or "Let's agree to disagree." If the issue in question is important enough, you probably need to tell someone higher up in the organization. That's what managers are for, to decide on courses of action, especially if there is disagreement. It is often good to have different alternatives to show the breadth of options that may be pursued.

Most important, you must learn to be comfortable with acting quickly on any conflict. Get it out in the open and then deal with it. There's no sense burying it or delaying, because it probably won't go away, and it could get worse with time. Dealing effectively with conflict means you can get on with the important things you need to do.

About the Author

Contributing Editor Carl Selinger, an aviation and transportation engineer, has given his seminar on the soft nontechnical skills, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," throughout the United States. His book of the same title has been published by Wiley-IEEE Press; more information is available at http://www.carlselinger.com/seminars.html.

To Probe Further

Jeff Davidson's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Assertiveness (Alpha Books, New York, 1997) has pointers on learning to be assertive in conflicts and also on avoiding conflicts before they arise.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen's Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking, New York, 1999) teaches how to handle the toughest conversations effectively and with less anxiety.

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