Again being on the cusp of not only the holiday season, but year end performance reviews in many businesses; it feels like the perfect time to review and ensure that communication skills are firmly proficient prior to these important gatherings.

People generally react to any potentially stressful encounter by exhibiting avoidance tactics, going on the attack or by seeking constructive, cooperative solutions. Understandably most of us have responded in all of these ways at various times, depending on the situation, our level of cognitive comfort and the individuals involved. Each of us tends to rely on a dominant coping style. Rahim and Magner (1995) have identified five styles of handling interpersonal confrontation based upon the degree to which the concern for self and concern for others are expressed (see diagram below).


Five styles of handling interpersonal conflict based upon the degree to which the concern for self and concern for others
Five styles of handling interpersonal conflict based upon the degree to which the concern for self and concern for others

To ensure that your discussions are successful and positive, consider a collaborative approach from the outset.

There is several ways you might begin to move from confrontation to collaboration. Here are several to review in preparation to prevent or to work through the encounters in your workplace.

1.       Adjust your perspective.

Prior to entering check your frame of mind. We are far more likely to transform any conflict discussion to collaboration if we expect constructive dialogue to occur. We are also more like to engage in the process of working through an integrative dialogue model toward alliance (Lederach & Maiese, 2003).

2.  Contribute to the development of a shared vision

Perhaps advocating for a splitting up of the project could allow for participants to contribute their greatest skills, knowledge, and interests. Try to openly discuss the emerging complexities of agreement and how progress toward a mutually desired outcome could be achieved.

 3.       Build relationships.

It is important to notice and encourage honest efforts of others to work cooperatively. Establish routine patterns of association, such as starting each conversation by reviewing your shared interest and the areas of agreement.

 4.       Use two-way communication practices.

Restate your best understanding of others’ points, values, and interests using key phrases they use
Restate your best understanding of others’ points, values, and interests using key phrases they used.

When you begin any new team venture, present your concepts and ideas using “I-statements” and then open it up to seek  others’ perspectives. Restate your best understanding of others’ points, values, and interests using key phrases they use. Ask for confirmation or correction. Request that others do the same.

 5.       Proceed in small steps.

Stay focused on freshly emerging issues ensuring that you do not get bogged down addressing more complex problems too early. Break bigger problems into sequential steps and challenge them one at a time.

6.       Keep a broad perspective.

Promote ways to recover from unpleasant conflict experiences.

  • Acknowledge your contribution to the difficulty and express a desire to get back on track.
  • Discuss differences from a third person perspective (Gellerman, & O’Brien, 2006; Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999), summarise the two different perspectives openly and without judgment the way a third party might describe them.

 7.  Manage your emotions.

Before meeting with members of a work team with whom you have disagreements, it can be helpful to withdraw and calm yourself. The affect or feeling experienced during a conflict has a major predictor of the outcome of the conflict. Research by Barbara Fredrickson (2001) indicated that the worse people feel in such situations, the less capable they are to consider options and pursue creative solutions. Consider preparing yourself for unpleasant emotional reactions others may express, so you will be less likely to retort in ways that are likely to worsen and prolong emotional reactivity.

One way to strengthen this practice is to visualise a thick glass wall between you and the person who is upset; to focus mainly on your own feelings, thoughts, breathing and actions; remaining calm, and simply observing.

visualise a thick glass wall between you and the person
Visualise a thick glass wall between you and the upset person.

 It is important to seek common ground from the outset of a work project and to re-enter the visualisation whenever emotional conflict emerges.

 8.       Be compassionate.

Everyone engages in some version of confronting or adversarial behaviour at times; you may like to remind yourself of this? Reflect on whether these reactions are fleeting or whether they represent a person’s characteristic style of handling conflict. People with integrative or compromising styles may sometimes lapse into withdrawal or attack mode, even you! This tends to occur when someone is struggling to express what feels deeply important in terms that others will be able to understand. Anyone in this fix will tend to feel abandoned and exasperated until it becomes possible to succeed in articulating their perspective effectively.

9.       Take breaks to regroup.

When others are struggling in their efforts to express themselves, recognise it. You can open the door to shared understanding and trust by saying something like, “It seems there is something really important you need to say about this. Let’s take a short break so you can organise your thoughts and I can clear my mind to listen so we can work this out together.” You might even create an agreement when your group meets for the first time to take breaks to regroup as needed. This can greatly improve everyone’s chances of keeping a sense of perception and maintain the capacity for creative problem solving. By being proactive, you can minimise the development of intractable conflicts from the outset.

10.    Distinguish between intentions and impact.

 Heated exchange?

  • You can begin to get back on track by differentiating between your goals and the influence of your comments and actions. Mishandling these is one of the biggest factors leading to intractable conflicts.
  • Claiming to know another’s intentions inevitably ends in deadlocked conversations.
  • Ignoring or denying the impact of your words and actions on others is also sure to lead to lose-lose situations.

Conflict is more productive when all parties are willing and able to openly accept each other’s reported intentions and to acknowledge unintentional negative impacts pointed out by others (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999).

Take a few moments to reflect on information that seemed most pertinent to your work situation. Consider a particular conflict that remains unresolved. What would you like to happen in the long run? How might your situation be improved in the short run?

Not everyone is willing to work through conflicts. If you face a teammate with a persistently domineering or avoiding style, it may be necessary to seek formal mediation or disciplinary action to address an intractable conflict.

However, in most situations it is worthwhile to regard emerging conflict as a challenge to put your collaborative skills into action. Constructive conflict is a breeding ground for collaboration and both are essential to the development of effective work teams. With enough information, awareness, and practice, you can move through most of the differences you encounter and forge increasingly synergistic partnerships.

Take the challenge.

How can we help-

On the Table Consulting creates and implements a wide variety of communication and management consulting services, including organisational process development, executive and leadership development, and conflict resolution workshops.

On the Table Consulting offers mediation to facilitate conversations involving personal and workplace conflicts.

On the Table Consulting assists people and teams to have conversations. Conversations to resolve conflict impartially, objectively and in a timely manner.