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4 Unproductive Ways to Respond to Conflict


Conflict is an unavoidable part of working with others - inevitably, not everyone has the same time frame, work style, or ideas about how to do things. In addition, you are likely to encounter a few simply unpleasant characters throughout your career. Conflict must eventually be addressed one way or another, but not all methods of addressing conflict are equal.

Responding to conflict poorly serves only to escalate the situation, without promoting your interests. Over time, such events contribute to an unpleasant workplace environment for everyone. What's more, responding to conflict in positive, constructive ways can mark you as a leader, or continue to promote your authority as one. Below are 4 unproductive ways to respond to conflict and some more effective alternatives.

Strategy 1: Competition

The first of the 4 unproductive ways to respond to conflict is with competition. When faced with someone who undermines your achievements or promotes poor ideas, proving your own mettle by engaging in competition can be tempting. However, the truth is that competition among co-workers only makes conflicts stronger and more long-lasting, potentially making co-workers enemies over what started as a commonplace disagreement. Competition won't solve the issue, but it can make you look petty, stubborn, and self-serving.

Instead . . .

A conflict should never be a competition over who has the best ideas or who is the best employee. Instead, try to reframe even the most contentious conflict as an opportunity to exchange ideas and come to a mutually beneficial solution.


Strategy 2: A Poor Attitude

Even if you are completely in the right, your attitude makes all the difference in how your side of the conflict is perceived, both by the other party and by anyone else the conflict affects. A poor attitude can put the other person on the defensive, thus escalating the problem. The wrong attitude is evidenced by:

  • Emotional manipulation

  • Loaded language

  • Judgmental statements

  • Generalizations ("You always....")

  • Sarcasm (one of the most toxic forms of communication)

Instead . . .

First and foremost, take a minute -- or however long you need -- to cool down before addressing the conflict. Since all emotions – especially anger -- should be controlled in the workplace, responding to conflict with any strong emotion is self-defeating and even embarrassing. No matter how you feel about the other person or how strongly your feel about the situation, always approach the conflict with a calm, respectful demeanor.

When addressing the conflict itself, use all those strategies you learned in Communication 101. Remember these?

  • Make sure your body language is neutral.

  • Use "I statements." Focus on what you see, not what you think the other person has done.

  • Be an active listener. Restate what the other person said in your own words.

  • Consider the other viewpoint. Your active listening should reflect an actual willingness to consider the other person's point of view. Try to really understand why the other person is upset.

  • Look for a win-win. Compromise is useful, but a win-win solution is even better.

One final note on attitude: It's not uncommon to let a single conflict affect all your interactions with a person, but try to avoid this because it can poison the workplace for you and others. Once a conflict is resolved, it's important not to hold a grudge against the other person. Instead, continue to use strategies like keeping an open mind and looking for win-win solutions to cultivate a healthy, mutually respectful work relationship. You don't have to like all your co-workers, but any feelings of hostility towards them should be checked at the door.

Strategy 3: Running for Help

Another unproductive way to respond to conflict is by bringing other people into the situation. For example, you might be tempted to go to your boss at the first sign of conflict. Or you might decide to get the opinion of another co-worker. Worse, you might simply complain to your co-workers about the conflict with no higher goal. All of these actions are unproductive -- and they make you look bad.

Instead . . .

If a conflict arises with a co-worker or your co-worker makes a mistake, keep it between the two of you unless absolutely necessary to report it. If you feel you must get assistance to resolve the conflict, use human resources as an unbiased mediator. Going to your boss is rarely the right course of action, and complaining about a situation to co-workers never works positively for your reputation.

Strategy 4: Avoidance

Many people want to avoid conflict altogether, and react to a difficult situation by simply waiting for it to blow over or letting other people deal with it. Avoidance is perhaps the most common of the 4 unproductive ways to respond to conflict. The fact is that avoiding conflict doesn't solve it or even make it less toxic. Just the opposite: Not addressing conflict makes it fester, souring the work environment and escalating the situation. For workplace leaders, avoidance can be an especially toxic response to conflict.

Instead . . .

Although you should always pick your battles and think out your response to a conflict, you also need to address the situation head-on as soon as you have formulated a sensible, level-headed approach. Don't dance around the conflict, use ambiguous language, or back down out of a desire to avoid it. Use the above-described strategies to bring the conflict to a resolution.

If you have a history of backing down and avoiding conflict, be aware that you might not tackle each conflict like a pro at the beginning. Like any skill, addressing conflict takes practice, which can be gained only by doing it! Similarly, if you have used poor conflict resolution strategies in the past, remember that you will need some practice and a great deal of self-awareness to stop using those 4 unproductive ways to respond to conflict.

A workplace rife with conflict, no matter how repressed, is one where productivity and creativity are stifled, leading to higher employee turnover and a more unpleasant job for you. On the other hand, effective arbiters of conflict establish themselves as savvy and effective businesspeople. Avoid the above 4 unproductive ways of responding to conflict, and you'll be on your way towards ensuring a healthy, productive workplace for yourself and those around you.

{#/pub/images/progressustherapyericafenercopy.jpg}About the author:
Erica L. Fener, Ph.D., is Vice President, Business Development Strategy and Analysis at Progressus Therapy, a leader in connecting their candidates with school-based therapy jobs and early intervention service jobs.


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