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Resolving Workplace Conflict

By Sarah Scudder

“As surely as you learn to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or use a computer, you can learn how to resolve conflicts.” — Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages.

In college, I was very involved. I served on the boards of several organizations. I chose which organizations I wanted to be a part of and often recruited the officers I worked with. Handpicking my teams significantly limited my human interaction problems. Because these were volunteer positions, I had the option of stepping down if I encountered conflicts.

This is not the case in a workplace. Often, people are hired to serve on teams that they had no part in selecting — and thrown into an environment with many different personalities, leadership styles and goals.

In my first job out of college, my boss Jon was outstanding — kind, friendly, hands-off and helpful. He taught me a lot. However, a coworker on the executive team was not as easy to work with or as helpful. When I was around him, I became defensive, and eventually, I avoided interacting with him.

I realized, however, that arguing or running away from problems wasn’t going to get me anywhere or solve conflicts. I recognized that I needed to learn to work with this person or leave the company. I chose to stay. I knew I needed some serious conflict resolution, so I asked my boss for help.

He offered these five suggestions, which I still use today:

Listen. Avoid the urge to talk and defend yourself. Listen and pay attention to what the other person is saying. Ask questions to find out what is driving the issue(s). Dig deep to find the cause and the other person’s end goal. Identify new solutions or a way to compromise. Now, when I’m resolving an issue with a team member, I try to say as little as possible.

Be empathic. Show the other person you genuinely care and understand his or her perspective. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said. This will make that person feel valued and appreciated — and more likely to compromise.

Take responsibility. Let the person know the mistakes you made — or why you did what you did. Apologizing and taking responsibility for your actions shows that you are aware, honest and not afraid to admit a mistake. When dealing with an account manager conflict four years ago, I failed to take this step, and the situation got worse. When I apologized, it enabled the issue to be solved that day.

Communicate clearly. Don’t beat around the bush or be evasive. I’ve witnessed my share of executive team conflicts caused by ambiguity and passivity. I try not to assume people know what I’m thinking. My goal is to always clearly articulate my thoughts, even if I think they’re not what others want to hear. People appreciate my frankness.

I've found that it helps to write goals and talking points prior to a meeting. And I avoid being passive-aggressive, no matter the situation.

Focus on the goal. Know what you want to accomplish and why it will be beneficial from a revenue, efficiency, staff and growth perspective. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can control your own behavior. Focusing on the end goal can help shift opposing viewpoints as well as generate creative solutions. When others know the “why,” they are much more likely to buy into an idea that isn’t or wasn’t theirs.

If handled correctly, conflict can lead to positive change, better communication, closer personal connections and shared goals.

Two of my most valuable strategic partners were the result of a client conflict that turned into a relationship of trust and clear, effective communication.

“Conflict cannot survive without your participation.” — Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of Your Erroneous Zones.

Sarah Scudder is president of Procureit5, a print management services company. She is based in Petaluma, California.

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