Leaders: Here’s How To Handle Conflict… Without Creating Conflict

The office is a powder keg and every employee represents a fuse – some are shorter than others, but under the right circumstances, each are capable of being set off. Managers and office leaders are responsible for defusing these situations.

In the University of California – Berkeley’s “Guide to Managing Human Resources,” the author sums up workplace conflict as thus: “Neither party is right or wrong; instead, different perceptions collide to create disagreement.”

It’s a spot-on description of the inherently nuanced nature of conflict, but it’s this very complexity that makes handling it so difficult. And that is where the skilled and delicate hands of a seasoned leader come in.

Yes, There Is a Problem. Now What Is It?

Berkeley’s Guide clarifies the first step in resolving a workplace conflict is simply acknowledging that the situation exists, and that it is difficult. “Acquaint yourself with what’s happening,” the Guide reads, “and be open about the problem.”

Another step is to ask what the actual problem is. Often, conflicts are built on a less obvious foundation – a problem that perhaps existed before the actual confrontation. Rooting out the underlying forces driving the animosity will be a big step in ultimately resolving the conflict, but it’s not something a manager can easily handle on his or her own; rather, the individuals involved need to be allowed to express themselves.

The report reads: “Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.”

But wading into the thick of a conflict is inviting risk. When tempers are high, people can become volatile. Understanding how to manage that anger separates leaders from over-zealous or over-involved spectators.

Defusing the Tension

Berkeley’s Guide lays out four things to keep in mind while defusing an angry person:

  1. The person wants to vent. They have steam, let them blow it off.
  2. When they’re venting, use body language to let them know you’re paying attention.
  3. React to what they tell you; acknowledge the legitimacy of their emotions and concerns.
  4. Finally, try to empathize and understand the situation. People have a right to feel the way that they do, and sometimes validating that is enough to calm an angry person down.

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Navigating the final stretch of the resolution will mean finding the points between each person where they can stand together in agreement. Even if the space is small and cramped, having something in common is the first board in what could eventually be a strong and sturdy bridge.

If the presiding manager ever hopes to reach the ultimate goal of resolution, determining and outlining attainable solutions will be paramount. Berkeley’s Guide suggests taking a padded approach, in which the office leader comes to the involved parties with several resolving avenues. Together, with the general manager acting is arbiter, the different parties can agree on what actions should be taken.

Want to become a better leader by learning to resolve conflict? Check out A Better Leader’s one minute preview on conflict resolution.

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