How To Resolve A Conflict With A Colleague

Today’s article is the 2nd in the series of 3 blog posts I started writing last Monday. This series discusses and hopes to share the best strategies on handling 3 types of conversations which most of us hate to come across but must handle successfully during our careers.

The first one was about how to overcome awkwardness at a business networking event. Do check it out and share your tips and technique with others via comments.

Today I am going to talk about conflict resolution in a professional setting. Broadly such situations can be categorized into 2 types.

  1. Conflict with your colleagues (Those that you work with or they report to you)
  2. Conflict with your seniors (Your boss or anybody above them)

Bosses are a subset of colleagues whom you perceive to have more authority than you. Hence that deserves a special discussion. While basic techniques of conflict resolution apply to both of these situations, the subtle differences between the two are what ensure your success. I will save the discussion on subtleties of dealing with bosses until next week.

Today I will focus on the situation number 1 – dealing with a difficult colleague.

Here are 5 most important skills you need to learn and master in order to be able to provide a constructive, polite, yet firm feedback to your colleagues.

1. Assess accurately who is the “problem person”:
If a situation or a work relationship is not as good as it can be, you must be able to find out where the exact problem is. It can be in in you or another person, it can be in an external factor which is out of your control, or it may just be a misunderstanding between two people. No matter what the situation is you must be able to assess it objectively, by involving little emotion as you can. That is the only way to really figure out who the problem person is.

You must think why I am beating a dead horse. If you are reading this you have already figured out there is a problem with some other person which you need to resolve. You are here just to get some quick tips on how to do it.

But here is the truth. Like it or not, in many conflict situations I have seen, the people who complain the most are indeed responsible for creating or fueling the problem. Remember the “Problem people” vs. “Solution people” concept? Admitting that you are a problem person takes courage. It is a vital skill everybody who cares about self-growth needs to have. It comes in very handy in conflict resolution.

If you do find out that you are at fault, just admit your mistakes, communicate to others that you will do everything you can to behave better, and then do it! Nothing resolves a conflict as quickly. In addition you gain well-deserved respect from your colleagues, and renew your work relationships. I have developed some friends at work who I would have never thought I could even spend time with by being open-minded. Now I trust their feedback while finding out what I can do better.

If you come to a conclusion that you are not at fault, that’s great! Now you have a clear idea of who you need to talk to in order to resolve the problem. Get started with it.

2. React quickly, but not without thinking:
Selecting an opportune time to communicate your feedback is such an important factor. You speak while the discussion is still heated, and you say the things you regret. You dig out the past, and you become a complainer. It is as if there is no right time.

Here is how I deal with it. The first 2 offences, I always cut others some slack. I make a mental note of what happened and how I felt about it but that’s it. I give them a benefit of doubt. If the same behavior happens again the third time, I deal with it immediately. Still not in the heat of the moment when emotions are running high, but maybe in the next hour or a day based on how delicate the conversation is. I do bring out my experience from the situation that just happened but also from the past 2 situations to communicate to them that I am not reacting without thinking about this.

Of course, speaking on a third offense is not a golden rule. Most situations are so simple that it does not take me any more instances to come to an understanding that this is or can easily develop into a pattern. But in some cases, you may want to observe a little longer. When in doubt, do not speak out! But once you are sure, do not use this as an excuse not to speak up.

Here are a couple of other tips related to picking the right time:
a. Schedule an appointment with the person you want to talk to. If your feedback can be completed in a minute or so, it may not need an appointment. Everything else does! This works wonders. Scheduling a time tells the other person that this conversation is important to you so they, too, tend to treat it with more importance than they otherwise would. An appointment also sets the tone for the conversation and takes the awkwardness away because you are expected to talk only about one topic rather than trying to insert it in the middle of other topics.

  • I do not like telling people in advance what I am going to talk about so I title my appointments as “Personal appointment”.
  • I try to pick a location which is neutral – e.g. not your office or their but a conference room.

b. Pick the time of the day when both of you are fresh. When either one or both of you are tired, you are going to be irritated easily, take words more personally, and think less creatively. None of which is helping your cause.

c. Reserve more time than you think it will take. Nothing hurts a conflict resolution process more than an unresolved second discussion. You two probably left disgruntled after the interaction which turned into the conflict. And now this one. The conflict just got deeper than it needed to be. Exchange the thoughts when you are not pressed for time. If the conversation takes longer, both of you can afford to continue it without worrying about any other commitment.

Now that you have picked the perfect time, what exactly do you say and how do you say it?

3. Make it a goal to resolve the conflict – not, to be the one who is right:
At the risk of sounding obvious, I am going to say that unless you become a true “Solution person”, you will not find solutions. What I mean is that your only goal should be to come to a solution and not to let your ego take over and lead you to be adamant on winning the argument.

Conflict resolution is an example of a situation where it is often too easy to get distracted by the lure of being right. But in fact, being right is a battle you can definitely afford to lose. The true victory comes through a mutually agreed and sustainable resolution, and beginning of a change in attitudes and behaviors.

If you just want to be right, you do not need anybody else’s approval to feel that way. Why to even seek to change the situation? On the other hand, looking for a resolution involves being open to understanding the other party’s view, being empathetic for their needs to behave a certain way, and communicating to them your feelings in a way they understand. Once you surpass your ago, being open-minded comes easily.

This is also the reason that you should never tackle such situations in front of those who are not involved. Constructive feedback is best given in private. This is not anything to be advertised or shared with those who are not directly involved.

4. Do not make it personal:
It’s not about you being wrong or bad or them being wrong or bad. It is about circumstances which made you two act and react the way you did. That’s it!

While talking, keep this in mind and talk accordingly. You should not accuse others neither should you be so sensitive to take everything they say personally. Develop a thick skin.

Address the behavior in question rather than generalizing that behavior as an attitude. It may very well be so but the moment you label it like that, you lose half the battle because it is very easy to misinterpret your intentions. People instantly become defensive if you point out flows in their attitude. Instead, mishaps in behavior appear comparatively easier to correct, putting the other party in a less defensive mode. Try it even in your personal relationships. 😉

Here are 2 tips on how to say it so that your tone does not become accusatory:
a. Express your feelings rather than blaming their behavior
Even when you are addressing an unappreciated behavior, do not blame others for that. Instead express how you felt or feel as a reaction to that behavior. Start sentences with your feeling rather than their behavior.

e.g. Instead of asking, “Why do you always ignore what I say in meetings?”, tell them, “I feel angry when you discard my opinion in the meeting”.

The best part? Nobody can question the validity of your feelings. There is nothing right or wrong about how you feel, you just do.

b. Own up your feelings
Try to start as many sentences as you can with “I” – “I feel” and “I think”. Start it with “You” and you are sure to come across as offensive.

5. Master the sandwich technique:
This is THE best technique of providing a constructive feedback. Period. I learned this and practice it in Toastmasters when I provide evaluations to fellow Toastmasters on how they did on their speeches or in leadership roles. With constant practice, you, too, can master this technique.

Sandwich technique is especially effective in correcting yet motivating your subordinates. e.g. during performance reviews.

You create a sandwich where the suggestions for improvement are the meat. In order to make it palatable, you start and end with positive comments. Such positive comments can be what you appreciate or like about the people. It should not sound far fetched but fit into the context. If you are thinking objectively, you are bound to find something good about the other person. It needs to be genuine and honest in order to make desired impact.

If not anything, you can always start by thanking them for taking time and interest in talking to you. Before parting, you can emphasize the good outcome of the meeting and that you are looking forward to working with them.

If you deliver this sandwich right, people eat it without getting defensive and without feeling offended, hurt, angry or sad. Master this technique and you will be all set!

Next time you come across a sticky situations that you feel like avoiding, don’t! Use the above mentioned tips to resolve it. I assure you, you will gain the respect and affection of your colleagues even if they disagree with some of your thoughts.

When was the last time you had to resolve a conflict with your colleague or a friend? Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently, if anything?
Your experiences is what makes this community of readers richer. Please share!

©2014 Manasi Kakade
Thanks to aihaaihaaiha2 for the cute featured image.

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  • That’s a great blog post, Manasi! Your ideas and tips were very helpful for solving a conflict I recently had. It’s so true that is always better to talk to the person you have the conflict with instead of ignoring the person or trying not to work with or talk to him/ her. I’m looking forward to your next post!

  • Another really thought provoking piece! This was incredibly helpful to me because I feel like I’ve had enough experience to handle conflicts maturely but I haven’t really known through experience or observation how to navigate them well enough to come to a mutual solution and understanding. I fully agree that a true and honest assessment of your role in creating the conflict is a must! Nobody is perfect or totally innocent so realizing your own part in the issue will help with your approach. I especially liked the tip about scheduling an appointment to talk with the other person. That was something I never thought of before but can use going forward in cases where it could prove helpful. Thanks, Manasi, for giving me a guide on how to better address those dreadfully sticky situations.

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