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Managing conflict in the workplace: 5 top tips for handling difficult conversations

Written by Simon Morgan, South East London and North Kent

Almost everybody will, from time to time, find themselves in a conflict situation in the work place. While few people relish getting involved, unresolved conflicts rarely go away by themselves, potentially leading to reduced efficiency, absenteeism and even formal grievances. That’s why it’s so important that, as a line manager, you know how to handle conflict effectively.

There are lots of different types of workplace conflict; in this month’s blog, we’re focusing on how to handle difficult conversations, for example, those addressing poor performance or conduct issues, dealing with personal problems, investigating complaints or grievances, or providing comfort or reassurance – for example, in cases of redundancy.

  1. Get the timing right

It’s always better to address problems as soon as practicable, rather than waiting for the conflict to get more entrenched. However, don’t rush into it – take some time to properly prepare.

  • Pick your time wisely – be considerate about what the other person is dealing with, and try to choose a time which is mutually convenient so that neither party has to dash off before the conversation has properly concluded
  • Speak to them 1-2-1 – unless it’s essential that someone else is present, always try to speak to the person on an individual basis; to do otherwise might make them feel like they’re being ‘ganged up’ against
  • Consider choosing a neutral location where you won’t be disturbed – constant interruptions are only going to make the conversation more difficult, and holding it in your office or at your desk may make the other person feel defensive
  • Pre-warn them – no one likes to feel something has been sprung on them. Give them a direct ‘heads up’ about what you want to speak to them about.
  1. Listen carefully

A conversation is just that – a sharing of views, not a one-way lecture.

  • Ask open questions about why the other person thinks the problem has arisen and how they think it can be addressed
  • Slow down the pace of the conversation to show that you’re listening, and to help give you time to find the right response
  • Stay focused on how the other person feels – never try to encourage sympathy for yourself by saying things like “it’s hard for me to have this conversation with you” or “I feel really bad saying this”
  • Be comfortable with silence – don’t rush to fill pauses, but give the other person time for what has been said to sink in.
  1. Keep a clear objective in mind

As important as it is to let the other person speak, you mustn’t be distracted from your objective.

  • Be clear in your own mind exactly what the issue is, the impact it’s having and what the desired outcome is
  • Decide in advance what your non-negotiables are and where there is some room for flexibility
  • Don’t let the conversation end without a clearly expressed plan.
  1. Stay calm

Few, if any, conversations will come to a valuable conclusion if either party loses their temper, so it’s important to stay calm and keep the dialogue going.

  • If the other person’s defensiveness manifests itself in silence, sarcasm or counter accusation never rise to the bait; respond openly and sincerely, eg “I don’t know how to interpret your silence”.
  • If the discussion is getting heated, suggest that you take a short break.
  1. Give something back

As far as possible, try to make sure that both parties get something valuable out of the conversation.

  • Consider whether there’s anything you can offer to the other person that might help them deal with the issue being discussed, for example, if you’re making someone redundant, talk about the support available to them to help with their job search or the recommendation you’re prepared to give; if someone is having performance issues, you could suggest a mentor or training.

For more top tips on managing conflict at work, book your place on our Managing Conflict workshop on 7 November or contact [email protected]