Conflict: What to do when emotions erupt

Two businessmen on wall with office chairs

When conflict happens in the workplace, how you handle it counts.

Chances are, that at some stage during the past year, you have:

  • Slammed a door in anger
  • Walked out of a meeting, thinking “what is the point” “it doesn’t matter”
  • Felt hurt, embarrassed or resentful about how an interaction went
  • Said something in the spur of the moment, that you later regretted.

That’s not unusual, but it is indicative that you are experiencing some degree of conflict in your work life.
If you are like me, people are important. So, it is stressful when a work relationship becomes embroiled in conflict. I dislike the thought of it escalating and I dislike the thought that someone has misunderstood my intentions.

So, what can be done, especially when feelings are hurt and raw?

For a start, do not simply ignore the issue or avoid the person. That may bring temporary relief, but in the long run you really lower your general resilience and fail to optimise what could be a valuable working relationship.

Here is a clue… the only person’s behaviour you can change is your own. So, look at what you can do and stop blaming the other person. Yes, they probably have a large stake in the problem, but you can’t change them!

Prepare to have a conversation.

Even if only very short, just to begin to re-establish contact. No need to apologise or justify your position, just make contact.

Pick up the phone and say something like: “We seem to be having problems in dealing with xyz. How about we meet to see if we can come up with a different way”.

When having the conversation:

  1. Take an ‘adult’ perspective. Don’t take on a ‘parent’ role and feel that you can tell them what to do, or take on a ‘victim’ role and say “poor me”. Use language that is factual and unemotional.
  2. Discuss things from your perspective. Take responsibility for what you say, e.g. “I feel….”, “I think…”. Do NOT blame the other person and say things such as “you do x” “you make me…”
  3. Really focus on understanding the other person’s needs. Get underneath what they want/need/value. According to McConnon, conflict is caused by denial of people’s needs. The successful resolution must involve the satisfaction of those needs, otherwise the conflict will simmer and re-ignite another time.

So here is the big message (drum roll)………ask open questions.

Best words to use to start the questions are “How…..” and “What……”.

Take a position of curiosity. If you do nothing else, this will validate them. Let them feel heard.

This may be enough to open up for a new type of dialogue and it’s a positive step in resolving the original conflict.