Managing conflict in the workplace: 6 communication strategies to reduce team stress and build resilience
We’ve all been there—a terse word in a meeting, a report taking their performance evaluation badly, or needing to push back on an idea—managing conflict in the workplace is an inevitable part of management (and worklife in general). Being able to navigate difficult conversations at work is a highly valuable skill, but one often lacking for those who need it the most. In fact, a report published by Acas (an advisory, conciliary and arbitration service), found that workplace conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion each year, with disputes directly contributing to an annual turnover of half a million workers.
With the pressure to retain in-house talent at an all time high, helping teams to navigate conflict without stress—and build resilience for when it does happen—is a must. From first-time line managers to senior company leaders, it’s never too late to finesse conflict resolution skills and reduce stress around difficult conversations at work once and for all.
Why do difficult conversations at work cause so much stress?
Stress around workplace conflict often arises from fear of how others might react, discomfort in experiencing difficult emotions (such as guilt, anger, embarrassment and anxiety), and worries about judgement or blame. In fact, 1 in 5 don’t feel confident in their abilities to handle a difficult conversation at work, with one poll suggesting 80% of workers actively shy away from conflict at work, despite knowing they need to address the issue sooner or later.
Given that a lack of confidence around tricky conversations at work is an issue for many, it’s important to understand the root of the problem often stems back to psychological safety (namely, how comfortable employees are being their authentic selves at work). Making sure there are safeguarding measures in place to prevent bullying, ridiculing of opinions, and overt judgement creates the foundation necessary for open communication to flourish. Once these building blocks are in place, there are a few key strategies anyone can implement to better manage conflict resolution in the workplace, whether in the office or remotely.
1. Non-judgemental listening
Contrary to what you might think, listening isn’t a passive activity. Non-judgemental listening requires great levels of self-awareness: are you frowning, sighing or glancing over at a colleague? These small cues can affect the tone of the conversation and can come across as combative. According to a work conflict study conducted by the Niagara Institute, 30.6% of respondents believed they came across as aggressive or competitive when trying to resolve conflict in the workplace. It’s easy to do, so by paying extra attention to your listening style, you can quickly diffuse any tension and establish the conversation as a judgement-free zone.
When everyone involved has a chance to speak and express their perspectives with no interruptions (including the non-verbal cues listed above), there’s no need to dig in heels and take a fighting or defensive stance. Employees who feel heard are more likely to open themselves up, helping everyone to get to the root of the problem faster and pull together towards a solution.
2. Ask open-ended questions
When anxiety takes over, it’s easy to clam up. Practice using open-ended questioning that gives your counterpart an opportunity to respond to you beyond a simple yes or no answer. Think ‘how’, ‘what’ or ‘why’ questions such as ‘how does that impact your day’ rather than ‘does this impact your day’. This shift can be incredibly powerful, moving away from an interrogation towards free-flowing conversation. Open-ended questioning also gives the impression you are genuinely interested in your colleague’s opinion—you want to hear what they think and resolve the conversation in a way that’s beneficial to both of you.
3. Project positivity
While it might feel counter-intuitive, walking into a difficult work conversation with a positive demeanour can really affect the direction the interaction will take. By assuming the conversation will go well, you can set the tone and energy for the exchange and foster resilience against any unpredicted turns. Acknowledge comments with a nod, thank others for their contribution and remember that more often than not, constructive comments aren’t personal. Framing a difficult conversation with the goal of a positive resolution will help everyone involved to feel more engaged and communicative.
4. Summarise as you go
After someone has made a point or spoken at length, consider repeating what you’ve understood from their contribution before sharing your own opinion. By using terms like ‘To recap your point’ and ‘What I’m hearing is that…’, you can avoid making assumptions while ensuring everyone feels heard and understood. Summarising also gives employees the opportunity to hear their opinion rephrased and communicated in a way that might help them rethink their stance. Perhaps hearing a complaint aired by someone else makes it obvious that they’re stuck in a feeling or that they might be asking too much of others. In any case, repeating and summarising can be an effective communication strategy to shine a light on the crux of an issue.
5. Don’t be afraid of silence
It’s only natural to want to fill silences if you’re nervous. Rather than let natural pauses in conversation become awkward (or provide opportunity for rambling), use them for reflection. Being comfortable with silence is easier if you’ve already adopted a positive mindset, as outlined above, because you’re less likely to worry about what others are thinking and let fear-based responses set in. If it feels uncomfortable, try signposting what’s happening—use direct language such as ‘let me think about this’ to provide a purpose to the silence and diffuse any urgency to speak until there’s something to say.
6. Explore curiosity
The fear of the unknown often comes part and parcel with difficult conversations at work. How are colleagues going to react? Will someone get their feelings hurt? Will someone hold a grudge? Instead of zoning in on swirling fears and ‘what if’ scenarios’, try being curious as to what might happen. Approach any tension as a learning experience and acknowledge any physical manifestations of worry (sweaty palms, dry mouth or fast heartbeat etc.) as uncomfortable sensations rather than anything more nefarious. With a curious mindset, you can open yourself up more fully to authentic interaction, open-ended questions and empathetic responses.
It’s true that negative associations with conflict are rife. From low-level anxiety to outright fear, it’s easier to avoid anything that feels like rocking the boat but in doing so, the negative view only gets further entrenched. To combat this effect, COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandbery, actively encourages her executives to engage in tough conversations at work on a weekly basis, both in order to desensitise themselves to them but also help them to grow as communicators. Ultimately, by exposing yourself and your teams to some initial discomfort, you can train yourself to be more resilient towards any conflict that arises at work (and at home). With the right mindset and communication tools, anyone can level up their ability to handle difficult conversations.
To find out more about building resilience to stress, get in touch today.