3 things you can do to resolve workplace conflict

Conflict makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve haven’t looked at myself in a mirror during conflict but I can feel the heat coming over me, my heart rate increasing, my thoughts racing.

It bothers me. I prefer the world where everyone gets along.  You know - the one that doesn’t exist. 

For many years, if there was any kind of conflict in my life, I would spend time trying to think of another way – any other way - except to deal with it head on.

I’m much better now.  But it’s an effort. 

The difference is that I know that it’s better to work through conflict if you want to move forward. 

What we really care about.

Stories about conflict bounce off the pages of our newspapers as soon they hit our front step each morning or when your news app loads.

While these stories can cause our brows to furrow, and touch us in some way, the conflicts that really get to us are the ones that happen with the people whose eyes we look into everyday.  And since we spend the bulk of our awake time at work, it’s likely to be with a boss, a co-worker or an employee. 


If you’re curious about some reasons for workplace conflict, then check out this list: 75 Reasons for conflict at work by organizational psychologist Eva Rykrsmith. @EvaRykr  It could be a checklist of conflicts for most of us.

But this list doesn’t show what the real problem is. It’s not that there is conflict.  It’s that we really hate to deal with it. 


Two things I know for sure.

A silent band breakfast in a Buddhist Monastery - Kyoto Japan

A silent band breakfast in a Buddhist Monastery - Kyoto Japan

I’ve played in the same musical group for 27 years. The core of that group, 6 of us, have been together that whole time. We have toured the world together and done hundreds of rehearsals and concerts. We’ve shared bus rides, plane trips, hotel rooms, countless meals and way too many drinks. 


We’ve also had our share of conflict.  Tensions can run high when concert deadlines are near and rehearsal time is short. 

When we had conflicts, they’d usually arise out of two things - passion or personality, passion for what we are trying to achieve together, and personality because… well… you know – because we are all different. 

There are two things that I believe have kept us together this long: 

Respect and Acceptance. 

Respect for each other and for what we create together.

Acceptance of who each person is and what they bring to the table.

Oh yes… we do get on each other’s nerves. We have learned to accept that. It’s just the way it is when you spend that much time together and invest so much of yourself in what you do.

Point here - acceptance only works if the outcome of working with that person is higher than their annoyance factor. If the outcome is not there, then all bets are off.  For more about that, check out my post: How to work with people who drive you nuts.


Assuming you’ve got respect and acceptance in place, I thought I’d share three conflict resolution methods you’ll find effective. 

1) The Socratic method.  

Developed by the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC).

According to Wikipedia – “ The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.” 

You might not know it by name but I am sure you’ve seen in in action as it’s been used in every TV courtroom drama or movie since Perry Mason.


It works like this: 

•    One person challenges another’s viewpoint because they don’t believe it’s correct. 

•    Through questioning, the challenger guides the other person to see facts or beliefs that go against his or her original viewpoint. 

•    Further discussion can lead to a new outcome based on the facts. 

There are 4 steps:

1)    Understand the reasoning of the person you’re in conflict with. Ask why they believe what they’re doing is the right thing to do. If you are satisfied by the answers, you might just stop here - conflict resolved. If not, you go on to step 2.

2)    Sum up what they’re saying. (“So if I understand you correctly…”) Then ask questions that challenge their reasoning. This shows you’ve been listening and then gets them thinking about the facts you want to present. 

3)    Sum up what they’re saying again and ask questions that could lead them to support your point. (You may need to repeat this step a few times)

4)    Confirm that the person sees your point of view. Once your questions have led the person to see your point of view, you finish with … “So you agree that (insert your viewpoint based on the facts that were uncovered through this process)”.

This method can work well because it's not about telling someone that they’re wrong, but instead gets them to come to their own conclusion that they weren’t right. The tone in which you do this is important.  Be nice!


You may also enjoy this editorial by Philosophy teacher Tim Madigan who compares the infamous TV detective Lieutenant Columbo to Socrates and his inquisitive method of discovering truths.  

Giraffe language

This term was created by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg (Oct 6, 1934 – February 7, 2017). He was an American psychologist, mediator, teacher and author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.  He founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication and traveled the world conducting mediations in extremely difficult situations. 

Rosenberg believed that unclear communication of needs and the use of violent language were key inhibitors to resolving conflicts.  

Because of this, he developed a two-part style of communication that he called the “jackal” and the “giraffe”.   

Why these two animals? 

Because jackals are low to the ground and tend to see just what’s directly in front of them. People who speak jackal are defensive, resistant, critical and accusatory.  

Giraffes, on the other hand, have a huge heart (2 feet long and 25 pounds!), and incredible vision. Their height gives them a great overview of the situation. People who use “giraffe language” tend to have more compassion and use language that brings both parties together in a more respectful way.  

The 4 steps are (taken from the NVC website):

1)    Observe what is happening and describe the situation.
I see… / I hear… / the situation is.

2)    Identify / express your feelings:
Then I feel

3)    Find the need behind your feeling
My need is…/because I would like…I desire…./ I need …

4)    Formulate a clear positive doable request
Please will you…/ Are you willing to do this…

The benefits of this method are that it is not finger pointing. It is a stating of the way you see things, how you feel about them, followed by clarifying your needs and then a request based on the first three steps.  

You might enjoy this interview with Dr. Rosenberg in which he talks about a couple of challenging situations where his method helped to diffuse the situation. He also has an example on how to use it to deal with a child, which you may find useful. 

3) 6 Hostage Negotiation Techniques That Will Get You What You Want.

I love this title!  This one piqued my interest and is from a TIME magazine article published in 2014. 

It's based on a model developed by the FBI for succeeding at hostage negotiations. The original piece was by Eric Barker and is featured in his blog Barking up the wrong tree.  @bakadesuyo ‏

If this can work with hostages, it should work at the office. 

BTW - the article is a good read with more tips so I recommend you check out the link. Here are the basics of the method, taken from the article. 

1) Ask open-ended questions – you don’t want yes/ no answers  - In the workplace, this might be something like: “I see you’re upset. Can you tell me why?” 

2) Effective pauses  - This leaves space for people to talk more or calm down. 

3) Minimal Encouragers  - Brief statements to let them know you’re listening. Simple words like “uh-huh”, “yes” and “ I see”. 

4) Mirroring - Repeat the last phrase or word or two they’re saying 

5) Paraphrasing - Use your own words to repeat back what they’re telling you. 

6) Emotional Labeling - Give their feelings a name, something like, “You seem pretty troubled by this. I see why you might be feeling this way”.

The results, well, that depends…

Do’s and Don’ts

Do try something

The point of these methods, and others out there, is that they give you a way to try to deal with conflict in a logical and non-aggressive way.  They can help to keep tempers down.

The fact remains that if resolving conflict is important to you, then you have to try something.  Good for you for trying to find a way.

Don’t be surprised if not everyone wants to solve a conflict.

Some people don’t want to participate in conflict solving activities like this. They find them manipulative and it can put them in a defensive position. For some, their minds are made up.  They’re content to say “ I just don’t get along with that person” and move on, or avoid the situation altogether. 


Sometimes, you need to come at things from a different angle.

I have never thought of conflict resolution as a benefit of the service I offer.

I figured that if there was any major conflict in a group, they would need a bigger intervention.

But there have been a few occasions that surprised me. (Like a program I did in Bulgaria - read about that here).

That program, among others I have been a part of, has shown me that a well run, collaborative activity can establish a mutual respect and acceptance, even with groups in conflict.

I guess every little bit helps.

So I guess the question is, are you brave enough? Do you care enough about what you’re doing to take the first step towards being the conflict solver?  It might not end well every time but at least you can say you tried, and that might make all the difference.  

Please leave your comments and / or any suggestions you have to help people resolve conflicts at work.