12 Tips for Conflict Resolution at Work: When Sweating the Small Stuff is Really Unavoidable

Yesterday was one of those days that if it would have been possible for me to erase it from the calendar, I would have done it without hesitation. You know, it was one of those days when everything seems to go wrong, especially in the area of interpersonal relationships.  

While you can try and avoid conflict, you cannot escape conflict. Over the last two years, I have been trying hard to avoid conflict at work because I simply didn't want to add more stress to my life. My motto over the last two years has been "don't sweat the small stuff at work". It has not been easy, and more than once I have really had to make a big effort to control my impulse to fight back, or to say something that I knew will not necessarily be appreciated by some of my colleagues. But, I did it -- I avoided conflict relatively well.

But, the fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. The "small stuff" is really what matters in life. It will find you whether you look for it or not. Well, conflict found me yesterday via an unexpected email from one my colleagues. Initially, I was surprised and really didn't know what to say or how to react...but, a few minutes later, I was upset.

I certainly did not appreciate the tone of voice used in the email; so, slowly and slowly I started to get really upset. I think that the worse was that the email had not only been sent to me, but also to my department boss. I suppose that if the email would have only been sent to me, my reaction would have been different. I have to say that the person had to be upset with me since the email was sent to my boss too.

From my perspective, the person who sent me the email was not only unfair, but also aggressive. All I could see was an intention of inflicting damage; a damage that I didn't deserve (at least in my mind). There were only words in the email, but my God, I felt so insulted. I really could not believe what I was reading; more importantly, how the information was expressed or delivered. It took me a few minutes to realize that this time, I could not escape conflict; a "little sweat" was necessary this time.

I first sent an email back addressing the main issue indicated in the email, knowing clearly that trying to resolve an issue such as this via email was the biggest mistake that someone can ever make. But did I really have a choice? I was certainly not happy with the idea of ignoring the other comments mentioned in this person's email, but I knew that I have to focus on one issue. I was really fighting with myself desperately to avoid more conflict than it was necessary. So, I decided to focus on the main issue.

But, when a couple of hours later I got a second email from the person in which he/she was basically reiterating the issues mentioned in the original email, and adding other new problems to the list; I decided that I have had enough. It was as far as my patience could go -- I had to say something; I had to do something -- the issue was too important to be ignored. I had to fight back..conflict was unavoidable.

What did I did? Well, I sent an email back (bad choice, I know, emails are never good!!). I addressed all the issues that were indicated in the email as honestly as it was possible taking into consideration the circumstances (i.e., avoid more conflict). Yes, it would have been preferable to address all the issues in person using a normal way of communication (phone, conversation, etc), particularly essential when you are trying to resolve a conflict.

 It was clear to me that the problem was in part due to both misinformation and lack of information. But, I didn't care, I felt so insulted by this person's email that I just didn't care. I just wanted to make my point, I just wanted to tell people my side of the story. I wanted to have the last word!

Over 24 hours after the first email, I did feel that I did the wright thing. In this case, I had to face the situation and could not avoid conflict. Did I handle the conflict well? The answer is simple: No! But, how could I have handled things differently?

Most experts would say that the there are a few ways to deal with workplace conflict, including the following ones (suggested by Mike Myatt from Forbes Magazine ).

(1) Communication -- Direct communication is the best; email communication is to avoided.

(2) Define Acceptable Behaviour -- Just having a definition for what constitutes acceptable behavior is a positive step in avoiding conflict.  Clearly and publicly make it known what will and won’t be tolerated.

(3) Hit conflict head-on -- By actually seeking out areas of potential conflict and proactively intervening in a just and decisive fashion you will likely prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, you will likely minimize its severity by dealing with it quickly.

(4) The Importance Factor -- Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. However if the issue is important enough to create a conflict then it is surely important enough to resolve.

(5) View Conflict as Opportunity -- Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development.

These are all excellent suggestions that we really need to remember and consider when involved in a work-place conflict. Personally, I think that from this particular experience I have learned that the most important things to consider when dealing with a work-related conflict are:  

(1) Try to remain calm

(2) Avoid using email as a means of communication

(3) State your case tactfully

(4) Attack the problem, not the person

(5) Avoid the blame game

(6) Focus on the future, and not the past

(7) Breath, breath and breath again!


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