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Talking It Out: Resolving Conflict at Work

At some point, people where you work, like those in most workplaces, may have problems getting along.

Differences of opinion and disagreements can be positive when they increase awareness or create opportunities for change. But when ignored or left unresolved, conflict has a negative effect on everyone, not just those directly involved.

Consider these suggestions to help resolve conflict at work.

Why should you care?

Every conflict has its costs. For you and your co-workers, the costs can be added stress, low morale and damaged working relationships. For your employer, costs can include lower productivity, less customer satisfaction, high employee turnover and added recruiting costs.

What can you do?

You may be able to resolve a workplace issue by talking it through with your co-workers in an informal, positive way. 

If you’re facing an issue you can’t resolve informally, you may need to try a more structured approach. Issue-based problem solving is a method that professional facilitators use for resolving workplace conflict. It is also known as win-win, “getting to yes” negotiation, alternative dispute resolution and joint problem solving.

Issue-based problem solving brings together everyone involved in the conflict to talk about the issue. Discussion may be employer to employee or co-worker to co-worker. The success of this method lies in the way participants relate to one another based on respect, openness and looking at the issue from different points of view.

Take a look at the 6 steps of issue-based problem-solving and see how you could use it in your workplace.

  1. Explore the issue.
    An issue is a problem that needs to be solved—the topic or subject you need to talk about. When you’re exploring issues, keep the following things in mind: 
    • Separate the people from the problem:
      • Set aside your judgments about people.
      • Consider what the person has to say, not how you feel about him or her.
    • Identify the issues by using concrete examples:
      • Take note of who is involved, when and where the problem happens, how often it happens, and so on.
    • Take time to explore the issues. Ask the following questions:
      • Is everything out in the open? Do we have all the details?
      • Do we agree on what we need to talk about?
      • Do we understand how the issues affect others?
  2. Understand people’s various interests.
    People’s interests in an issue are the reasons why they care about it—the needs, fears, wants and concerns they experience about the issue and its impact. Every person with a well-founded concern has an interest in the issue.

    To understand people’s interests listen for what they need (their interests), not what they say they want (their positions). The best solution to the problem is often the one that satisfies the most interests.

    Find out about people’s interests:
    • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”:
      • Ask what’s important about the issue.
      • Ask why they have a specific position or point of view.
    • Share your own interests in the issue. 
      • What’s important to you and why?
    • Dig deeper to understand fears and concerns.
    • Look at what people need, not at what they have.
    • Focus on areas of common ground without losing sight of different, separate or opposing interests. 
  3. Develop options.
    An option is a possible solution to a conflict that satisfies both the shared and separate interests of the people involved. Work with everyone involved to come up with as many options as possible:
    • Brainstorm. Ask for ideas and write all of them down.
    • Don’t judge any option until you run out of ideas.
    • Relate each option to the issue to make sure it’s a workable solution.
    • Merge similar or related options.
  4. Choose a solution.
    A solution is an option that resolves the issue by meeting the interests of the people concerned. An effective solution is a simple, efficient, affordable, acceptable, flexible and legal answer to the problem.

    Choose a solution using a process that lets you measure or compare the options. Compare all of the options using the same process.

    Use a three-cut method to help you compare options:
    • First cut: interests
      • Does this option meet everyone’s interests?
    • Second cut: resources
      • Do we have the resources to support this option?
    • Third cut: saleability
      • Can we sell this option to people not involved in the process? Who needs to support this option? 
  5. Implement the solution.
    Prepare a plan. Decide the following:
    • What needs to be done
    • Who will do it
    • How they’ll do it
    • When it will begin
    • When it will be completed
    • What special steps or checkpoints need to be included.
    • When you’re finished planning, take action. You can only resolve the conflict if your plan is put into practice.
  6. Evaluate the outcomes.
    Measure the success of your plan to decide if your solution is working. Ask the following questions:
    • What will we measure?
    • Who will do the measuring?
    • How will we share the information?
    • What will we do to fix the situation if the solution isn’t a success?

Where can I go for help?

The conflicts you’re dealing with may be beyond the scope of the method outlined in this article. If so, you may want to consider outside help. Conflict resolution practitioners and professional facilitators are trained to help others find solutions without taking sides.

Try issue-based problem-solving to resolve work conflicts

Issue-based problem-solving offers a common-sense approach to resolving workplace conflicts before they become complex and costly. When you listen to and respect others while working towards a solution, everyone wins.

Additional information

The following websites offer additional help and information about conflict resolution:

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