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workplace conflict

12 Powerful Phrases to Help You Navigate Challenging Workplace Conflict

by | Oct 17, 2022 | By Karin Hurt and David Dye |

Prepare for Workplace Conflicts
with a few “Go-To” Conversation Starters

Have you ever felt this way? You’re in the middle of a challenging workplace conflict, and you’re at a complete loss for words.

You’re mad. They’re mad. Maybe you even say something you can’t take back. And then in the middle of the night, the perfect words come to you. The “wish I’d said” regrets can run deep.

It’s impossible to prepare for every workplace conflict. And, you can’t script influence. But it can be remarkably useful to prepare for inevitable workplace disagreements by considering what you might say before you need to say it.

Today we share a few go-to power phrases to help you navigate challenging workplace conflicts. Use these words, and others like them to foster connection, create clarity, show up a bit more curious, and move the conversation toward resolution.

We mean these phrases to be thought-provoking prompts, not a script. Use them as a starting point to inspire the right words that feel natural and authentic to you.

12 Powerful Phrases to Help You Deal With Workplace Conflict

Powerful phrases to foster connection

One of the best approaches to dealing with workplace conflict is to connect at a human level. Depersonalize the conflict by personalizing the conversation. Here are a few to get you started.

cultivating connection in conflict

1. I care about _____ (you, this team, this project) and I’m confident we can find a solution that we can all work with.

Of course, this one requires sincerity. If your past behavior makes this statement questionable, you’ll want to supplement this one with a sincere apology as you state your intent for your future relationship.

2. Let’s pause this conversation for a moment, and come back in (an hour, a few hours, tomorrow) and talk about this.

When you’re in the heat of a workplace conflict, it’s hard to find the right words. Taking a minute to pause gives you both a chance to regroup and consider the bigger picture, the desired outcomes, and how to approach the conversation more productively.

3. It sounds like you’re feeling _____ is that right? [pause for affirmation]. Thank you for letting me know how you feel.

Checking in with the other person to validate their feelings can help deescalate a conflict at any point in the conversation.

When you “reflect to connect” you’re not agreeing with what they’ve said or that you agree with their emotion. Rather, you acknowledge how they feel. You see them. When you reflect, you are checking for understanding and creating a common starting place for the conversation.

When they know you’ve seen and heard them, it diffuses some of the emotional intensity and builds a connection that allows you to move to constructive next steps.

For example: “It sounds like you’re really frustrated with the lack of response from marketing and that’s sapping your motivation. Do I have that right?”

Powerful phrases to create clarity

Most conflict at work (or anywhere else) comes from an expectation violation. Some of the most powerful phrases you can use in any conflict are those that lead to greater clarity.

creating clarity in workplace conflict

4. What would a successful outcome look like for you?

You may or may not agree on what success looks like, but gaining clarity around expectations can save a lot of time and wasted energy. If it turns out you both want the same thing, you can shift to a “how can we” conversation. “Great, it sounds like we both want something similar. So how can we make that happen?”

At the very least, this powerful question gives you insights into what the other person needs, and then of course opens the door for you to share your definition of success as well.

5. Let’s start with what we agree on.

When you’re in the middle of a workplace conflict, it’s easy to overlook the common ground. It’s likely you share some common perspective to build on. Taking a few minutes to know what you agree on can help reduce stress and create a more collaborative tone for the work ahead.

6. What I’m hearing you say is __________. Am I interpreting that correctly?

Similar to number three where you reflect their emotion, this is a check for understanding to show that you’re actively listening, interested in, and truly understand the other person’s point of view. This powerful phrase is gold when working through workplace conflict because it also helps clear up misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

Powerful phrases to show up curious

One of the fastest ways to get to the root cause of a workplace conflict is to show up genuinely curious about what the situation looks like from the other person’s point of view. As with all of these power phrases your positive intent matters, as does your tone and facial expression.  

Your genuine curiosity will help people feel seen, and similar to the clarity power phrases, can give you a deeper sense of expectations and desired outcomes.

7. I’m curious how this looks from your perspective.

The beauty of this workplace conflict power phrase is that it can be useful at almost any point in the conversation.  Variations include, “What’s your take on this situation?” “I’d love to hear your point of view on this.”

Of course, once you listen to their perspective, you set the stage to share yours.

8. What do you suggest we do next?

This power phrase can be so useful to move the conversation from complaining or handwringing to tangible next steps, and it sets you up to share your ideas as well.

9. What can I do to support you right now?

One of the fastest ways to de-escalate an emotional conversation is to show up with genuine curiosity about how you might help. This question pairs with the connection questions listed above.

Powerful phrases to close the conversation

One of the most frustrating aspects of workplace conflict conversations is that it seems like they’ll never end. One of the best ways to have more influence and impact is with words that move you from discussion to action.

conflict communication

10. What’s one action we can both agree to as a next step here?

You might not have resolved all the issues, but steering the conversation to one specific next step helps create forward momentum. Asking for just one action will usually feel doable. And if one  step feels easy, you can always say “Great, what else do you think we could do?”

11. So, to recap our conversation, we’ve agreed to _________. Is that your understanding?

As you can see, we’re big believers in the “check for understanding” throughout the conversation. It’s particularly important when recapping a workplace conflict conversation. The more emotionally intense the conversation, the more critical this final step is. If you leave the discussion with different expectations, you’ll have continued conflict and hurt feelings.

12. Let’s schedule some time to talk about this again, and see how our solution is working.

If you’ve ever been in one of our leadership training programs, you’ll recognize this as “scheduling the finish,”

One of the big sources of workplace conflict is when you think you’ve resolved it, and everything doesn’t go the way you planned. Scheduling time to talk about the situation again makes the follow-up conversation more natural, because you’ve already agreed to it. A scheduled followup increases the odds that you’ll both keep your commitments to one another. And, it gives you a built-in opportunity to discuss the inevitable disruptions to your plan.

Your Turn

Workplace conflict is never easy, but often quite necessary and valuable in high-performing teams. Being able to surface and navigate workplace conflict is one of the most important skill sets for every team member to master. These powerful phrases can serve as a useful starting point. We encourage you to refine them and make them your own.

We’d love to hear from you: What would you add? What are your favorite go-to phrases for navigating workplace conflict?

See Also: Team Conflict: How to Surface and Discuss Simmering Issues (Video)

How to Say No at Work: Powerful Phrases to Stand Your Ground 

2 Comments

  1. John Horn

    Thank you for this great resources. I am in HR and this will be really helpful for our team in conflict management meetings, Is the article available to print or can you provide in PDF form? Also, I am interested in learning about any potential learning opportunities that you provide around the topic of conflict management. Thank you.

    Reply

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Karin Hurt And David Dye author photo

Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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