Recognize the Humanity in Others as You Navigate Workplace Conflict
To effectively navigate workplace conflict, prioritize connecting with the human at the center of it all. Begin by acknowledging the situation and expressing your optimism about finding a resolution collaboratively.
Consider using these impactful phrases to start a conversation focused on empathy and understanding as you navigate workplace disagreements.
1. “I care about _____ (you, this team, this project) and I’m confident we can find a solution that we can all work with.”
This powerful phrase works well because you start by prioritizing the relationship, and (as we teach in our leadership programs) “put people before projects.”
That’s a reasonable starting point to navigate workplace conflict UNLESS it isn’t (or doesn’t feel) true.
If You Mean It…
Imagine that you’re in a clash with a coworker named Joe. You’ve come together to talk about it. Joe opens the conversation with what could be a Powerful Phrase, “I really care about you and this project, and I’m confident we can find a solution we can all work with.”
Well, if Joe’s basically a nice guy, who got you out of a bind last year when your little boy was sick… and, oh yeah, just last week he told your boss you’re a rock star at pivot tables (that sure was nice of him), that’s a solid way for Joe to start the conversation. You might think. “Well, I’m frustrated, but come to think of it, Joe always seems fair. Let me listen to what he has to say. He’s right. I bet we can work this out.”
Now imagine the same conflict. Different Joe. This Joe recently threw you under the bus and took credit for your work. Oh yeah, and last week he laughed at your idea during the staff meeting. In front of your boss and all the people. Now, if Joe starts the conversation the same way, by saying “I really care about you and this project…” you might think, “Nice try Joe, but that’s a hard stop. I don’t trust you.”
The Power of Connection
That’s the power of connection. The more connection you can build before you need it, the easier it becomes to navigate workplace conflict as it arises.
Connection happens one person at a time. As you seed the ground for easier collaboration, influence, and trust, one of the best things you can do is get to know the people you work with at a human level. Treat them with dignity and be trustworthy. It takes extra time, but you’ll earn it back many times over when you work through conflict.
That means paying close attention and making careful choices about how you show up in every interaction. If you haven’t invested in the relationship or the other person doesn’t trust your intentions, even the most carefully chosen words will fall flat. But more likely, your words will tank the trust even further.
2. “Let’s pause this conversation for a moment, and come back in (an hour, a few hours, tomorrow) and talk about this.”
This one’s useful if the conversation has gone sideways. 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.
You might also express empathy for the relationship, and your concern for saying something you might regret. “I care about you, and I’m concerned that I might say something at this moment that could damage our relationship. I could use a few minutes to regroup so that I can reengage in a more productive way.”
3. “It sounds like you’re feeling _____ is that right? [pause for affirmation]. Thank you for letting me know how you feel.”
This Powerful Phrase is a tried-and-true relationship-building technique called “reflect to connect.” 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. Checking in with the other person to validate their feelings can also help deescalate a conflict at any point in the conversation.
Here’s an example of this one in use: “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?”
These three powerful phrases will help you navigate workplace conflict. If you’re looking for more, check out this article for phrases to help create deeper clarity, curiosity, and commitment as well.
Coming Soon: More Ways to Move From Conflict to Collaboration
As you may have heard, we’re conducting a World Workplace Conflict and Collaboration Survey, and as of this writing (May 2023), we have over 5000 participants in 45 countries. The results so far are fascinating and so helpful as we write our next book coming in Spring 2024: Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to Destress the Workday, Build Collaboration, and Calm Difficult Customers.
It’s not too late to take part, and we’d love to hear your stories of how you’ve navigated workplace conflict. The survey takes just a few minutes to complete. It’s anonymous, but if you choose to include your email, we will follow up with you and share the analysis and let you know when the book comes out.