How to handle conflict in the workplace

Posted on July 4, 2019 · Posted in blog

How to handle conflict in the workplace

Everyone experiences conflict. Everyday. Big and small.

Therefore, we should be experts at dealing with it.

But we aren’t. Far from it. A large number of the issues clients bring into sessions – individual and team meetings alike, centre around conflict management.

So what is conflict?

The definition we find most helpful is from Dr Elias Porter, author of Relationship Awareness Theory and father of Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI) (more about this here):

Opposition is about disagreement Conflict is about a threat to one’s values
Opposition can be productive Conflict is usually unproductive
People go into conflict only about things that are important to them Conflict provides an opportunity to learn what matters to people and a chance to make it right

What does this mean?

Disagreeing is fine, healthy, and even enriching. When conflict arises something else happens. A person or several people feel threatened, unsettled, attacked or uncomfortable… The feelings are negative, and the immediate urge is to protect one’s sense of self-worth and values. It is no longer simply about the topic or problem at hand.

Obviously, not all conflicts are the same. The first step is to recognise that you are feeling a negative emotion or that you are threatened in some way and to acknowledge the discomfort and understand that you are now in conflict.

We often work with teams on how to allow themselves – and then their colleagues – to acknowledge that they have been triggered.

Once triggered, you need to know that if you are on “auto-pilot” you will probably react in one of the following ways:

  • Confront or assert (“fight” instinct)
  • Go to check facts and seek evidence (somewhat similar to “freeze” instinct)
  • Try to avoid the whole thing, or simply accommodate (“flight” instinct)

If you know which of the above is your usual default (which can change depending on the setting for example, some of us instinctively assert at home but go into fact-checking mode at work), you need to be aware of the other party to the conflict. He or she may:

  • Not be at all aware that you are in conflict; or
  • Be in conflict herself without knowing it; or
  • Be in conflict, evidently, and do one of those three: assert (fight back); go to data and processes, or acquiesce.

This realisation or awareness will be the essential step in managing the conflict rather than letting it manage you.

How to handle conflict

When teams learn together how to work through conflict, we recommend:

  1. Pausing: Avoid going into “auto-pilot” and see what might have been the trigger for you.

Question: What’s really important to you about this?

  1. Define the problem: Try and separate the personalised aspect from the issue at hand.

Question: What would be an acceptable solution for you?

  1. Expand the focus: Try and have a conversation, as gently and respectfully as you can.

Question: Would you like to hear what’s important to me?

When conflict arises in a team, it is advisable to try and discuss it as a team. Depersonalising it as far as possible, and acknowledging that the solution should be sought with everyone’s self-worth intact. The cliche “Don’t make it personal” is very solid, good advice.

Healthy debate (opposition) is to be encouraged, but lack of respect to someone’s reaction (even when you dislike it) is always unhelpful. Is there a more irritating phrase than: “you are overreacting”? That is precisely because it is a judgment passed on someone’s feelings.

Why is it crucial to learn to become better at conflict management?

The cost of conflict in the workplace is enormous. From affected morale and productivity to plain dysfunctionality, loss of talent, legal costs, and much more.

Investing in learning how to deal with conflict always benefits teams and companies – not to mention families, couples…all of us. It is a great idea to include this in schools. And smart companies would do well to make sure their teams know how to master conflict management.

Many factors affect how people relate to conflict – and are open in discussing their feelings. Cultural differences, gender preferences, rank in the organisation and many more factors play into the intensity or importance of the conflict. However, these principles seem to provide a good outline to a wide variety of teams we have worked with in South Africa, with its rich diversity of industries, home languages, gender, and roles within the business.

How to do this?

  • Hire facilitators who can train and help assimilate the new knowledge into your workforce. Start from the top management.
  • Hire a coach to work one-on-one with top management.
  • Find a trained and accredited SDI facilitator – as it is the only proven tool that assesses conflict behaviour and provides a template based on the assessment to dealing with conflict.

Learn more about SDI here or get in touch with us on

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