The Secret to Resolving Workplace Conflicts

During the ten years I was in private practice, I repeatedly observed an interesting phenomenon among the couples I saw.  Virtually every single person secretly believed their marital problems were due to his or her partner.  Time after time, husband and wife would come into my office and, within five minutes, it was clear that both people believed they were in therapy to get the other person to shape up.  Their attitude was something like this – “we’d have a great relationship if it wasn’t for you.”

I encounter this same attitude in business.  When coworkers argue or work teams fight, too often the attitude we try to adjust is the other person’s.  In fact, I believe 80% of effective conflict resolution involves understanding ourselves and readjusting the negative beliefs and behaviors we have about conflict.

I can teach communication skills and conflict resolution strategies till the cows come home, but until a person is willing to look in the mirror and ask him or herself what role he or she has played in the current workplace drama, the odds of successfully resolving the conflict are slim to none.

Adjust Your Attitude

I know; easier said than done.  No one likes to be wrong, and it can feel like giving in or losing to focus on your part in the problem.  However, not only does introspection lead to insight, taking the time to adjust your attitude before you confront the conflict can greatly enhance the chances that both of you will come out winners when you do.

So, the next time you find yourself butting heads with a work colleague, try these five strategies:

  • Throw down your sword. Unless you are on a battlefield, chances are the person you come into conflict with is not The Enemy, but instead is probably someone whose goals are generally the same, or at least interrelated, with yours.
  • Make the right assumptions. An attitude of “what a moron” or “she’s just doing this to torture me” will almost guarantee that you act and communicate in a way that the conflict won’t be resolved satisfactorily. Instead, ask yourself “If I assume that the other person has a valid point, what would s/he be trying to accomplish?  Why would s/he see it this way?”
  • Get a second opinion. Talk through the situation with a neutral party to gain perspective and clarity from that person, and also to better understand the conflict through talking it out. It is always helpful to get a problem out in the open and to get input from someone whom you trust and who understands your frame of reference.
  • Call time out. If your blood is really boiling, do something physical (exercise, go for a walk) to help you recover physiologically.  Then, once you’re blood pressure is under control, list all the ways successfully resolving the conflict is in your best interest.  This can help you reevaluate your position, and perhaps come back to it with a fresh vision of what needs to be done to resolve the matter.
  • Reframe the problem. Look for similarities in your positions rather than focusing on your differences. Common goals are great unifiers. How many stories have you heard of strangers acting together in times of emergency? When a common goal is clear, the natural reaction is to put differences aside.

The Bottom Line

American psychologist William James once said, “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it.  That factor is attitude.”  We may not be able to (or want to) develop a close relationship with everyone we work with, but we do have control over whether or not conflict turns into combat.

Explore posts in the same categories: human resources

One Comment on “The Secret to Resolving Workplace Conflicts”

  1. alfaprima Says:

    There is a lot of information about how to manage a passive aggressive co-worker. It’s important to realize that in a work team everybody reacts in a different way, and sometimes the way is going to affect your own productivity…If the other person has not the same feeling of urgency, or doesn’t appreciate the right use of time like you, there will be problems at delivery.
    How do you know you are in a passive aggressive situation?
    Go to

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