Tackling Challenging Conversations: A Practical Guide to Conflict Resolution


The Social Web of the Workplace

We spend a third of our lives at work, so landing that dream job in a thriving workplace can make a world of difference to our wellbeing. However, feeling fulfilled at work is not just about achieving the title or salary you’re proud of—it’s about the quality of our relationships.

If you find yourself regularly scanning the job market for something better, you are not alone. Research conducted in 2023 for SEEK revealed that about a third of Australian workers are hoping to change their job within the next 6 months

If you’re feeling this way, this is your invitation to pause for a moment. 

While it can be invigorating to start a new venture, it often doesn’t take long until we become disillusioned by our new workplace. We are all too easily reminded that there is friction within every team and challenges to adapt to in every organisation.

So before you jump ship, why not try leaning into the discomfort to build something better? 

Conflict can lead to growth, innovation and stronger relationships when it’s managed constructively.

Trust, connection and challenging conversations are the hallmarks of a thriving team and organisation. Neither leaders nor employees can operate at their best without them. 

An organisation truly thrives when its people have the skills to build robust relationships, and in turn, navigate change and conflict together.

The Power of Relationships

While social needs and expectations differ from person to person, we are a species that is hardwired to connect. Whether it is real or imagined, at home or at work, the threat that social conflict poses can weigh heavily on our mental health. 

Various studies have dug deeper into our intrinsic fear of social rejection. They’ve found evidence that our brains respond to the pain of social rejection in the same way that our brains respond to the pain of physical injury. 

Strong social connections have also been found to strengthen the immune system and increase your chances of a longer life by 50%. 

It’s no surprise that our probability for success can be measured by the quality of our relationships. Those who are able to address conflict quickly and constructively have an enormous advantage in life and leadership.

We truly thrive in our workplaces, homes and communities when our identity is anchored to a strong support system and we can enjoy a real sense of belonging. 

Angry female employee reacts to conflict arising in a work email.

The New Arena for Conflict Resolution

As digitised modes of working continue to reshape the corporate landscape, many of us have had to be agile in the way that we choose to connect. In most instances, this has been a reactive adaptation to the global challenges of COVID-19.

When we rely heavily on technology to communicate, everyday interactions can become lost in translation. We may find ourselves frowning at short emails, feeling irritated by transactional phone calls and suppressing tensions that bubble away under the surface. 

With many team members working remotely or in different timezones altogether, it’s all too easy to sweep issues under the rug and avoid a difficult conversation. 

While this often occurs quietly at an individual level, it significantly impacts workplace culture and team performance. The smaller the team, the greater the impact on others and on organisational success as a whole.

This is an opportunity to recognise the early signs of conflict and bring our awareness, empathy and curiosity into play.

In episode 11 of the Resilience Real-Time podcast, Springfox CKO, Peta Sigley, recognises that successful conflict resolution:

  • Is inevitable, normal and challenging
  • Experience, intuition and knowledge must be applied
  • Constructively managed, conflict can lead to personal and organisational     development
  • Constructively managed, conflict helps build robust and trusting relationships

You Should Label The Conflict First

When conflict arises in the workplace, our natural response can often put us at a disadvantage. If you find yourself reacting rather than responding, try labelling the conflict first.

We take our power back when we pause, take a breath, and respond to the situation with skill rather than emotion. Labelling a conflict allows us to step back just far enough to view the situation objectively. 

You’re likely to be experiencing one of the following types of conflict:

1. Affective Conflict: Arises when there is an inconsistency in personal relationships and values. 

This can lead to emotional clashes and antagonistic behaviour, quickly eroding trust. At an organisational level, affective conflict diminishes group performance and loyalty, team commitment, intent to stay within an organisation and job satisfaction.

2. Substantive Conflict: Occurs when there are disagreements over task objectives or goals. 

Substantive conflict can be hugely beneficial when managed constructively, stimulating discussion, and driving higher group performance.

Three business people having a challenging conversation in a meeting and working towards conflict resolution.

The 5 Modes of Conflict Engagement

There are five modes of conflict engagement, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. We’re all capable of using all five modes, however we are naturally inclined toward some over others, whether due to personal temperament or practice. 

Looking at the below, which conflict mode do you commonly respond with?

  1. Avoidance (Lose-Lose): Individual neither pursues own or others’ needs i.e. doesn’t participate.

Advantages: may be needed when there are high levels of distress or risk of break-down, or when time is needed to cool down and plan.

Disadvantages: results in lost time and missed creative opportunities.

  1. Competition (Win-Lose): Individual pursues own concerns at the expense of others. 

Advantages: may be required in critical situations with high risk, or when there is an established leadership situation.

Disadvantages: leads to reduced collaboration and trust.

  1. Accommodation (Lose-Win): Individual neglects own concerns in favour of others.

Advantages: loses battle to win war, allows others to learn.

Disadvantages: may be perceived as caving in.

  1. Compromise (Trade-Offs): Conflict resolution only partly satisfies both parties.

Advantages: helps find common ground, signals respect.

Disadvantages: often offers only temporary solutions.

  1. Collaboration (Win-Win): Conflict resolution involves both parties working together to find a solution.

Advantages: builds trust and creativity with maximum concern for issues and relationships.

Disadvantages: requires courage, time and empathy.

Businessman's hand skillfully arranging wooden blocks to illustrate a strategy and action plan with the goal of effective conflict resolution.

Our 4-Step Guide For Conflict Resolution

In a high-performance environment, some conflict is inevitable and, to a certain extent, beneficial. There will often be situations where individuals are required to deliver feedback or appraisals that may not be well received. 

When a difficult conversation is imminent, it is important to:

  1. Set up a neutral and comfortable environment for engagement
  2. Prepare adequately by defining the issues, perspectives and objectives of both parties
  3. Engage empathetically, actively listen, and explore others' feelings and suggestions
  4. Evaluate outcomes and follow up with a debrief and mentorship if needed

Constructive conflict resolution involves empathy, curiosity and being receptive to multiple perspectives. Empathy requires active listening and tuning into non-verbal cues as well as an openness to diversity.

Standing male leader speaks to seated team members with open and positive body language

How Leaders Can Lead Through Clarity and Communication

Destructive conflicts can lead to various negative consequences, such as loss of trust, reduced performance and discomfort. To handle such conflicts effectively, leaders need to understand primal emotional responses and practice self-control and empathy.

Leaders can create an environment conducive to conflict resolution by:

  • Involving the team to establish clear outcomes and objectives

Leaders should get the team involved in developing a set of values to guide behaviour, communication and performance with agreed specific consequences regarding deviation, and a process for resolving issues. Two-way and open communication based on facts fosters trust and learning.

  • Prioritising feedback and review 

Leaders should schedule regular reviews of performance, behaviours and issues. Disciplined, high-performance environments allow for quick and creative solutions and reduce the anxiety associated with conflict.

  • Establishing strong processes 

Leaders should establish expectations regarding time, communication, self-care disciplines, effort and teamwork. A robust style of team communication will help increase honesty, trust and psychological safety.

Driving Change for 2024

While it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day rhythm of your role, we can all benefit from acknowledging the fundamental element of success in the workplace: connection.

Connection and constructive conflict resolution are two of the most valuable skills for leaders and staff alike. By mastering these skills, you are more likely to be able to  foster trust, collaboration, and high-performance within teams and among coworkers. 

The practice and training of ‘soft skills’ such as emotional intelligence, empathy, and social cognition are essential steps towards achieving successful conflict resolution. Practice and continuous improvement will lead to immense personal and organisational growth now and well into the future.

As we progress into 2024, harnessing the strategies discussed will be crucial for both leaders and organisations to embed wellbeing and motivation, and ensure a productive and prosperous year ahead.

If you’d like to hear more about Springfox leadership and employee training programs, please click here: https://www.springfox.com/contact 

Keep well.

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