You and a co-worker have been assigned to deliver a report at Wednesday’s shareholders meeting. Without talking to you, she takes home all your notes and puts together a Power Point presentation with only her name on it.


You thought you were on good terms with the guy who has the desk next to you. Lately, though, he has been avoiding you, even to the point of walking the long way around the room on his way out to avoid going past your desk.

You’ve been picking up extra work for a colleague because she has been going through a personal problem. She seems better now, but you are still pulling way more than your weight. You feel she is taking advantage of you.

These are just three examples of the types of conflicts that can make the workplace stressful for you and for others around you. Handling and resolving work-related conflicts can be a huge challenge – so much so, in fact, that a study by the University  of Colorado Boulder estimated that managers spend at least  one fourth of their time trying to resolve them. Typically, we try to handle our conflicts at work by one of two ways: fight or flee, meaning we try to battle them out or we try to avoid them. With either method, we are usually left discouraged because the problem continues or gets worse.

By following some simple steps to conflict resolution, however, we often can change an uncomfortable and perhaps job-threatening problem into an opportunity for growth.

Simple steps to conflict resolution

1. Take a step back.

While sticking your head in the sand doesn’t solve much, neither does a heat-of-the-moment reaction to a difficult situation. Take some time to assess the situation, perhaps giving yourself at least 24 hours before doing anything. Time has a way of giving us a new perspective on issues. Maybe by thinking it through, you will gain some insight that will help you address the problem.

Taking a step back does not just apply to the spoken word either. Resist the urge to fire off an angry e-mail or text to your colleague – or to anyone else for that matter. We usually don’t do our best thinking when we are angry, and we can pay dearly for it later.

2. Set up a meeting.

Okay, you’ve slept on the problem and have achieved no clarity, but you are calm. Now is the time to set up a time to talk with the other person.  Try to find a time when you both will not feel rushed. A neutral location away from other prying eyes or listening ears is the best choice. Perhaps you could get together for lunch or for a drink after work?

A phone call will not do the trick for this meeting. When you meet face to face, it gives you the opportunity to read each other’s body language. We can put each other at ease, for example, by leaning forward to listen, or we can put up walls by crossing our arms in front of our chests. Humor can do much to ease any discomfort of the situation, but it is best to go ahead and address the issue directly, while at the same time communicating your desire to resolve this issue between you.

3. Listen more than you talk.

After you have brought up the topic, it’s time to do more listening than talking. Practice the following tools of active listening:

  • Pay Attention. Silence your phone and limit other distractions. If you are interrupted – by a waiter, for example – try to pick right back up where you with a statement such as “Let’s see, you were just about to explain…”
  • Use positive body language and gestures.  Nod when you agree, smile if there is something funny, and encourage the conversation by saying quick comments such as “Yes,” “Uh, huh,” or “I do too.”
  • Allow the speaker to finish before you ask any questions. Then use “I” statements instead of “You” statements to get more information. Here’s an example: “I think what I am hearing is…” or “Is this what you mean…?”
  • Respond thoughtfully. Be open and honest, but be respectful and non-judgmental.  Remember your goal here should not be to win an argument but to have a conversation.

4. Acknowledge your responsibility.

After you have talked out the situation, be sure to acknowledge your role and responsibility in any of the misunderstanding. This is not necessarily an admission of guilt, but an expression that you are sorry there has been an issue between you. Usually in any conflict, there is a shared responsibility, anyway, so apologizing can help to defuse the situation.

5. Discuss solutions.

Hopefully, you have both cleared the air now and are ready to brainstorm some solutions to your conflict. It might be a good idea to write down a list of whatever ideas you come up with. You can then pare down the list to what you will be able to put into action.

Usually we find that the root of any conflict is simple miscommunication. In the Power Point scenario listed above, maybe your colleague actually felt insecure about her role in the presentation and wanted to find a non-verbal way to put her ideas into action. The guy in the next desk may have heard a false rumor that you can easily clear up. And in the third example, your colleague may simply not have any idea she is still burdening you with extra work.

In all three scenarios, honest communication can go a long way to solving the conflict.

6. Put it behind you.

This may be the most important step of all. After you have come up with a workable solution to the problem, you need to move on from there. Don’t rehash the problem or continue to bring it up when you and your co-worker are together. Also unless there is a need to do so, avoid bringing co-workers into the issue any further than they already may be. Chances are that they will notice you two have cleared the air and will be grateful. You can just leave it at that.

While some conflicts seem insurmountable, when we strive to resolve them in a constructive and open manner, we make it a better workplace environment for everyone.