Workplace conflict: How to diffuse battles with co-workers

No one likes to address workplace conflicts -- not the employees who get embroiled in them and especially not the employees' managers, who pretend they don't exist. After all, conflict is messy, often political, and requires confrontation -- an activity most people aim to avoid.

But the longer workplace conflicts fester, the bigger they grow and the more stress they create. "If conflict is not managed, it can become overwhelming and break down the lines of communication in an organization," says Steve Dinkin, president of the San Diego, Calif.-based National Conflict Resolution Center. "If there's a lot of anger and mistrust, teams can't work effectively. Conflicts create a lot of inefficiency in organizations."

Notably, the number of workplace conflicts increases when the economy is weak and jobs grow scarce, adds Dinkin. Some employees retreat into self-preservation mode, where they'll do anything to save their job, including throwing another person under the bus.

The most common workplace conflicts stem from someone taking credit for another person's work (whether it was intentional or unintentional) or someone badmouthing a co-worker to advance their career, says John Reed, executive director of staffing company Robert Half Technology. Conflicts also arise from differences among employees' communication and work styles, he notes.

Dinkin and Reed agree that coworkers should try to address their interpersonal problems on their own before they involve their managers. Here are their four tips for taking the steam out of workplace squabbles.

1. Stay Calm

Reed advises victims of conflicts to express their concerns about their adversary's behavior in as calm and professional a manner as possible. "You don't want to walk into that conversation hurling accusations," he says.

Dinkin adds that if you address your adversary in a forceful, confrontational way, he will go on the defensive, react just as strongly as you, and the conflict will only worsen. "If the person sees you're frustrated, they have more control over you," says Dinkin. "If you demonstrate that you're not frustrated, you're more in control of the situation."

2. Ask Questions

To avoid a heated confrontation, Dinkin recommends asking your adversary questions about his behavior that bothers you. For example, if his listening to loud music during the workday inhibits your ability to focus and hampers your productivity, Dinkin says you could open the conversation by asking why he likes to listen to music while he works. If a coworker is taking credit for your work, for example, you might ask why he didn't note your contribution to the project when he was talking about it with your boss. The object of asking these questions, says Dinkin, is for the victim to get a better understanding of why their adversary engages in a particular behavior.

3. Listen

Reed and Dinkin agree that it's important for the victim to listen closely to his adversary's response. The victim may believe that the adversary plays his music loud just to annoy him, notes Dinkin, but their dialog may reveal that the adversary is completely oblivious to the effect his music has on others and doesn't mean to bother anyone at all.

The next step in resolving the conflict is for the victim to paraphrase the aggressor's response and make it part of their question-seeking resolution. For example, Dinkin recommends the victim say, "I understand that listening to music helps motivate and focus you, but your music makes it hard for me to concentrate on getting my work done. Is there a way we can resolve this?"

Paraphrasing your adversary's words assures him that you understand his perspective and helps to diffuse conflicts, says Dinkin. "Everyone wants to be heard. Repeating what the other person says demonstrates that you're listening," he adds.

4. Give Your Adversary the Benefit of the Doubt -- Once

Reed says that if your aggressor denies or makes excuses for his behavior (e.g. "I'm not badmouthing you," or "I didn't mean to make you feel that way"), give him the benefit of the doubt -- the first time. If he does it again, confront him, and bring up any promises he made to you when you first spoke about the issue. You might also say, "If we can't resolve this issue on our own, we may need help from management." Hopefully, invoking the boss will get your adversary's attention and compel him to stop acting like a jerk.

Chances are, the bad behavior that's creating the conflict will stop as soon as you bring it up with your adversary (provided, of course, you don't lose your cool). The benefit of calling your adversary out on his behavior is that it sends the message that you're on to him and that he can't get away with continuing to bully you, say Dinkin and Reed.

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com.

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