Managing Conflicts: Guide to having difficult conversations

6 minutes
Image : Conflict Conversations & Resolutions

It’s an innate human nature to have conflicts, especially in a work environment. It is therefore very crucial for both employees and leaders to learn and practice the art of managing conflicts.

Individuals in the workplace will have disagreements, misunderstandings, opposing views and disputes. This makes engaging in a rational and positive dialogue uncomfortable and at times even emotionally charged.

These topics of conflict conversations often arise both in workplace and personal relationship contexts. A common example would be heated debates between colleagues over project directions.

Conversations like that are usually stress inducing, more so when there is a clear hierarchy in the workplace.

While these conversations may be difficult they are absolutely essential for a healthy collaborative work environment and exchange of valuable ideas.

Without these conversations and debates there wouldn’t be an exchange of viewpoints or perspectives, theory halting innovative practices and creativity. Finding a resolution is key to finding clarity between both parties. 

Common examples include heated debates between colleagues over project directions, stressful conversations with managers regarding errors, uncomfortable talks with partners over household responsibilities or tense discussions with friends around political differences. 

While conflict conversations are difficult, they play an invaluable role in finding resolution. It is essential to reach mutual understanding through transparent communication.

Common Causes and Triggers

There are many interpersonal issues that can trigger the need for a conflict conversation such as:

  • Differences in working styles, priorities or values between colleagues
  • Unmet expectations or misunderstandings in close relationships
  • Poor communication or listening habits that allow frustrations to build up over time
  • Disagreements around boundaries, respect, trust or integrity 
  • Performance problems or constructive feedback an employee may be resistant to hearing
  • Significant breaches of conduct or behavior expectations 

Often there is a tipping point or catalyzing event that makes the need for resolution through open and candid dialogue necessary.

Allowing problems to fester leads to resentment, more confusion and emotional strain over time so conflict conversations, though difficult, are important.

Understanding the Challenges

Conflict conversations can be very challenging due to the discomfort, anxiety, fear, and tendency to avoid or procrastinate that often accompanies them. However, learning to have difficult dialogues constructively is an invaluable interpersonal skill.

Discomfort and Anxiety

Many people experience discomfort and anxiety when faced with the prospect of a conflict conversation.

The thought of sitting down to hash out differences face-to-face can induce stress, uneasiness, and dread. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings as normal.

With the right conflict management tactics, one can push past the initial discomfort to have meaningful dialogues. 

Fear of Confrontation

Confronting issues head on with another person often triggers fear and the instinct to avoid uncomfortable situations.

People may worry about potential arguments, criticism, resistance, or retaliation. Recognizing these fears enables us to challenge them, build courage, and develop skills to facilitate peaceful communication focused on mutual understanding.

Avoidance and Procrastination

Due to the anxiety and fear triggered by impending conflict conversations, people frequently avoid or procrastinate having them altogether.

It may seem easier in the moment to ignore issues, but this often exacerbates problems. Constructively addressing issues early prevents resentment, miscommunication, and relationships deterioration.

Committing to candid, empathic conversations, despite the initial unease they may spark, leads to positive conflict resolution.

Preparing for difficult dialogues

Self-assessment and self-awareness

Before entering into a difficult dialogue, it is important to assess your own mindset, triggers, and communication patterns.

Take time for honest self-reflection on how you typically respond in conflict situations. Identify any destructive tendencies like raising your voice, interrupting, blaming, or shutting down.

Also reflect on what triggers emotional reactions in you – perhaps certain phrases, inaccurate assumptions, or feeling unheard.

This self-awareness will help you remain calm and constructive during tense exchanges.

Empathic listening skills 

Practicing empathic listening is vital for conflict resolution. Empathic listening involves fully concentrating on understanding the other person’s perspective before reacting.

Give your partner your complete attention and reflect back what you hear in your own words. Seek first to comprehend their viewpoint, interpretations, reasoning, and emotions before attempting to persuade.

This builds trust and mutual understanding essential for finding common ground.

Emotional intelligence and regulation

Emotional regulation enables thinking clearly rather than reacting rashly in charged conversations.

Learn to monitor your feelings, pause when agitated, and reframe unhelpful thoughts. Breathe consciously to self-soothe heightened nerves.

Refocus the discussion from positions to interests and needs. Name emotions directly while owning them personally. Channeling emotional intelligence promotes dialogue over confrontation.  

Nonviolent Communication Framework

Applying nonviolent communication introduces compassion and cooperation into tricky talks. First, observe the concerning situation neutrally.

Then state how you concretely feel in this context. Next, identify your reasonable needs or expectations.

Finally, make a specific, positive request for change. This constructive approach minimizes misunderstanding and elicits goodwill and collaboration.

Having Constructive Conflict Conversations

Establishing positive intent and purpose: When entering a difficult dialogue, it is important to first establish a positive intent. The purpose should not be to attack, blame or hurt the other person, but rather to reach mutual understanding.

Make your positive intentions clear from the start. State what you hope to achieve through the dialogue, whether it is finding solutions, clearing up misunderstandings or improving the relationship. This sets the tone for a constructive conversation.  

Expressing issues objectively: Stick to the facts and avoid subjective judgments when expressing issues. Use neutral language to state your perspective objectively without putting the other person on defensive.

Stick to specific examples and factual impacts rather than making generalized attacking statements.

Allowing open and authentic sharing: Create a safe space for both people to share openly and authentically without fear of judgment or punishment.

Set ground rules like truly listening, not interrupting, and being respectful even when disagreeing. Ask clarifying questions if needed. Refrain from reactive statements. Manage your own emotions and body language. 

Reaching mutual understanding: The goal is to understand each other’s perspectives and experiences fully. Paraphrase what you heard to check your understanding.

Bridge differences by asking questions, not making assumptions. Recognize valid points made by the other, find truth in what they say even when disagreeing. Identify key areas of common ground and disagreement.

Finding common ground and win-win solutions: Based on the improved understanding, identify solutions that satisfy both parties’ key needs, not just your own – these are called “win-win” solutions.

Reinforce common ground and demonstrate how proposed solutions connect to shared goals. Collaborate to optimize solutions rather than competing.

Follow up by implementing agreements and changes, then communicating continuously to sustain the relationship.

Moving Forward Positively towards Conflict Conversations

Having a constructive conversation while having conflicted ideals is important. It is also just as important to follow through the agreements or changes that were mutually decided upon.

This results in the building of trust and reliability in the workplace amongst individuals.

At times conflict resolutions take time and cannot be achieved in one conversation. Patience and mutual respect is required for rational discussion to take place.

Ignoring unresolved issues is never the solution. It is crucial for both parties to keep the lines of communication open even when things get uncomfortable.

Leaders in modern workplaces must try to build an understanding of people’s perspectives even during disagreements. Mutual empathy and respect strengthens workplace relationships while resolving issues and driving innovation.

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