How to reduce conflict and avoid misunderstanding at work

A common-sense approach can help us overcome the differences that derail working relationships, says Catherine Stothart

Most conflict at work arises from how we relate to others through our behaviour – what we do and what we say – so strategies for reducing conflict and avoiding misunderstanding are about managing behaviour and the motivations and stressors that drive it.   

The most common contributor to conflict is differences in personality or styles of working. Therefore, it’s essential that organisations develop line managers to have the skills and the willingness to recognise and manage the personality differences underlying conflict and deal with minor issues before they escalate from misunderstandings and tensions to a full-blown crisis.  

When we conflict with other people, we tend not to give them credit for the good intentions that might underlie the negative impact they are having on us. But when our own behaviour has a negative impact on others, we give ourselves this credit (in psychology, this is attribution theory). Fortunately, the acronym CREDIT can be used to describe the key strategies to reduce conflict and misunderstandings. 

C – Collaboration

Have a collaborative mindset. Look for win-wins, rather than win-lose outcomes: it’s not a competition. Look for common ground and make it clear that you agree. Consider the problem from their perspective – put yourself in their shoes, rather than sticking firmly in your own. 

R – Respect

People are particularly sensitive to what they regard as a “lack of respect”. When you communicate with people, bear in mind that we all have deep-seated needs to feel that we matter, are respected and are liked. So even during conflict, treat them as if they are important to you and you want to get on with them.  

E – Emotions

Rather than letting your “inner chimp” take over, make time to allow the rational part of your brain to kick in. Relax your body, breathe deeply, pause before you speak, use a calm tone of voice and measured body language. If you can, move to a different location – while you are walking, you and the other person will have chance to reflect – or suggest a time out.  

D - Drives

Be aware of what is driving your behaviour. For example, someone who has a strong need for a plan can become stressed when they don’t know what is going to happen (perhaps when colleagues rush ahead with no plan or throw in too many ideas). This triggers their negative emotions, they may come across as pedantic and rigid and their behaviour has a negative impact on others. Someone with this drive and style (known as a ‘navigator’) can help themselves by asking for time to think and being open to new ideas. Their colleagues can help them by slowing down and staying focused.

I – Intention, Impact and Influence

There is often an influence gap between what we intend by our words and actions and the impact it has on the other person. This is magnified during conflict because the emotions we experience are communicated in our tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. People react to the messages we transmit and situations can quickly escalate from a minor disagreement to a major argument. During any communication, and especially during conflict, ask yourself whether the impact of your behaviour is helping you have the impact and influence you want.     

T - Tomorrow

Switch from the past or present tense to the future – what are we going to do, how can we stop this happening again? Remember that you will have to carry on working with the person after this conflict is resolved – what can you do or say now that will help to build a better relationship with them for the future? 

Catherine Stothart is author of How to Get On with Anyone: Gain the Confidence and Charisma to Communicate with any Personality Type, published by Pearson.

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