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Conflict in the workplace is inevitable – but the right leader can resolve it, says Terry Hayward.

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07 January 2019 | Terry Hayward

It can be challenging dealing with conflict involving people from a range of different backgrounds and cultures. However, there are steps you can take to resolve a dispute. 

It starts with being professional, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an aloof authoritarian. A good manager can build rapport, join in conversations without getting involved in gossip, clarify any unhelpful rumours and offer support and guidance. 

Here are my key factors for resolving conflict.

1.Deal with it

Your instinct might be to bury your head in the sand but that’s not going to resolve conflict. Instead, work with that person early on to prevent the situation escalating. Conflict isn’t always bad; it can lead to new ways of working so try to be open-minded when seeking to resolve it.

2. Be culturally aware

As part of building a rapport you will develop an understanding of what is important to your team and how they respond to different situations. Use this knowledge and avoid making assumptions or decisions based upon stereotypes. 

We are all different and while there may be some common cultural stereotypes that can inform a situation – such as you may expect a British person to be less direct in their response than someone from Germany or the Netherlands – we don’t all behave in exactly the same way.

3. Time and space

Ask the team member with whom you're not seeing eye to eye to spare time to meet. Sometimes it can be helpful to step outside the workplace and go for a coffee. 

Make sure you have given yourself enough time in your day to spend on this conversation. Avoid squeezing it between meetings, for example. 

If you have some control over the meeting space, avoid sitting opposite each other as that emphasises a perceived divide and may exacerbate the conflict. Try sitting adjacent to them, it can make a real psychological difference.

4. Listen

You may think you know how to resolve the problem but charging in trying to sort it out without giving the other person the courtesy of listening to them is not going to help the situation. 

Explain that you want to work together to resolve the issue but then let them talk. As one of my teachers used to say to our class: “We all have two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in that ratio.” 

You also need to show the other person you’re listening so think about your body language. You know when someone is listening to you: they’re looking at you, showing interest and acknowledgment and displaying empathy. 

You may be so keen to help that you want to jump in but if you talk over that person then they are likely to get frustrated. 

If you want to say something, make notes and come back to it later at a more opportune moment in the conversation. 

Also, just check in with them that you’ve understood; if you summarise what they’ve said they can be sure that you’ve listened.

5. Seek agreement and take action

You don’t want to be someone who is all talk. Find out how the person wants the situation to be resolved and explain what, if anything, you can do. If their expectations are unreasonable, explain why. 

However, if there is an action agreed to by either party, make sure that you decide together when it will happen and make sure it does. The worst thing you can do is agree to do something and then not do it as it’ll destroy any trust you’ve built during the conversation. 

Having a structure is a good first step to handling conflict but not all conflict is easily resolvable. It may take several meetings or the individual is so aggrieved you need help from your manager or HR. 

As someone who runs conflict management sessions, I recommend training for managers and staff. Getting a group together in a room to discuss good and bad experiences, and participating in helpful activities to address our perceptions and cultural differences, as well as understand and challenge how we react to conflict are great ways to build a resilient and high-functioning team.  

Terry Hayward is HR consultant at International Workplace