Five simple questions to help resolve a workplace conflict

Hands up, who came from homes where conflict was resolved successfully? Where people discussed their concerns, listened to each other and developed solutions that suited everyone? I thought so. For most of us, conflict resolution meant someone ‘won’, someone ‘gave in’ or ‘gave up’, compromises pleased nobody or there was endless unproductive arguing.

And we can’t turn to Hollywood and TV to give us models for appropriate conflict resolution because it’s not very entertaining to watch people patiently working through their issues. There is a lot of talking, no action and it’s only interesting if you’re inside it.

It’s hardly surprising then that with so few useful models, most people feel they don’t have the skills to resolve a workplace conflict and they wait for a manager or HR to do it for them. In the meantime, the conflict escalates, parties become entrenched, cheer squads are gathered, productivity declines and the possibility of a successful resolution has vastly diminished.

So, if you are genuine about wanting to fix things before they get out of hand, here are five simple questions to think about before you have your resolution conversation:

  • Who is your conflict with?

This one seems pretty easy. But are you really more upset with someone else in your life and you’re displacing all of that onto Sophie? Or are you upset because your manager lets Sophie ‘get away with’ things and not you? Or does Sophie’s team seem to have more resources than yours? It’s worth taking a minute to make sure your issues are squarely with Sophie rather than with a manager or system.

  • Why do you want to have this conversation?

Do you genuinely want to resolve your issues with Jeremy? Do you want to understand why he behaved that way? Are you prepared to listen to him? Do you want him to understand the effect his behaviour had on you?

If the answer to any of these questions was ‘no’, you’re probably not really interested in resolving your conflict. You may want to punish him/make him feel guilty/take revenge etc but none of this has anything to do with resolving a conflict.

  • What do you want to say? What are you prepared to hear?

What are the important things you want Ellie to know? Are you interested in what Ellie has to say ? Can you make room for the fact that there may have been misunderstandings/miscommunication etc? Are you prepared to accept a difference between intention and impact?

If you’ve already made your mind up that Ellie has behaved disgracefully, no excuses, then there’s no point in having a conversation. However, if you’re trying to resolve a conflict, it’s helpful to be open to the idea that you don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, and that although you may see Ellie’s behaviour as inappropriate, there may have been circumstances of which you are unaware, she may not have been acting out of malice, or that she may have different values to you.

  • How will you frame your conversation so they can hear it?

How can you express your concerns, and talk about the effect this situation has had on you, without moving into blaming and guilting?

When we have been hurt, often our first response is to hurt back. But if you want to resolve a conflict, there is no point insulting or blaming the other because they will stop listening and start flinging grenades back at you. Using ‘I’ statements is helpful here, as is reframing to take the toxicity out of your language. For example, ‘Because you’re so lazy, you never get the reports to me on time and I can’t meet my deadline’ can become ‘I don’t know if you’re aware of how much I rely on you. It’s really important to me to receive your reports on time so I can meet my deadlines but sometimes this hasn’t happened. What was going on then?’

  • When and where will you talk with them?

First, you’ll have to make some decisions about how you let them know you want to speak with them. Do you try to drop by their desk when no one else is around? Send them an email? Call them? Then, if they agree to talk with you, you’ll need to find a time and place that suits you both.

Working through these questions this is a lot harder than than snapping at Ben or constantly undermining, criticising and moaning about him at every opportunity. It requires time, thought and courage. And, like all new things, it may seem a little cumbersome and awkward at first.

But is it worth a try? Let me know how you go.


Helen Collins works in a variety of dispute resolution modes including mediation, coaching, facilitation and training. She assists businesses to increase productivity by managing workplace conflict.

Contact her at or visit her website at www.

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