10 Tips for Tackling the Toughest Workplace Conflicts

A guide to resolving on-the-job disputes.

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Each employee possesses a unique set of attitudes, ideals, and beliefs that may differ from that of their co-workers. Sometimes, these personal differences can lead to conflicts in the office. Here are 10 tips for resolving workplace disputes:

1. Tackle the issue after both parties have calmed down. If you're working on a group project and find that one of your team members isn't pulling his or her weight, it's best to discuss the issue before it escalates, says David W. Ballard, a psychologist and head of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. "Address the issue early, before it turns into a bigger problem, but be sure to wait until things have cooled down," he says. "It's difficult to have a productive discussion if you and your co-worker are angry or upset. Wait until you are both clear-headed."

2. Maintain a positive outlook. Maybe your co-worker routinely takes credit for your ideas—a common occurrence in a competitive work environment. Rather than accuse her angrily, consider airing your complaints calmly. Keep an open mind throughout, and try not to assume that she will be unreceptive to your concerns. "Try talking directly with the person you are having the conflict with. Meet in a neutral place, remain calm, and treat the other person with respect," says Ballard. "Don't assume the other person is hostile or unwilling to work out a solution. If you're entering the conversation with negative expectations, you may unwittingly elicit the very reactions you are trying to avoid."

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3. Practice "active listening." Passed over for a promotion you really wanted and felt you deserved? When you approach your manager about it, don't just fire off concerns. Hear her out. "Pay attention, ask questions, try to understand the other person's perspective, and acknowledge the emotions that both of you are experiencing," says Ballard. "When discussing the conflict, focus on the behaviors needed for a resolution. This will keep the discussion focused on the issue or problem, rather than turning it into a personality clash that may further escalate the conflict."

4. Ask the other person to suggest a solution. Maybe your cubicle mate's excessive personal calls are really starting to get under your skin. Rather than tell him off, consider addressing the issue at a time when you're both relaxed. "Consider various approaches and be open to ideas other than your own. Agree on a solution that both parties will be satisfied with and then discuss a plan for next steps," says Ballard.

5. Consider your role in the conflict. Being the first to gossip about a co-worker doesn't make you the devil. Just don't be surprised if the rumor gets back to said co-worker and she confronts you about it. In situations like these, Ballard urges employees to take responsibility for their actions and try to forgive and forget. "Be able to let go and move on after addressing the problem," he says. "You and your co-worker don't necessarily have to be great friends, but you do need to be able to work together in a collegial and professional manner."

6. Organize a staff meeting. Annoyed by a messy co-worker who routinely forgets to wipe down the common-room table after lunch? This can really gnaw on your nerves, particularly if you go to great lengths to ensure a clean workspace. "Some co-workers seem downright incapable of following through with basic courtesy cleanliness, let alone scheduled kitchenette or common-room maintenance," says Justin R. Corbett, executive director for the National Association for Community Mediation. "In such circumstances, it may be worth a few moments at an all-staff meeting to discuss cleanliness expectations."

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Employees should ask for feedback from their peers, including the office offender, and seek consensus on what constitutes appropriate conditions for common areas, says Corbett. "Be open to the possibility that your co-worker's perception of clean is impossibly misaligned with your own," he adds. In these instances, co-workers can split cleaning duties to ensure that the common room stays neat no matter what.