10 Tips for Tackling the Toughest Workplace Conflicts

A guide to resolving on-the-job disputes.


7. Seek first to understand. Does one of your colleagues seem to dominate all office conversations, talking over everything you say? It might not mean she thinks she's smarter or more important; this could just be her natural inclination. Try not to jump to conclusions. "Many conflicts originate as simple misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and missed opportunities to clarify another's (or your own) intentions. You can mitigate or altogether avoid so many of your daily conflicts by simply seeking first to understand those with whom you interact," says Wendy E. H. Corbett, a conflict resolution consultant for 3rd Party Advisors in Mesa, Ariz. "While simple, however, this mindset is not terribly common or even encouraged in our fast-paced workplaces." Workers can illuminate their understanding of a conflict by honing their listening skills, asking clarifying questions, and earnestly seeking others' underlying interests, she says. This simple action not only halts its escalation; it opens the doors for early and lasting resolutions as well.

8. Acknowledge others. Ever feel like your supervisor blatantly favors certain co-workers over others? He may not mean it as a personal slight. What you perceive as favoritism might be run-of-the-mill kindness. Acknowledging his prospective is a great way to alleviate any anger you feel. "Acknowledging others' perspectives in a way that lets them feel genuinely heard and understood is no small accomplishment," says Wendy Corbett. "If you've truly listened to another, sought clarification, grasped their underlying interests, and then been able to summarize their perspective, you will have greatly increased your chances of engendering honest engagement from a now ally rather than retrenching an opponent for your conflict du jour."

[See Handling Favoritism at Work]

9. Alert human resources. If you're battling an issue as serious as workplace harassment—based on age, gender, race, etc.—the problem might require intervention from someone higher up. "When direct attempts and mediation aren't effective, you may have to pursue formal channels," says Ballard. "Talk to your supervisor and HR and follow your organization's formal procedures for filing a complaint. Document the problem in writing, being specific about what behaviors occurred, when they happened, what impact they had, and what needs to be done to resolve the conflict."

10. Be introspective. Conflicts arise in every workplace, and personality clashes abound in all of them. "Conflict is inevitable—plan for the future," says Ballard. "In the aftermath of a conflict at work, take some time to consider how you manage your emotions. How do you experience stress or anger? What triggers set you off? How do you tend to react in the face of conflict? ... What coping skills do you use? Are they healthy ones? Use this self-awareness to make a plan for handling conflict better the next time one arises."

Each conflict is an opportunity for growth, Justin Corbett adds. Therefore, workers should reflect and readjust after one occurs. "Conflicts provide the opportunities to better appreciate another perspective, clarify your own interests, strengthen bonds, and discover new ways forward." Internalizing these experiences and growing from them allows workers to face tomorrow's difficulties with greater ease and effectiveness, he says.