How To Resolve Workplace Conflicts the Way Enlightened Leaders Do

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Jul 15, 2019

Note: The following is an excerpt from the book, Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.


For business professionals who hope to positively impact their organizations while also building their executive presence, conflict can provide great opportunities to test their mettle and show enlightened leadership. The following list offers some additional tools and strategies to aid in that process.

Use active listening — Most of us understand the benefits of “being in the moment.” In a conflict situation, this means listening carefully to all sides without an emotional filter, the way a judge listens to lawyers pitching their cases. If you’re a manager arbitrating a conflict between two employees, this is a bit easier than if you are a party to the conflict. Nonetheless, being crystal clear on the reasoning of each side in a conflict is critical to helping create a mutually satisfying resolution. The term “listening” in this context applies to more than words; you should strive to perceive the multitude of signals — from vocal tonality to facial expressions and body language — all of which can speak volumes about the intent and motivation of the participants.

Acknowledge and validate — As an arbitrating manager, it is critical that you not only seek to understand both positions in a conflict but also validate each party’s claim. You don’t have to agree with the claim; just acknowledge each party’s unique perspective. This alone can open the parties’ minds with the assurance that they’ve been heard, even if the outcome doesn’t exactly go their way. People need respect and consideration just as much as they want to get their way. In the game of conflict, sometimes emerging emotionally validated, with one’s status intact, is enough.

Empathize — The power of empathy in conflict resolution cannot be overstated. Empathy happens when you put yourself, minus your biases and personal experiences, in the shoes (the circumstances) of both parties or, if you’re one of the combatants, in the shoes of your opponent. Try more than to just see the situation from the other person’s point of view; try to feel it, too. If you do, you may find that the picture takes on a slightly different hue.

Implement boundaries and expectations — Because you are a manager, people are looking to you to clarify boundaries and expectations for behavior and outcomes. If these things are muddy in the middle of a conflict, your job is to clarify them for the feuding parties. The idea here isn’t to reprimand but to prevent escalating emotions from clouding the established norms of conduct in a conflict and to reinforce the expectations for roles, behaviors, and outcomes. A good way to open this can of behavioral worms is to simply ask the parties to state what they believe the boundaries and expectations to be that pertain to debating the issue at hand, using their perspectives as a platform for your clarification and reinforcement. This approach enables open and honest communication and will keep the parties within acceptable boundaries as they (or you) work through the issues.

Be tactful — This may not be easy, as any one of the parties to a conflict may be way out of line from the outset. But don’t get sucked into the brewing emotion, and don’t convey even the slightest sense of disrespect for the parties or their views even if they originated on another planet. If you remain sensitive to their feelings, the chances that they’ll remain open to your input increase — to everyone’s benefit.

Explore alternatives — The parties to a conflict rarely are interested, at least at first, in looking at things differently. It’s your job as the arbitrating manager to help them do this, and it happens when you begin exploring alternative views and solutions with them. Ask open-ended questions such as “How would you act differently if this policy were reversed?” that require thought and elaboration. If you can get them to talk about an alternative, you’re a step closer to getting them to accept one.

Use “I” statements — When you are a party to a conflict, using a first-person context is much more productive than using other language. If you say, for example, “I was angry when you said that about me,” you’ll be greeted with more openness than you would be if you say, “What you said about me was wrong.” People can’t argue with how you felt, but they can certainly dispute the right or wrong of things. Speaking about how you feel avoids accusation, and accusations are fuel on the fire of conflict.

Make use of the power of stroking — It may sound manipulative, but if you can say something positive about the other person in the heat of a dispute, that person will be more open to hearing what you have to say about the issue at hand. Stroking the other person says you aren’t attacking her character and haven’t lost respect for her, only that in this instance you disagree with something that was said or done. Conflict goes off the rails when it becomes personal, but ironically, injecting something personal in a positive manner is the best way to keep it from going there.

Attack the issues, not the person — Conflicts sometimes are smoke from another fire or the surfacing of past disagreements or personality conflicts. When you sense triangulation entering the argument — the use of an unrelated opinion or issue to create a negative context for the present one, such as, “You always put yourself first in these situations” — you know that this is personal rather than issue-driven. As an arbitrating manager, listen for anything that is personal in nature and bring the conversation back to the issue as quickly as possible.

No matter how enlightened your conflict management approach is, when emotions run high and egos get bruised, relationships can suffer long-term damage. And particularly in a work environment where cooperation and teamwork reign supreme, this isn’t something to shrug off. Use these techniques to restore a relationship, or at least replace simmering resentment with mutual respect and collegiality.

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