Conflict in the Workplace: from Clash to Awareness and Growth

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Teresa Lopez

People & Ops


May 31, 2024

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All events and the way we manage them give us information about ourselves. Unpleasant emotional states can offer valuable opportunities if we know how to use them.

This article will examine the opportunities for growth that arise when experiencing conflict consciously.

"Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict - alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence." (Dorothy Thompson)

Egos, reactive patterns, triggers, ambiguous behavior or miscommunication, may lead to conflict internally and explode one day.

Since there will always be differences between people, learning to coexist, manage, and even enjoy these differences is very important for living with mental stability and harmony, as well as for fostering positive environments.

Navigating conflict is not easy. Here are some best practices for managing conflicts in the workspace that apply to different life areas.

Don't make things up

Conflicts effectively arise when there is tension between two opposing parties. But sometimes, things are not as we think they are.

Often, the tension that generates a conflict is brewed inside us. This may happen due to lack of context, a mental narrative that amplifies our fears or projections about someone's thoughts or reasons for acting in a certain way.

We are not in the other person's head; sometimes, our mind tricks us by making assumptions.

For evolutionary biological reasons, we often tend towards negative anticipation. (One of the best examples of how our thoughts can poison us is "The Story of the Hammer":

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer. But at this point, doubt sets in.

What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him. If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that I need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop! And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

The situation is hopeless, but not serious (the pursuit of unhappiness) - Paul Watzlawick

We can master our internal dialogue and get out of the spiral of negative thought with awareness of our emotions and thoughts and an a lot of practice.

Get rid of doubts. Besides monitoring our internal dialogue, asking questions is another way to address negative anticipation. Being vulnerable and sharing our concerns with someone who can provide the correct answers within the organization can liberate a worried mind. Choose the person well, seek solutions, and avoid gossiping and fueling your fears.

Know your (real) enemy

Knowing our triggers is a very healthy way to deal with conflict situations. We may have developed one of these three basic survival response patterns in our primitive brains when we feel threatened: fight, shrink, or flee.

Reacting based on these patterns don't make much sense in the majority of cases nowadays. They are an automatic response with thousands of years of biological heritage. We may have used them as well as a survival emotional response during our childhood, to protect us from major trauma. Warning: they are sticky.

People whose primary reactive mechanism is to fight are generally used to a conflict environment. They quickly start arguing, justifying themselves, or trying to convince others.

On the other hand, people who shrink or flee tend to withhold any opinion that might generate conflict or rejection, and they conform to the decisions and points of view of others, even if they don't want to. They are afraid of conflict.

In order to get the best of conflictive situations, we must overcome these unconscious behaviors.

Choose your battles wisely. If have internalized the fight mechanism, rebalancing involves cooling down and not creating unnecessary drama. We must reflect and restrain the urge to react, solve or fix. Otherwise, we might turn our lives into a continuous battlefield. By putting things into perspective and not being impulsive with our responses, we will resolve the conflict with much more neutrality. Your ego in pain will try to convince you how important is to win every argument, don't let it. Be in charge.

Pic. The three wise monkeys (see no-evil, hear no-evil, talk no-evil) are also a symbol of self-control and the inner power of neutralizing negativity and reactivity unconscious mechanisms.

Express yourself. People who repress themselves need to learn to express themselves. That means being vulnerable and authentic, foster self-confidence, and not over-adapt. Their opinions can be very valuable to others, and the team may need to know their perspective. Only from individual authenticity can collective growth occur. Moderated conflicts can drive internal and team changes. Your ego in pain will try to convince you of the irrelevance of your opinions or the need to not alter the status quo. Don't let it win. Learn to trust yourself and then practice, repeat. Your feedback counts.

Speak wisely

The way we communicate when in conflict is as important as what we want to resolve. We must control our emotional intensity, as we often are highly identified with our own perspective and feel threatened as we saw above. When that happens, it makes us more prone to being reactive and separating from the perspective of the other person.

When discussing about the problem we need to express ourselves positively and use concepts, solutions, or creative ideas rather than focusing on behaviours, people or judgmental statements.

However, Nonviolent Communication proposes a method for expressing how we feel about a specific behavior while taking full responsibility of our emotions. This is extremely important because discards blaming or shaming the other person or even ourselves, which give us our power back, since we don't consider ourselves victims of the circumstances or the other person anymore.

Find the best moment

Communicating when in a peak of anger or frustration is not the best time to address a conflict.

Choosing the right moment to resolve a conflict requires balance and self-awareness. Wait until you have the utmost calmness and clarity before making a move. If you don't now what to do or say, better do or say nothing for a while. Focus in recognising your patters and do your homework, silent and deeply.

However, in case you usually tend to keep things to yourself and tend to be avoidant, you may want to train your ear internally and listen to a positive emotional impulse that encourages you to step forward. Take into account your perspective may be as valuable as any other.

“Every fight is on some level a fight between different angles of vision illuminating the same truth.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

In conclusion, if we want to resolve a conflict, the best moment is when you are able to enter the situation with clarity and a constructive attitude of active listening, openness. The previous homework is having recognized our internal process and worked on it. It is better not to talk until you come up with a solution, a suggestion or at least a positive approach to the problem.

Tip: If your company has 1:1 sessions or retrospective sessions, you can use them to address your problem with some previous reflexion on possible solutions.

The good outcomes

“The Law of Win/Win says, ‘Let’s not do it your way or my way; let’s do it the best way’." (Greg Anderson)

The goal is to bring positions closer together. If all goes well, we will end up with two stances and mutual understanding or a synthesis of perspectives.

Some learnings and benefits of living a conflict copiously are:

  • We study how we confront and resolve our conflicts and get to know ourselves better. We witness the maturity and emotional intelligence we are acquiring and what we need to regain alignment within us and others.

  • It ends ambiguities and uncertainties when a conflict forces us to specify or take a stand.

  • Clarification of goals and expansion of possibilities and perspectives.

  • Strengthening cohesion. We practice conflict resolution with listening, empathy, assertiveness, and humility.

  • We lose the fear of expressing ourselves. Disagreements do not have to be catastrophic.

Practice makes perfect

There will always be different points of view. Uncomfortable situations will inevitably arise and recur. Therefore, our goal shouldn't be to eliminate these situations to feel 'perfectly' fine, but rather to learn to be at ease and master ourselves in each situation to maintain well-being.

The effect of uncomfortable people or situations on us will depend on our self-training and how fast we learn the lessons.

Like in a video game, we move through levels, and the great opponent at the end of one level prepares us for the next. So contradiction and conflict could be disguised mentors if you aim to grow from the opportunity.

About the Author

People and Ops. I love encouraging people, teams, and innovative projects to reach their full potential and shine.

Teresa Lopez avatar
Teresa Lopez
Teresa Lopez

People & Ops

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