Calming troubled water

Calming troubled water

Features - Business Management

How to handle one of your toughest people problems.

January 17, 2012
William J. Lynott

Conflicts between two employees or between an employee and management can be damaging to everyone involved and to your business as well. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a simple feud between two or more employees. Perhaps more serious are those conflicts that result from a misunderstanding between one or more employees and management.

Either way, these workplace conflicts can be time-consuming for the business owner and seriously damaging to the business.

“Workplace conflict is inevitable, especially in a challenging economy,” says Craig Runde, director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College in Florida. “Organizations have fewer employees, doing more work, under more pressure. Pressure makes it tougher to think clearly. Emotions get the better of us. We may not like conflict but we’re going to have to deal with it one way or another.”

“Even something as simple as hurt egos can result in a loss of revenue and a lot of aggravation for many small business owners,” says Tina I. Hamilton, President and CEO of hireVision Group. “And that’s exactly what happens when conflicts get out of hand.

And when egos step in, all reason is put aside.

“You would be surprised at how often I see companies where management is either unskilled or not trained on how to deal with conflict,” says Hamilton. “They are missing opportunities to remedy issues before they can ever appear. Regardless of your personality type, conflict management skills can be learned and utilized to the benefit of you and your company.”

Like most contractors, you probably do not see conflict resolution as one of your primary jobs, but as the experts tell us, conflict in every workplace is inevitable, so it makes sense to do whatever you can to sharpen your skills in calming troubled waters.

As owner or manager, you have a special responsibility to avoid the appearance of unreasonable bias in dealing with emotionally charged disputes, even when you are directly involved. Ideally, your approach will respect the dignity of others while emphasizing that solving the dispute is the goal -- not finding a winner or loser.

It’s also important to make sure that good relationships are your first priority. You should try to make sure that you treat everyone in a calm and courteous manner. Keep in mind that the other person is probably not just being difficult. In most cases, sincere and honestly believed differences lie beneath the surface in emotional conflicts.

According to Jeanne Segal of, a non-profit website, managing and resolving conflict requires the ability to help reduce stress and bring your emotions into balance. You can ensure that the process is as positive as possible by sticking to the following conflict resolution guidelines when you find yourself personally involved in a conflict:

Listen for what is felt as well as said

When we listen we connect more deeply to our own needs and emotions, and to those of other people. Listening in this way also strengthens us, informs us, and makes it easier for others to hear us.

Make conflict resolution the priority rather than winning or “being right”

Maintaining and strengthening the relationship, rather than “winning” the argument, should always be your first priority. Be respectful of the other person and his or her viewpoint.

Focus on the present

If you’re holding on to old hurts and resentments, your ability to see the reality of the current situation will be impaired. Rather than looking to the past and assigning blame, focus on what you can do in the here-and-now to solve the problem.

Pick your battles

Conflicts can be draining, so it’s important to consider whether the issue is really worthy of your time and energy. Maybe you don’t want to surrender a parking space if you’ve been circling for 15 minutes. But if there are dozens of spots nearby, arguing over a single space isn’t worth it.

Be willing to forgive

Resolving conflict is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive. Resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can never compensate for our losses and only adds to our injury by further depleting and draining our lives.

Know when to let something go

If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.

It also helps to attack the problem or the issue, not the other person. Wherever possible, start with a compliment and be sure to listen without interrupting.

According to Anna Maravelas, founder and president of Thera Rising, the average person faces 30 frustrations (disagreements, disappointments, delays, etc.) a day. “We have a built-in negativity bias, and negative experiences are five times more powerful than positive events. That’s why small disagreements can become so destructive,” she says.

“It’s important to remember that human nature is deeply flawed in this regard. We all have moments when we lack skill, insight and courage, but exaggerating the impact of an event, blaming and backstabbing doesn’t solve the problem.” To help deal with human nature’s failings in this regard, Runde offers these tips for owners and managers thrust into the position of conflict referees:

Adjust your attitude

People have this idea that conflict is always negative. But that’s not the case. Whether conflict is good or bad depends on how you manage it. If you think it’s going to be terrible, it will be. But, in fact, conflicts can result in positive outcomes.

Don’t ignore your emotions

Conflict is all about emotion, yet, in almost every organizational conflict, people will try to suppress their feelings. Either they’re fearful they’ll look weak or their workplace culture doesn’t support expressing emotions. But if you don’t deal with your emotions, they’ll deal with you.

But don’t act out
As a result of not managing emotions when feeling scared or angry, those feelings will simmer. Negative emotions end up driving behaviors that almost always result in poor outcomes.  For example, a person might display their anger, demean colleagues or try to avoid the other person. Unmanaged emotions lead to poorly conceived behavior. Reflect on what’s going on and consciously choose to do something more constructive.

Have a plan

Managers usually have some sort of implicit way to deal with conflict – too often by trying to avoid it. Rarely is there an expressed set of actions for ‘Here’s what we do when we have conflict.’ Have a way of legitimizing effective responses when conflicts pop up.

It’s obvious that having a plan for dealing effectively with workplace conflict requires time and effort. However, as the experts tell us, there is no way to avoid coming face-to-face with conflict. If we have to deal with it, it’s best to prepare ourselves to resolve internal disputes before they escalate to the point where they cause permanent damage to the business.

The author is a freelance writer based in Abington, Pa.