handling conflict in the workplace

Valerie Dansereau has more than twenty years of experience in corporate America, so the world of business is very familiar turf. She has written for many different types of business from healthcare to addiction recovery to banking to B2B. For Peaceful Leaders Academy, she focuses on conflict management, de-escalation, and leadership development.

A group of people that work together day in and day out may get along most of the time but disputes and disagreements happen at some point in every workplace. Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes conflict is the catalyst needed to brainstorm new ideas. For your team to be successful, members of the team need to feel safe enough to share their opinions and to sometimes disagree with coworkers.

Some disputes grow and fester without a solution emerging that works for everyone. Hostility and tension may make it more and more uncomfortable to be around colleagues who can’t get along. An unresolved conflict that escalates to a point where the workplace is a tense and unpleasant place to be can have a negative effect on staff morale and productivity. Absenteeism and tension may increase. This makes it critical that leaders have the skills needed to effectively manage conflict.

Conflict happens for a lot of reasons when people with very different backgrounds spend long hours together, especially when people are under a lot of work-related stress. Whenever possible, conflict should be worked through as soon as possible and resolved before disputes reach a boiling point. There are a few key skills needed for handling conflict in the workplace.

Recognizing There’s a Problem and It’s Time to Intervene

Disagreements between employees can be as simple as an argument over the temperature of the office or who gets to go to lunch at what time. Minor conflicts aren’t a concern, but when those in conflict are exhibiting increasingly hostile or aggressive behavior, there’s a good chance that disputes are becoming disruptive to others in the workplace and intervention may be necessary.

Problems that aren’t noticed can’t be solved. Being aware that there’s a problem and not doing anything about it isn’t much better and is rarely the best way to handle a workplace dispute. Some conflicts are obvious and can’t be overlooked such as when people have loud arguments or emotional outbursts.

But there are some conflicts that are a lot less obvious. Coworkers may try to avoid working together on projects, or you may notice subtle changes in body language or tone of voice. You might even hear rude comments or whispered conversations between other employees talking about a conflict that’s not getting better.

The first step in handling conflict in the workplace is to acknowledge that there’s a problem that needs to be solved. While some conflicts can work themselves out, don’t try to ignore a conflict that’s worsening.

Using Emotional Intelligence

When people become emotional, logic quickly goes out the window. One or both people involved in a dispute are focused on getting their own way or at the very least, getting the other side to understand their perspective. Emotional intelligence is an important skill needed for handling emotional situations both inside and outside the workplace.

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand the emotions of others as well as stay in control of your own emotions. Whenever emotions come into play, conflicts quickly intensify. Anger breeds more anger and when one or both parties is caught up in rage or frustration, communication breaks down.

Whether you’re part of the conflict yourself or working to help employees resolve it, it’s imperative that you stay calm. Even if you’re feeling anxious on the inside, project an aura of calmness. Reacting to conflict emotionally contributes to the problem rather than working toward a resolution.

A high level of emotional intelligence means you have the ability to be empathetic toward others and that you can recognize and understand what others are feeling. This is a key skill for handling conflict in the workplace because when people feel that others are being understanding and supportive, it may help to ease disputes and can sometimes help to prevent or reduce miscommunication.

To use emotional intelligence to help handle conflict at work, pay attention to clues that other people are giving off with their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Think about what’s happening beneath the surface. What people say they’re angry about isn’t always the real issue.  While trying to work through a conflict as mediator, avoid showing any kind of emotional reaction, especially anything that implies you’re taking sides. Encourage those in conflict to consider the other person’s perspective.

Listening Skills

Probably the most important skill needed to resolve any conflict is the ability to listen to others. The root cause of many workplace disputes is poor communication and misunderstandings. When people are involved in a heated dispute, chances are that they’ve stopped listening to each other. Working through a conflict depends on both parties really listening to and hearing what the other is saying.

A good way to be sure coworkers are hearing each other is for both of them to practice active listening. Ask employees involved in a dispute to consider how they can communicate to each other that they’re paying attention. Some tactics that can improve listening skills and overall communication include:

  • Listen closely for both facts and feelings.
  • Make eye contact and nod where appropriate.
  • Ask questions to learn additional details.
  • Take notes to be sure you have absorbed the most important points.
  • Show verbal and nonverbal signs of interest to encourage the other person to finish expressing their perspective.
  • Restate what the other person has said.


When people in conflict can repeat back to each other what they’ve heard, it can be a key step toward breaking down communication barriers and misunderstandings. Using phrases like “I think you’re saying” or “I heard you say” allows listeners to let the speaker know what’s been heard and absorbed and provides an opportunity for the speaker to clarify their meaning.

People want to know they’ve been heard, especially when they’re involved in a tense or frustrating situation. Practicing active listening challenges people in a dispute to focus on what the other person is saying rather than thinking about what they’ll say when it’s their turn to speak. This gives all participants a chance to actually hear the other person’s side and to gain acknowledgment that they’ve been heard.

When you’re mediating a dispute, make it clear to those involved in the disagreement that the discussion isn’t over until both of them can explain the other person’s side, which is a way to prove that they both were listening. Listening skills are a powerful communication tool in every interaction, not just in the middle of a conflict. Team members at every level should take advantage of every opportunity to improve their listening skills.

Be Respectful

When conflicts intensify, coworkers may become hostile or disrespectful to each other. It’s important for anyone involved in a workplace conflict to focus on the problem, not on the person. It can be helpful to depersonalize a problem and only discuss the actual conflict without talking about the people involved. Work on brainstorming a solution that works for everyone, and don’t put any energy into pointing fingers or blaming.  Dwelling on the problem isn’t the answer.

If you’re in a leadership role, you must treat everyone involved with respect, even if you have a hunch that one of them is being unreasonable. Let the individuals in conflict know that disrespecting each other won’t be tolerated. There should be no interrupting each other and no emotional outbursts.

Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly about what has happened and who might be at fault. Sometimes people have a hard time working through conflict because they don’t feel clear about what it is they’re even fighting over.

To help keep things light, inject humor whenever you can. Look for common ground as a way to find a solution that works for everyone involved. Effective leaders maintain a positive attitude and stress the belief that a solution can be found soon.

Recognize When Intervention is Needed

No matter how effectively you’re able to lead a team, occasionally situations may happen that you shouldn’t try to handle yourself. You may find an employee particularly uncooperative or you may be having a hard time remaining neutral. If one employee accuses you of taking sides, get a third party involved.

Even people who almost always get along with everyone sometimes feel a personality clash with another person. It may be hard to narrow down the real problem when dealing with conflicts that develop out of personality clashes.

Conflict in the workplace sometimes happens because of people behaving in ways that aren’t acceptable according to company policy. Examples of this include harassment, bullying and discrimination. This type of behavior goes beyond ordinary workplace disagreements and most likely won’t be resolved by brainstorming.

Recognize when the problem is too big to resolve on your own, and when it is, reach out to your HR department. Don’t wait too long to do this. Unresolved conflicts can cause valued employees to decide they no longer want to stay with the company.

Remain Teachable

Every time you’re faced with handling conflict in the workplace, lessons are learned. It’s important to be confident in your ability to deal with whatever comes up, but it’s equally important to remain teachable and acknowledge that there’s always more to learn.

Asking for feedback is part of the learning process. When difficult situations have been resolved, talk to others about things you might have done differently or ways you might improve your conflict resolution skills. Be alert to opportunities to learn more about what it takes to work through difficult situations. Look for training programs, webinars and videos or consider working with a conflict resolution coach.

Reach out to Peaceful Leaders Academy for more information about training or coaching in peaceful leadership.



Valerie Dansereau has more than twenty years of experience in corporate America, so the world of business is very familiar turf. She has written for many different types of business from healthcare to addiction recovery to banking to B2B. For Peaceful Leaders Academy, she focuses on conflict management, de-escalation, and leadership development.