Conflict Ahead: How to avoid making your workplace the Titanic

Is there a conflict in your life that seems to lack a solution, perhaps even lacks a clear cause?

It is absolutely amazing the number of negative relationships and interactions we are capable of withstanding through our days, weeks and even years at a job.

With the level of uncertainty/conflict avoidance that is perpetuating in our culture, "ghosting" (i.e. fully avoiding someone's reaching out) has become a popular way of just avoiding people altogether, to the point they don't even exist. Emails go unreplied, texts go unread (or appear to, anyway) and before you know it, the problem seems to 'take care of itself'.

Indeed, avoidance is a perfectly legitimate strategy. What if it's not on the table, though?

Let's understand conflict a little better so the next time we have to actually tangle with someone at work to straighten things out, we don't fall short of words (or actions).

It's a matter of degrees

Some elements of communication are more conscious (like the top part of an iceberg) such as words or actions, others more to the border between conscious and subconscious, like needs, and still others are altogether below conscious awareness, such as values.

Words and Actions

Simply put, we remember these the best, and with emails or IM's there's often a paper trail to validate and confirm what was said/done. Eyewitnesses can often corroborate (or exacerbate) the events and give some basis for responses.

Remember - in a conflict, there is usually a party claiming to be aggrieved, and another party accused of perpetrating the 'attack'.

So, very often, there is dispute to the nature of events, and in these disputes, we best remember what was said and done.

Frequently, people are on the same page in principle, and it is quibbling over vernacular, tone or inclusion (e.g. leaving someone out of a meeting they wanted to be part of), or it could be the absence of words/actions too, like someone forgetting to remind another or mention someone's contribution.

Bottom line - these are usually the quickest, cleanest and easiest of conflicts to solve, utilizing the paper trail and eyewitnesses (this is why you CC others on EVERYTHING important!) to avoid 'memory lapses'.


The second level of conflict is meeting or not meeting of someone's needs from a situation.

This is still relatively fixable since needs can usually be quantified, and most often we have some wiggle room on our needs (e.g. a 10% reduction on requested budget or 8 new hires instead of 10). If you don't have wiggle room, consider giving slightly inflated numbers in your proposals to build in negotiation room for yourself.

One area needing work is hidden needs. Needs can be hidden because they are a) private to the individual, e.g. career aspirations, b) sensitive information, on a need-to-know basis, or c) as-yet-undiscovered, something that is essential but for some reason not clearly articulated.

For a), oddly enough I find that such needs are quite guessable. Everyone wants to look good, be successful, outshine competition and so on. Still further, people may unknowingly let on with casual off-hand comments, so good listeners can pick up on this intel and factor it in. A smart manager who has trust with the person can even privately ask them and get an answer, so manage the conflict without making it overt.

For b), there is usually a version of the sensitive information that can imply at the hidden info without giving it away. In extreme cases, non-disclosure agreements can be signed for safeguarding interests.

Finally, for c), I have found that saying "no" to the initial proposal usually yields a more whittled-down request with the most essential components retained, others jettisoned for getting to "yes". It's essentially moving your negotiating partner to articulating the sufficient condition (the make-or-break condition) of their proposal, as opposed to the "nice-to-have's".


How does one overcome a workplace conflict that has opposing values in the mix?

By creating a positive system working towards an ideal rather than insisting on the ideal's instant implementation.

Let's take a real example to understand this - one of the major value systems of our world today is environmentalism.

Has every environmentalist given up or destroyed air or ground travel?

Even the most ardent voices recognize the need for transportation using fossil fuels, while pushing for utilizing renewables more and more over time.

Every major legislative body has 10, 20 or 30 year targets in environmental goals, recognizing that systemic overhaul is a marathon rather than a sprint.

So with our everyday conflicts over values, we recognize with the negotiation partner that we commit to X ideal value, while creating a pragmatic timeline to realistic goals within parameters. The persuasion occurs not by arguing against the ideal, rather by arguing for the pragmatic goal setting towards the ideal's realization.

After all, conflict resolution is bring people closer while still recognizing they are different.

With self reflection and answering key questions, we can find root issues, decide the level of negotiability and work towards alignment.