Note: This post originally appeared in my column for ACM Queue and is being republished here.
This week, I was talking to one of my employees about one of my least/most favorite topics in the whole world: conflict.
I have a weird relationship with conflict. On one hand, I hate it so much. Hearing people disagree, even about minor things, makes me want to run through the nearest wall and curl up under my bed until it’s over.
On the other hand, when it happens, I always want to get into it.
I think that urge to jump in and get involved actually comes from my discomfort with conflict; I hate it so much, that one it comes up, I want to just dive into it so it can be over as soon as possible.
I have this urge to help everyone understand each other’s point of view, show them what they have in common, and make it so the conflict is just over.
By leaning into conflict, rather than trying to avoid it, I think you can often actually get it over with faster. And it’s a pretty good thing to be known as a person who can help everyone get on the same page and get back to being productive too.
How do you feel about conflict? Especially conflict at work?
Below are some of my best tips and ideas to make all of your conflicts in the workplace healthy and (hopefully) productive.
In a perfect world, we would all get along with our coworkers and boss all the time. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.
While most of us make our best efforts to avoid conflict at work, occasionally it is unavoidable. Here is how to do it effectively, so you can all move on and get back to what really matters.
1. Give up on the idea of “winning”
The best way to win an argument is to let go of the idea that you have something to “win” at all.
Winning, in this case, doesn’t mean getting your way or showing the other person how they were wrong. Instead, it means being the person who helps everyone get on the same page so they can move forward.
With most technical decisions there aren’t “right answers” there are only different approaches that both have pros and cons to them. Getting aligned about the decision making process and what tradeoffs are acceptable is better than trying to demonstrate who is right.
You want to be a successful (whether as a leader or senior engineer), you need to be someone who can look at the big picture, assess how to move forward, and then get everyone working on the same page again. That is true leadership and what most managers value in great employees.
2. Start by looking for common ground
At the heart of many workplace conflicts is often a common goal.
Two people disagreeing over strategy might have the shared goal of wanting to execute a project to the highest quality possible. So their conflict isn’t as deep as it might look from the outside; really, they already agree on the important parts, and they are just fighting about details.
For example, this happens a lot when you have operations and software development that have competing priorities – the ops team wants to minimize change and risk (and thereby operations) and the dev team wants to ship their features as fast as possible. The reality is both teams should be focused on what the best thing is for the business and the customer – which is likely somewhere in the middle.
When you can see what you have in common with the other side, then you can start to sort out the facts and key priorities.
- Why does each person think what they think?
- Is there outside information that could influence or persuade them otherwise?
- Why do you think what you think?
When you find common ground, it becomes easier to compromise, since the other person’s perspective can feel relatable and reasonable, and you realize they are more like you than you thought.
3. Don’t blow up (and if you do, leave)
It’s really hard to agree or give in to someone you’re mad at. The more worked up you are, the more defensive you get and the less listening you do.
So not only will you be damaging the relationship if you blow up at the other person, but you won’t be getting any closer to a resolution either. It is a waste of everyone’s time. This is easy to do when you get frustrated or feel like you aren’t being heard (or understood) – but it is such an important lesson to remember. You have to keep your cool.
If you or the other person is losing their temper, walk away. Tell them you need to take a break, and come back later. If need be, apologize, and then come back to the question when you have a cooler head and you’re more likely to be thinking logically.
4. Focus on the facts (not the perceptions)
You might think you know why a person has a certain opinion or why they do their work a certain way, but don’t assume. Not only are you probably wrong, but nobody takes kindly to hearing what other people think of them (especially if they are worked up and frustrated).
The best thing you can do during a conflict is to focus on the facts. Only speak for yourself. Avoid saying things like “we all think ___” or “you’re just saying that because ___”. Instead, talk about your experience, your knowledge, and the facts at hand.
Try to take as much emotion and projection out of it as possible, and just look at what is in front of you.
What is the goal?
What are the possible solutions?
How can we measure each of them?
Do we have any experiences or resources we can draw on to get more information?
How can we reach a compromise that acknowledges everyone’s needs?
5. Repeat back the other person’s words to them
In an argument, it can be tempting to reiterate your position again and again. We all want to feel heard, and when emotions are hot, it’s hard to think beyond our own opinions.
However, the more you can listen to the other person, the more you will make them feel heard (which lowers the level of conflict) and the more you will understand their perspective (which will help you uncover what you need to know to find a resolution that will work).
Trying to repeat the other person’s words back to them is a great way to do this.
When someone finishes making their point, you can acknowledge that you heard them by saying, “Okay, that makes sense. Just to make sure I completely understand, you are saying _____” and repeat back their key points to them.
When people feel listened to, they are more likely to compromise because they feel like their perspective is being taken into account in the decision. (And feeling like they weren’t being heard is likely what started the conflict in the first place!)
6. Stick with it and seek a conclusion
It can be tempting to implement the silent treatment or simply walk away when someone disagrees with you, but it’s important to see the conflict through to resolution.
As painful as that might sound, imagine the alternative: seething frustration that drags on for hours, days, or even years, and that damages your relationships with people — and maybe even your reputation, if the blowup was big enough or causes enough long term damage.
One bad interaction can turn into a bad relationship, which can have wide-reaching negative impacts on your career. Better to get the situation resolved now, so you can all move on.
It might be tempting to throw up your hands and say, “We’ll never agree!”, but it is better to seek a conclusion to the conflict than to just accept it. Maybe you ultimately will decide you and this other person have to just “agree to disagree”, but it is better to have that be a mutual decision than for one of you to just walk away.
Remember: it’s about resolution, not winning.
You don’t always have to 100% agree in order to do really great work in your job. Don’t focus so much on winning that you are a sore loser if someone else appears to come out on top in the conflict.
Even if you don’t get your way, remember that at the end of the day, it is your job to be aligned with your team and do great work.
If you pout and phone in your work because you didn’t get your way, people will notice and they will remember. And that will make it even harder to get your way in the future.
However, if you can work through a conflict and be a great teammate and still produce great work, then you will become a respected authority on your team. The longer your track record of successfully managing and negotiating conflict is, it will serve you far better in the long run than winning one fight.