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Preventing and Managing Interpersonal Conflict

We are often so preoccupied with other tasks that we don't see (or don't want to acknowledge seeing) an interpersonal issue that is creeping up. When it finally climaxes, it can seriously catch us off-guard. What do you typically do when this happens?

Conflict is normal and a part of all healthy relationships. It's impossible to agree with everyone about everything all the time, and trying to do so leads to squashed creativity and innovation. So, how do we manage disagreements in a way that doesn't harm our relationships?

Developing your empathizing skills can greatly assist in keeping problems from arising in the first place. You don't have to agree with another person, but you can and should put yourself in their shoes to try and understand where they are coming from.

You can practice empathy by rephrasing the person's statements by saying things like, "What I'm hearing is…", "I understand that…", or "what I think you're saying is…", without reinforcing their concern by saying phrases like, "I agree," or "Yes, that's true."

This approach of rephrasing before answering also gives you:

  • An opportunity to show your empathy for their concerns.

  • A chance to confirm that you truly understand the concern.

  • An extra moment to develop the appropriate response.

Empathy plays a paramount role in communication and our ability to foster a positive and productive environment. It is also vital in ensuring that the individual is satisfied with your level of understanding or your explanation. Remember that when the roles are reversed as well. When we speak, we may believe that we are being transparent, but we are not usually as clear as we think. There are a few potentially dangerous misconceptions to remember when you are having a difficult conversation.

Take a moment to confirm your message. Are you confident of the following?

  • When you are speaking, are people actively paying attention?

  • When someone says "I know," do they understand?

  • Saying the same things repeatedly, maybe more slowly or loudly, will be even more effective in ensuring your listener is aligned.

We all have those people who rub us the wrong way. Here's a tip for when you have to deal with a problematic person you also do not get along with. Try to find just one thing you like or appreciate about that person, and make an effort to tilt the conversation positively. It doesn't matter what the positive attribute is, either! Maybe they offer good insight in meetings. What about their punctuality? Maybe they bring great lunch ideas, and you appreciate their food taste. You want to find one thing about them that you can connect to positively, and once you do, your conversation with them is less likely to become difficult or get off track.

Another way to get in front of conflict is to have more conversations about accountability. Part of your role as a leader is holding your people accountable (i.e., taking responsibility for their actions and results). There's a lot of apprehension around holding people accountable because of fear that it may become a confrontation, but holding others accountable is a necessary part of leadership. If you find yourself avoiding these conversations, stop to consider whether or not you are genuinely valuing that person as a contributor. If it's a person you value, you should be more likely to have these conversations because of your respect for them. You can also use this logic when you need to have these conversations with people you don't care for.

If you find yourself avoiding conflict, consider methods you could use to work through your conflicts in a way that empowers you to take greater control of the outcomes and to contribute more effectively to your teams. Acknowledging the legitimacy of a conflict and being willing to examine those interpersonal issues in a cooperative environment can unlock the door to creative problem solving, more cohesive teams, and improved relationships.

A conflict is more than just a disagreement, and it only becomes more serious the longer it is ignored. Conflicts involve a perceived threat to our well-being, and whether that threat is real or not, for the threatened party to be able to move beyond the situation, it must be dealt with. If not, it will stay with them and often become more severe until it's finally resolved.

Our emotional hot buttons get triggered by conflict. We aren't always at our best when working through conflict because it colors our reactions and triggers emotions that can interfere with our ability to remain objective and rationally manage things. On top of that, our perceptions (influenced by our life experiences, values, and beliefs) make it challenging to remain objective, even when we look at the facts. Practicing managing conflict during emotionally stable periods can help us prepare to manage conflict more effectively when we are emotional.

When it comes to conflict, both parties' needs will play an essential role in the failure or success of a relationship. A lack of understanding can contribute to low productivity, arguments, and continued disputes, which, if left unchecked, will lead to the total breakdown of essential relationships. Although it's hard to acknowledge when we are caught up in the heat of things, when we resolve conflict in our relationships with respect and consideration, we also build trust and bring growth. This makes us feel more secure, knowing that our relationship will survive and ultimately become even more substantial, leading to less of the same conflict.


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