How to Manage Conflict at Work
It’s possible to disagree respectfully without fighting.
Sheila sat quietly in the meeting as everyone around her joined the bandwagon of one person’s idea. The only problem? Sheila thought the idea was terrible.
In a diverse workplace, different opinions and ideas will inevitably bump up against each other. According to a 2022 workplace conflict report, 36% of people deal with conflict frequently at work, compared to 29% in 2008. But disagreement doesn’t always have to lead to conflict. In conflict, communication gets halted, due to negative assumptions and a sense of judgment toward the other person. With disagreement, communication continues in the face of varying opinions, and all parties retain respect for one another.
In fact, disagreement can often inspire innovation, as the disagreeing parties learn from each other and work to find the best solution. Having the psychological safety at work to voice an opinion that’s different from the consensus is an extremely liberating feeling — and it’s great for business.
However, learning to disagree respectfully and manage your own emotions if the other party isn’t staying calm takes hard work and intention. Here’s how to respectfully voice your disagreement at work.
Avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
With conflict, emotions run high and steer the situation, and it’s easy to associate the topic with the person speaking about it. “Keep an eye out for the ‘Four Horsemen’ of toxic communication: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling,” says Rasha Accad, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “Criticism is verbally attacking someone’s personality or character, contempt will impact the choice of words you use, defensiveness is acting like a victim and reversing the blame, and stonewalling is withdrawing and expressing disapproval, even with facial expressions.”
Establish common ground.
When setting the scene to disagree, career experts say to reconnect to the goal, the problem that needs solved, the importance, and the organizational impact of the conversation. Connecting to the goal creates a sense of being on the same team, and can even work to dilute inflated egos. It will recenter the dialogue around the topic, and (hopefully) close the door to personal attacks. "Think of the why as the lighthouse guiding you home when disagreement happens,” Accad says.
Up your listening game.
When we feel passionate about a topic, we tend to think of our responses while the other person is talking rather than really listening to understand. Before offering your opposing opinion, put down your agenda, be present with the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues, and repeat what you just heard to confirm your understanding. Then, dig deeper into their opinion. Ask questions to discover how they came to hold this opinion and why it matters to them.
While you listen and ask curious questions, manage your own assumptions and pre-conceived notions about that person. This requires a high level of self-awareness and is particularly difficult when emotions are running high. But the more you can aim for objectivity, the smoother communication will go.
Finally, voice your opinion.
Voicing disagreement without all the previous steps often leads to everyone talking over each other in a competition to win the conversion. But no one actually wins that way.
When you speak up, keep in mind that you can’t control others or force them to think like you. People sense an agenda and it will push them away. Instead, career experts say to start by restating the goal of the conversation, then acknowledge what you have heard from others. Highlight the points of agreement and share what you liked about what others have said. Then, add your disagreement while being mindful of your choice of words.
“If possible, use ‘and’ instead of 'but’ when adding your disagreement statement,” Accad says. “The word ‘but’ negates everything said before it and shuts people down. 'And’ is an inclusive word and makes it more likely that people will hear you out.”