Is That My Stapler? How To Handle Office Disputes Elegantly
By Dominique Afacan, Last updated: 2021-05-28 (originally published on 2019-04-07)
We spend so much of our lives at work that it would be unrealistic to imagine an office without at least some sort of conflict. Whilst some disputes can be healthy and may even show signs of a passionate and committed workforce, others need to be resolved. Whilst every situation is different, there are some generic guidelines that can be applied to most scenarios. Dip into our guide next time you find yourself in a difficult work dispute, and you ‘ll find yourself better equipped to deal with things.
- Admit there is a problem
Just as in our personal lives, it can be easy to bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong when conflict arises. And whilst it might seem easier or even stronger to turn a blind eye to festering disagreements, carrying on regardless is usually not a sensible solution in the workplace. Admitting an office dispute even exists is the first step to solving it. Timing is key – get in there fast. If you wait too long, those lingering resentments will have had time to thrive and might take longer to resolve. Spot conflict early on, and save yourself a headache further down the line.
- Take time to talk (and listen)
Problem acknowledged, it’s time to take action. The best way to move forward is to set up a time to meet face to face. Whilst it’s tempting to shoot off angry emails or pick up the phone, there is nothing quite like being in the room with someone. On email or phone, wires can get crossed very quickly, and things can escalate in a way that is far more unlikely in person. Set aside a time where you won’t be interrupted and choose a neutral location that is away from other colleagues. Prepare to be patient – it is very important that everyone involved feels they have been able to have their say and to feel that their issues have been heard. To show that you have listened, it can be reassuring to the other party to repeat some of what they have said back to them. Use phrases like, “Am I right in thinking that you feel…..?” or “Let me make sure I’ve understood properly…” Also, ask questions and ensure that no single person monopolises the chat.
- Don’t make it personal
Keep your focus on the issue, not the person. When insults start being traded back and forth, it’s a sign you’ve lost control – plus, it can be really hard to come back from a personal attack in the workplace. Ensure that, before you meet, you are very clear of the issues that need to be addressed – write a list if need be – and stick to it. And remember, you are not defined by this dispute, if you keep things professional, there’s no need for a well-handled conflict to have any impact on how you are regarded in the office.
- Admit blame
We all hate to admit we are wrong, but admitting blame actually shows strength in the workplace. Instead of jumping on the defensive when there is a dispute, take time out to consider how and why you could (in theory) be at fault. Really strive to see things from the other person’s viewpoint. Put yourself in their shoes. Even if you are only partially to blame, admitting it is key. There is often a domino effect to this kind of humility; you are leading by example and it just may inspire others to do the same. Everyone makes mistakes and some of the world’s best leaders are not ashamed to admit it. Rather than inviting criticism and judgment, owning up to your mistakes can often garner respect and strengthen trust.
- Don’t tell the world
When you feel wronged in the workplace it can be tempting to tell everyone about your woes. Water coolers may certainly seem a convenient location to let off steam with your nearest and dearest in the workplace but whilst it’s fine to offload to friends or family members outside of the office, it’s not ok to discuss disputes with colleagues who aren’t involved. Gossip spreads like wildfire in the workplace – and whether you think you’re in the right or not – being the person who instigated that gossip is never a good look. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get a third party involved – in some disputes it is imperative to do so – but that is a very different ball game to gossiping around the office. Always be discreet.
- Learn from the dispute
Don’t spend time worrying that a dispute has occurred; take advantage of it. Too often, people panic when a conflict takes place in the office, assuming it is a huge negative. The reality is that conflict is natural and normal and there are lessons to be learned every time. Once the air has cleared, take some time to be introspective and think about where things may have gone wrong, how you might be able to avoid the same thing happening again, and what you can gain from the experience. The truth is, conflict teaches us to listen, opens our eyes to new ways of thinking, and helps us to hone our communication skills. In the best cases, conflict leads to great solutions, new ideas, and strengthened relationships. Have no regrets once things have been resolved.
- Change the office culture
Although conflict is normal, some workplaces are more toxic than others. The good news is that it is possible to change office culture from within. It is often said that what we put out into the world tends to come back to us. That’s true in the office too. Be positive, kind, and honest and you’re far more likely to see more of the same qualities reflected back at you. Your behaviour has more influence than you think – so stand strong, be the better person and you just might start to see results across the entire workplace. Even if the other person isn’t being respectful, channel Michelle Obama with her motto of “When they go low, we go high” and leave the gloves in the ring.
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