Most people recognize that direct communication may be the most effective approach to resolving conflict, but are reluctant to address issues head-on. If you do decide to address a conflict, be sure to plan wisely. Create emotional and physical safety by selecting a proper setting for your conversation. Both parties need to agree on a mutually beneficial time and place to meet. Select a quiet venue conducive to conversation and problem-solving. You should be well rested, and the encounter should take place in a private area away from other people, where you’ll be free of interruptions. If desired, a third person can be invited by either side to listen in or mediate.
Goals and ground rules
Be sure to co-create goals and ground rules (i.e., speaking one at a time; addressing one another directly; using a calm, respectful voice; avoiding personal attacks; sticking to objective information, etc.). Also, be sure to test your assumptions since they may be wrong. This can be accomplished by asking clarifying questions, such as: “I’m gathering from our conversation that you’re concerned about my performance. Is that the case?” Or, “I’m inferring from this exchange that you question my intention. Is that correct?” Asking clarifying questions helps clear the air and establish mutual understanding.
Conversations that involve criticism can be stressful, so prepare by being well-hydrated, rested, and as stress-free as possible. Do some deep breathing exercises or yoga stretches before the meeting. When the meeting starts, listen carefully, and show compassion and genuine interest in the other person. Stay focused on your purpose, maintain eye contact, and avoid being judgmental.
I also suggest using evidence-based models for framing conversations that address conflict. Below, I have provided two common workplace scenarios using two different approaches to conflict negotiation. The first scenario, based on a framework suggested by Casperson (2014), demonstrates addressing conflict “in the moment.” The second scenario, which uses the DESC model offered by TeamSTEPPS, demonstrates a more planned approach.
Dana Casperson suggests the following sentence for opening a conversation in which you address conflict: When (identify the triggering event) happened, I felt (identify the negative emotion you experienced) because my (identify your specific need or interest) is really important to me.
Workplace scenario: You are a member of a work team in a health care organization. Some team members engage in negative gossip and spreading rumors. You believe you have been the target of these behaviors and, one day, when you approach the lounge, you hear your name mentioned in a derogatory way. As you enter, the room falls silent. You decide to address the situation.
A Casperson response: When I approached the lounge, I heard my name mentioned in a negative light. It concerns me because being accepted as a valued member of the team is important to me. In the future, please speak with me directly if you have something to say about me.
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The DESC model
DESC stands for: 1) Describe the specific situation. 2) Express your concerns. 3) Suggest other alternatives. 4) Consequences stated.
Workplace scenario: You and a colleague, Professor Grey (referred to as Terri in the response below), are team-teaching a nursing course. The two of you become engaged in passionate disagreement over specific content to include in or exclude from the course. As a result, working together has become very stressful. You are actively avoiding Terri, and you notice she does not reach out to you as often as before. To make matters worse, students are beginning to suffer the consequences of this alienation and are becoming confused and frustrated. You realize something needs to be done to resolve the situation.
A DESC response: Describe: Terri, thank you for meeting with me. I’d like to share an observation with you about the course we are co-teaching. Explain: I realize we have differences about our course content, and I’m concerned that this disagreement has begun to impact our relationship as well as our students’ ability to learn. Suggest: Because we both genuinely care about our students, it’s best if we can work out our differences. Consequence: Let’s use our course outcomes and objectives as criteria to address the situation. That way, we’re more likely to be successful in reaching agreement.
These conversations are not for the faint of heart. They require courage, preparation, and follow-through. If you feel that taking a direct approach with your co-worker is just too difficult, enlist the support of a trained expert or your supervisor in reconciling the problem. After discussing it, ask him or her to practice addressing the situation with you.
Either way—the Casperson approach or the DESC approach—taking action to address a conflict is not an easy or stress-free decision to make. RNL
Caspersen, D. (2014). Changing the conversation: The 17 principles of conflict resolution. New York: Penguin Books.