How to handle conflict at work : Life Kit When the discomfort of conflict arises, it can be hard to know what to do, especially in the workplace. In this episode of Life Kit, get the tips you need to become a conflict-resolving superhero.

How to tackle workplace conflict head-on

How to tackle workplace conflict head-on

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Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Comic panels of different interactions between people in an office setting
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Conflict in any part of our lives can be the pits, but conflict at work? That can get especially complicated. On top of the work we already have to do, sometimes it can feel like it would take a herculean effort to deal with a workplace conflict.

The good news is that you don't have to figure this out alone. We've assembled a team of conflict-resolution experts to help you face workplace conflict head-on with these tips:

Normalize speaking up in the moment

This may be uncomfortable at first, but the more you bring up things in the moment, the easier it will get.

"We want to normalize speaking up when these things happen in real time, so that it doesn't have to be a secret, so that no one has to feel like they're being unprofessional because they stand up for themselves," says Tiffany Jana. They're the founder and CEO of TMI Consulting, a management consulting firm that focuses on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

When speaking up, use these guiding principles: Keep it factual, keep it short and keep it as kind as possible.

When pain points occur, speak up in real time. Ben, a white man with short brown hair, flags down Jo, a woman of Asian descent with a short bob haircut. "Hey, Jo, I have some notes from Susan. He asked me to give them to you." Jo responds, "Hey, Ben, you may not be aware that you're doing this, but you're getting Susan's pronouns wrong all the time, and it's hurtful."
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Jana says that if somebody uses an offensive term at work, for example, you or a colleague could call it out by saying, "Someone just used the term 'slave driver.' And, you know, we don't use that term anymore. That is antiquated. That is hurtful....We want to acknowledge that that happened and apologize if anyone was hurt."

If you're in a situation where someone at work continues to use offensive language or behave in ways that are not inclusive to you or others, you might want to start documenting that behavior, says Jana.

"If somebody leaves you off one or two emails, it doesn't seem like a big deal," they say. "But when you've got six months of documentation of being cut off, left out, overlooked for [an] opportunity, then you might actually have something. So make sure that you take meticulous documentation."

Check in with yourself

What do you do about a co-worker who isn't being outright offensive, but begins meetings with distractions like sharing too many personal details about their last date or their diet plan?

Check in with yourself. Amy, a Black woman with an afro, chatters away in front of Jo: "I went on a date last night, and it was horrible ..." "She always talks about her love life in our meetings!" Jo thinks. "I wish I could fly away. ... Does this bother me enough to put energy into fixing it? Nah. We don't have many meetings together."
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Los Angeles-based therapist Camille Tenerife says to tap into what you're feeling to decide whether the issue needs addressing. She suggests starting by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this something that is constantly bothering me?
  2. Is this something I feel strongly about?
  3. How much energy do I want to put into this?

"If you find yourself over and over in the situation ... I think that it's at least worth addressing," says Tenerife. "I often see my clients start building resentment and then frustration, and that bleeds into their work as well and their energy and attitude going into the workplace."

The person is not the problem — the problem is the problem

A shift in perspective about the problem can go a long way, says Abdul Omar, who works at the state of Hawaii's ombudsman office. An ombud is a workplace conflict mediator who is a neutral third party. Unlike a human resources representative, ombuds are not bound by the same legal documenting requirements, but not all workplaces have ombuds.

"Perception is 100% of that conflict — the reason why you're in conflict is because you [have] different perceptions," says Omar. If you accept that starting point, you can focus on behaviors that are upsetting, not personality traits.

You're not going to have a productive conversation if you go into the conversation thinking the worst about a person, Omar says.

Get into the right headspace to focus on the actual problem. What not to do: "Alex has turned into such a lazy worker recently. This can't continue," Jo thinks. A more helpful way to frame the issue: "Alex has been late to work the past two weeks, and some clients have complained. I wonder what's going on?"
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

That co-worker or supervisor who seems to be ghosting you after you spoke up in a meeting? Maybe they aren't mad at you. Maybe they've been stressed at home with a sick partner. Instead of assuming they are unreliable or flaky, you could break the tension and talk to them about what you sensed was a change in behavior.

Have a conversation, and make sure to listen actively

If you're not sure how to initiate a conversation with someone you're in conflict with at work, you have some options. You can meet one on one, you can have an ombud like Omar mediate your conversation or you can ask a human resources representative to help. In each scenario, some useful strategies to having these conversations will hopefully lead to a more fruitful and positive outcome:

Have a conversation, and listen actively. Jo talks to Jane, a person with short pink hair. Tip 1: Be specific. "Hey, you've been making comments about my hair lately," Jo says. "You might not mean anything by it, but I've found your words hurtful. I'd like to keep our conversations focused on work."
 
Tip 2: It can be helpful to ask clarifying questions to understand. Jane asks, "Just to confirm, can you give examples of comments I made?" Tip 3: Being defensive is not helpful. Jane interjects, "Aw, I was just complimenting you!"
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Once you've addressed the issue with a colleague, agree on a solution. Omar says one example of a solution is to agree on how feedback should be provided: "If you have feedback for me, I would rather we do it over the phone or in person. Don't write me emails."

Be your own best advocate — and protect your peace

If things aren't improving after your conversation — or maybe they've even escalated — seek out trusted sources at work.

If you're lucky and your HR rep is helpful, lean on them. But if you're in a situation where HR has been part of the problem, you shouldn't feel the burden of fixing a toxic workplace.

Protect your peace: "I've been bringing up challenges I've faced and proposing solutions for months," Jo thinks to herself. "But nothing's happened, and no one seems to care. It shouldn't just be my job to fix things!" She stands up from the table. "I need to either go to HR or start looking for a new job."
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

"If you are going to work day after day, month after month, and you have adequately named the challenges, proposed solutions that might work for you, and you're not getting feedback and you're not getting any kind of flex in your direction — to me, what that says is you are not valued as an employee," and that might mean it's time to find a new place to work, says Jana. "If your current employer can't take care of you, I promise you someone else will."


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The comics were created by Connie Hanzhang Jin. The podcast portion of this story was produced by Janet W. Lee and was hosted and reported by Diana Opong.