Resolve a Conflict at Work

You can't win a conflict at work. Winning a conflict means getting the outcome 'you' want regardless of what the 'other' person wants. Since the underlying issue has not been solved, it will simply reappear later. Much better than winning a conflict at work is resolving it. Unresolved conflicts make people unhappy at work and can result in antagonism, break-down in communications, inefficient teams, stress and low productivity. Here are the essential steps to constructively resolve conflicts at work.


  1. Realize that some conflicts are inevitable at work. Whenever people are committed and fired up, or change and new ideas are emerging, conflict and disagreement are bound to happen. This does not mean you have to revel in conflict or create trouble just for the heck of it, but it does mean that when conflict happens, it’s not the end of the world. It can be the beginning of an interesting learning process. Conflicts mean that people care enough to disagree strongly. The trick is not to allow the conflict to go on forever.
  2. Handle conflicts sooner rather than later. Resolve a conflict when it starts, as it only gets worse with time. Conflicts at work arise not from something that was said, but from something that wasn’t said! Everyone’s waiting for the other to admit he’s wrong and gets more unpleasant after the conflict has stewed for a while. It's essential to interrupt the "waiting game" before it gets to that point.
  3. Ask nicely. If somebody has done something that made you angry, or if you don’t understand their viewpoint or actions, simply asking about it can make a world of difference. Never assume that people do what they do to annoy you. Sometimes there’s good reason why that person does what he or she does (even the things that really get on your nerves), and a potential conflict evaporates right there. Make your inquiry just that--an inquiry, not an accusation of any sort: “Say, I was wondering why you did ‘X’ yesterday” or “I’ve noticed that you often do ‘Y’. Why is that?” are good examples. “Why the hell do you always have to ‘Z’!” is less constructive.
  4. Invite the other person to talk about the situation. A hurried conversation at your desk between emails and phone calls won’t solve anything. You need an undisturbed location and time to address the issue.
  5. Observe. Identify what you see in neutral, objective terms. This is where you describe the facts of the situation as objectively as possible. What is actually happening? When and how is it happening? What is the other person doing and, not least, what are you doing? You’re only allowed to cite observable facts and not allowed to assume or guess at what the other person is thinking or doing. You can say, “I’ve noticed that you’re always criticizing me at our meetings” because that’s a verifiable fact. You can’t say “I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped respecting my ideas” because that assumes something about the other person.
  6. Apologize. Apologize for your part in the conflict. Usually everyone involved has done something to create and sustain the conflict. Remember: You’re not accepting the entire blame, you’re taking responsibility for your contribution to the situation.
  7. Appreciate. Praise the other part in the conflict. Tell them why it’s worth it to you to solve the conflict. This can be difficult as few people find it easy to praise and appreciate a person they disagree strongly with, but it’s a great way to move forward.
  8. Identify the consequences. What has the conflict led to for you and for the company? Why is it a problem? Outlining the consequences of the conflict shows why it’s necessary to resolve it. It also helps participants to look beyond themselves and see the conflict "from the outside."
  9. Define an objective. What would be a good outcome? It’s essential to set a goal so both parties know the outcome they’re aiming for. That makes reaching the outcome a lot more likely.
  10. Request. Ask for specific actions that can be implemented right away. For example: "I suggest that we introduce a new rule: At meetings when one of us suggest something and the other person disagrees, we start by saying what’s good about the idea and then say how it could be better. Also, if we start to attack each other as we have before, I suggest we both excuse ourselves from the meeting and talk about it in private instead of in front of the entire team. And, what do you say we have a short talk after our next project meeting to evaluate how it went? How does that sound?"
  11. Get mediation. Some conflicts cannot be solved by the participants alone, and mediators can help. Mediation involves a neutral third party who has been trained in mediation principles, who is experienced in mediation, and who is trusted by the people involved in the conflict. A good mediator will help the disputants find their own solution, not provide advice or push them toward any particular solution.

    Take care when selecting a mediator. The mediator (or mediators) should only be someone who has undergone formal mediation training, has extensive mediation experience, and has mediated under supervision. Otherwise, he or she may do more harm than good.

  12. Consult a lawyer. Some conflicts involve disagreement about what is legal, or whether to follow the law. Whistle-blowers who report violations may have legal protections, and may consider raising their concerns outside the normal chain of command. If the conflict arises from a fraud to obtain money from the government, whistle-blowers may need to follow special procedures to protect their rights. The False Claims Act requires that whistle-blowers with original knowledge of such fraud be the first to file their claim, and refrain from public disclosure of certain information about their claim.


  • No matter what happens, remain optimistic. It helps.
  • There is no guarantee that the method described here will resolve your conflict at work. It may or it may not. But even if it doesn’t work you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve tried. You have risen above the conflict for a while and tried to address it positively and constructively. No one can ask more of you.
  • Inviting the other person to discuss the issue may be the hardest part of the whole process. It can be remarkably hard to take that first step. Do it anyway!
  • It’s important that you come to a meeting with your co-worker prepared to listen carefully to the other person, even if it is difficult to do so. By the same token, ask the other person to listen respectfully to what you have to say, without interrupting.
  • To further clarify the disagreement, a technique you can use is to have the other party write a bulleted list on a white board of conflicts and issues. Sit quietly while the person explains each bullet point. When the person finishes, go down the list, and restate the complaints in your own words, as accurately as possible. This way, the person knows that you've listened and understood. Then write down your list and reverse the process. Usually, just being clear on the the conflict makes it easy to find a mutual solution.
  • Information about the laws that protect whistleblowers is at


  • If your conflict is with a manager, these steps may not be feasible, especially if the manager is insecure.

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