Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

By Dylan M. Bates

Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar. You walk into the office and a coworker says something like, “We have a problem.” Your heart starts to race, your blood pressure rises and the possibilities of what could be wrong begin to rush through your head. Is a tenant unhappy? Did someone on your team threaten to quit? You had a to-do list for the day and dealing with an unforeseen conflict wasn’t on it. Inevitably, everything else will have to wait.

First and foremost, it’s necessary to recognize that the disagreements and misunderstandings that lead to conflict are a part of everyday life. Learning to deal with conflict in a healthy way is an opportunity for change and growth; it pays off in terms of time, money and stronger relationships.


Conflict can be viewed in terms of three common areas of miscommunication: expectations, positions and values. By identifying the source of miscommunication, conflicting parties welcome the opportunity for a new, more effective attempt to connect.

Expectations. Expectations are one of the most common areas of conflict in everyday life. When individuals have mixed expectations, it is a reflection that one’s views or needs have not been effectively communicated. How do you react when an occupant has an outburst about a delayed email response? While it might seem trivial to you, it’s important to recognize where the occupant is coming from. Work on seeing things from outside of your own perspective.

Shift from using “you-messages”—such as “you missed the deadline” or “you aren’t holding up your end of the agreement we made”—to speaking from your own perspective. An effective formula for doing this is called an XYZ statement: “I feel x (emotion) when you do y (action/behavior) and the result is z (how the action connects to your feeling).” Try to follow it up with clear instructions for moving forward: “What I need is (state your request).”

Positions. When people know what they want, they tend to choose a definitive position on the subject. When a person gets stuck in their position, conflicts can feel hopeless. An effective way to work past these impasses is by stepping back to identify the interests that are driving your position and to look for common ground.

Imagine that a boss says to an employee, “I need you to work more overtime this week,” to which the employee responds, “No, I can’t.” Both parties are simply stating their position, but it is important in these instances to take a step back and identify the why. For instance, the boss’s reasoning might be that the team is working to meet a critical deadline, and the employee’s reasoning might be that they have family commitments.

Once the why has been identified, look for common ground and a creative solution. A potential solution in this scenario might be that, although the employee can’t work more hours this week, they can delay another project’s deadline and delegate part of the project to other staff members to ensure the boss’s deadline is met. Remember: A solution requires flexibility from both parties.

Values. Values-based disputes often arise from the individuals in conflict having incongruences in their cultures and upbringings. Think of positions and values like an iceberg: A person’s positions—what they say they want—are in plain view and the complex values that motivate these desires are below the surface. A person’s perspective is filtered based on life experience, education, religion and more.

Effective listening is crucial in circumstances when we may not be attuned to the other person’s communication style. If we focus too much on the information we’re trying to give, we forget to properly receive and digest the other person’s information. Questions are powerful tools to bring out the “receiver” in you. Summarize what the other person has said and ask open-ended questions to gain clarity. For example, ask, “It sounds like (summarize what you heard), is this correct?” or “What is it about this issue that is important to you?”

It has been said that words only account for 7 percent of how we communicate. Elements like tone and body language account for the other 93 percent. Consider holding an open posture, facing the other person and relaxing into a natural position to positively convey your interest.

Conflict is manageable and can be an opportunity to innovate. With the right tools and approach, you can resolve most conflicts on your own.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dylan M. Bates manages the civil mediation and mentorship, community dispute resolution and restorative justice programs at NVMS Inc. He is a Certified Mediator on civil cases in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine.