Conflict in the Workplace: How to Get People to Stop Stewing and Start Talking31 January 2022 / By Samantha Mackay Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on January 31, 2022
This blog post is part of our Truity at Work series for those who are new to people management. In these posts, we’re creating useful content for managers and teams alike, helping you to understand personality, improve communication, navigate conflict and change with ease. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post here.
Conflict is an inevitable part of the workplace. When people with differing beliefs, values, opinions and personalities work together to create something new, conflict will happen. And that’s a good thing. We need conflict to ensure our work product doesn't get stale. For a team leader, the key to managing conflict is making it safe and respectful for everyone to participate in.
We all have very different definitions of conflict. For some it means raised voices, while for others it means stating their position. And conflict doesn't just have to look like an argument. It can be saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’ or ignoring an important issue.
No one personality type is better at dealing with conflict than any other. Each type has its own defaults and unhealthy positions, because conflict can bring out the worst in each of us. Although each type may consider their approach as “the best way to approach conflict” that simply closes us off from acknowledging other perspectives.
How do you define conflict?
The best place to start is to consider how you personally define conflict and how you deal with it at work.
When you feel threatened by what someone has said or done, do you shrink back or push forward? Do you get louder or quieter? When do you feel most comfortable engaging in conflict? What feels like conflict to you?
Thinkers and Feelers define this very differently, and this can be challenging when attempting to resolve conflict. Thinkers often define conflict as a lack of clarity; as an inevitable tension that will lead to greater creativity and a better outcome. Feelers focus on the lack of harmony that conflict creates and how that undermines cooperation. They describe conflict as being stressful, upsetting and emotional.
When conflict arises, Thinkers try to get clarity by asking questions, defining words and concepts, discussing the issues and proposing solutions. Feelers try to create harmony by being diplomatic, attentively listening, and acknowledging their and others feelings (unless one of their core values has been crossed—then all bets are off!).
Which is why Thinkers get described as assertive and Feelers as cooperative.
To Feelers, Thinkers appear cold, tough, blunt and tactless, making it hard to create harmony. To Thinkers, Feelers are overly emotional and personalize issues in a way that prevents finding clarity.
These positions are vastly different, but there is hope. Because beneath the surface of their behavior, Thinkers and Feelers are simply trying to get some core needs met that will allow them to engage in conflict in a healthier way.
What do people need to engage in conflict?
When we engage in conflict, it may well be to protect a vulnerable part of ourselves. It takes a lot of trust and respect to allow ourselves to slow down and take a new approach to conflict—one that involves really listening to the other party.
As a manager, note when this trust is breaking down, and help people see the other side of the equation.
To help Thinkers engage in conflict, they need someone who is willing to stay in the conversation with them, to know the other person is open to looking at the problem logically and has accurate information about what’s going on.
Thinkers want to know the other person’s expertise or competence, and that it's okay to challenge or question the other person without getting blamed or attacked in return.
To help Feelers engage in conflict, they need to know the person is interested in them as a person, cares about their feelings and is willing to thoughtfully listen. They need to know that the relationship is a priority and you aren’t willing to sacrifice it just to win or be right.
Feelers need the other party to be okay with them being emotional, and that it’s acceptable to take a timeout while they collect themselves. They want to know the other person cares more about finding a solution that benefits everyone, rather than just being right or winning.
Keep in mind
In addition to Thinking and Feeling, it can be useful to know that Extraverts can talk a lot more when they are triggered, speaking louder and faster, and not always hearing or remembering everything they have said. Introverts will try to stay cool and quiet, needing time to internalize all that has been said and determine how to respond.
Sensors and Intuitives can twist themselves in knots trying to clarify exactly what the other is talking about. They may spend all their time trying to figure out what the real conflict actually is. For example, a Sensor may have included a specific word in a contract but an Intuitive sees all the potential interpretations of it. So there can be a lot of “yes, but…” as they try to figure out the actual issue.
Judgers and Perceivers can get a little tangled too. As Judgers like things settled, when they make a statement it can sound like they aren’t open to further discussion. This may or may not be true. Perceivers, wanting to explore all the options, will ask more questions than can possibly be answered or make a statement that is really just another avenue for exploration.
Watch out for
While we have looked at how opposites can clash, conflict can actually be more pronounced in people of the same type or style. If you have a homogeneous team, they can get stuck with seeing a problem differently but arguing about it in the same way, with no differing approach to break the deadlock.
In these situations, it can be harder to figure out exactly what is going on and it is easy to simply reinforce the confusion. For example, in a team of Thinker Judgers, each can see the same problem with a black-and-white mindset. They will have a “this is right and that is wrong,” position that it is hard to sway them from. But they each have a different definition of what is “right” in the particular context. And no one will back down. No wonder mediators exist!
Most of us don’t go seeking arguments, but small differences come to us on a daily basis. When we spend time with people, differences always arise.
To start practicing the best ways to navigate conflict, don't wait for a big confrontation to break out. Start small. Aim to combine the Thinker and Feeler approach. When you notice a different perspective, try to learn what’s behind it. Ask questions, and really listen.
It’s better to practice this skill when you aren’t feeling vulnerable or triggered. But if you are, aim to slow down, pause and notice your default conflict behaviors. Then try to do some of the opposite.
You can help your team go on this journey too, using their personality types as a framework to discuss their default approach to conflict and how they can start integrating some of the other perspectives. Simply visit our Truity@Work Testing for Business page to set up your account and buy tests – you’ll be up and running in minutes.