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5 Keys to Resolving Workplace Conflicts
by Daniel Kehrer
October 2, 2023
Female manager having discussion with coworker in office space at table

Workplace conflicts can sap energy from any small business. Resolving issues quickly and effectively – and helping prevent them from occurring again – is critical to smooth sailing. Business managers overall spend an estimated 40 percent of their time dealing with conflicts both big and small, so it’s no trivial matter.

It’s a fact of business life. Disagreements, disputes, and honest differences exist everywhere. For small business owners and entrepreneurs, the key is this: By treating conflicts as catalysts for increasing energy and productivity, you can turn them from negatives into positives.

Here are five ways to make workplace conflicts constructive:

1. Break the ice first

Most people are ready to complain, debate, or argue at the outset of any conflict. They’ve conjured up their best arguments and are ready to do battle – usually without giving the matter any careful thought.

Try to avoid addressing the topic of the controversy immediately. That can get people stuck in their positions. What you need is a way to open a conversation about a difficult issue in a non-threatening way. An icebreaker in this case is not idle chitchat, but a smooth transition.

For example, the ideal opener might ask for a person’s own take on something both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two workers involved in the same project, ask each of them how they became involved and what they hoped to achieve.

2. Don’t simply try to mediate.

Many business owners try to be neutral “third-party” mediators in workplace conflicts when in fact that’s not their role. Your obligation is to the interests of the business and others who work there, and you need a combination of skills, structure, and finesse to express (and impose) your own view on how things need to be. You are the boss, after all.

3. Listen closely and talk less.

Sometimes what you don’t say is more important than what you do. Good outcomes come from listening carefully to others. This sends a positive message that you are genuinely concerned. And it’s simply the best way to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. To get this going, try asking an open-ended question (not a yes or no). Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. Quickly re-insert yourself into the discussion if it turns negative.

4. Use positive language and encourage others to do the same.

Any frustrated business owner knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity after a conflict erupts. Always think before you speak. Remember, it’s a conversation, not a trial. If you keep the language positive, whoever you speak to will likely mirror what you’re doing.

Even the needs of the business can be expressed in positive terms, which will lead to a better tone overall.  For example, you can say, “This is affecting the entire business, and we need to address it so we can get everyone focused back on our goals.”  When you keep things positive, you can work toward great solutions efficiently and effectively.

5. Aim for SMART solutions:

Your goal is not just to defuse a situation in the near term, but also to come up with a sustainable answer to the problem. That’s where the SMART approach comes in. SMART means this:

  • Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where and how.
  • Measurable: Establish a way to tell that something has been done, achieved, or completed.
  • Achievable: The solution should fit the situation and be doable by those involved. Don’t set anyone up to fail.
  • Realistic: Check calendars for holidays and vacations; look at previous performance to predict future actions and allow time for glitches and delays.
  • Timed: Set reasonable deadlines and target dates and provide necessary tools and support to meet those targets.

Put your SMART solutions in writing to keep people’s memories in line with what everyone agreed on.

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About the author
Daniel Kehrer
Daniel Kehrer, Founder & Managing Director of BizBest Media Corp., is a nationally-known, award-winning expert on small and local business, start-ups, content marketing, entrepreneurship and social media, with an MBA from UCLA/Anderson. 
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