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Resolving conflicts at work without burning bridges

I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world”

Amen, Louis Armstrong!

But there are the days you may realize that not everyone agrees on the fate of trees, the beauty of thorny rose bushes or for that matter the world view professing its wonders! People don’t always sing in harmony. And often the difference of opinions may make way towards a full blown conflict, an inevitable progression if fueled by ego and pig-headedness. To be fair, conflicts by themselves are not harmful. It is quite natural to imagine why two people wouldn’t always go aye aye on everything, unless if they are part of a cult! People have the right to have free thoughts and expressions. Disagreements are a natural consequence of free thinking. But it is when we let our disagreements escalate to irrational levels, that we transform the harmless difference of opinion to a feud. And this can happen anywhere. At your home, on the road, in the park and of course, even at work.

People tend to spend the longest part of their lives behind a desk, working along side their colleagues of all kinds of thought shapes and sizes. Most jobs require mutual interactions, and interactions usually lead to exchange of ideas. Resolving conflicts, arising from difference of opinions, is a crucial skill to build a smooth working relationship. After all, your career depends on team work, your network, your interpersonal skills and the other basic attributes that set you apart from Satan.

Even corporate training and consulting group powerhouses, like the American Management Associations (AMA), in New York City, widely known for partnering with some of the largest corporations, organizes Conflict Management Workshops (more here) to provide individuals the power to succeed in their career by learning the art of managing work related disputes. This is serious and one cannot simply overlook the significance of conflict resolution.
Read key skills for employees to succeed.

Read list of key skills, for employees to succeed.

In this article we will talk about the ways you can develop the art of resolving conflicts, at your workplace, without burning bridges. A work relationship, burnt by hostilities towards each other, may not just be unpleasant but also harmful for future collaborations, prospects, or even your professional image! If you are known as someone who can’t handle conflicts, you can be largely perceived as someone who can’t work in teams either. You should always be prepared to smooth out work related disputes, ‘coz all you really want to do is put in an honest day’s job and advance your career.

So here are a few techniques to build the proverbial bridge. Unless someone manipulates the floor with politics and trickery, these steps to handle conflicts should be enough to create a healthy working atmosphere. Read Tricks to identify psychological manipulators.

How to master the art of resolving conflicts at work?


Accept the inevitability of conflicts

The first step, in this million and a half step program towards zen, is to realize that you may have people around you who disagree with you, unless you work at the front desk of Nirvana. Denial of a potential conflict will only prepare you to avoid it, not face it when it actually shows up at your cubicle. Until you confront the problem, it will most likely fester and develop into something far more ugly. If Sean has an issue with how his manager seems to be manipulating his every decision, and shifting the blame on him when things go wrong, he may close his eyes and wish the situation away. Unfortunately it will not. Not until he realizes that there is a problem that needs addressing.
The main life lesson, here, is to embrace the solution to a problematic conflict, not the problem itself.


That brings us closer to the second major step – defining the problem with the fellow conflicter. When you sense an interpersonal problem, brewing, it is better to nip it at the root rather than wait for the symptoms to show. So send in a line to your colleague and request a short discussion. Let him choose the time, showing that you are nothing but accommodating, by nature. Choose a semi public place for the discussion, just ‘coz you may need witnesses who shall speak the truth and nothing but the truth. Start with some casual talk about the weather, the dismal traffic situation, or bhai’s next movie about a ceiling fan.

And once the ice starts melting, tell him about the situations that have been troubling you. And when you do let the kitten out of the bag, remember to phrase your sentences in a manner that doesn’t seem accusatory. Specify the particulars of the problematic situation rather than making vague statements. I didn’t appreciate my idea cast aside, at the last meeting reflects your discomfort with that particular situation. I don’t like how you always veto my ideas sounds like a rant from an emotional wreck. The most important, yet easily forgettable, gesture is to be respectful and mindful of his say. Once the problem statement is out there, ask him as to what he thinks can be done to improve such situations. Let him speak and don’t interject even if you feel the words bubbling inside your throat, threatening to come out. Make sure you understand what he suggests. Say it aloud if you have to and then suggest improvements. Continue this back and forth until you both stand on a fair level ground – a love all score, if you will.

Let’s not get personal

It is easy to let words become personal. And yet, we are talking about a professional setting. The idea is to not let emotions get the best of you. When your manager seems to be choosing Bob to head all the meetings, with the clients, you may be tempted to think that it is so ‘coz he hates you, your walk, your race, your accent or perhaps even your Trump like shaggy hairstyle. Talk to him and don’t be afraid of some constructive criticism. This is a chance to reflect and seek improvement opportunities. It is possible that you will disagree with his assessment. But you will be in a better position to evaluate if the discrimination is indeed personal or simply arising on professional grounds, having had an honest discussion. If your interaction changes, upon following through the mutual suggestions, there will be no reason to harbor resentment towards each other…or Bob for that matter. If not, you will know that the root of the problem is deeper and probably needs an HR intervention.


It is decidedly hard to put your self in your opponent’s shoes. But it does help to take a huge leap towards conflict resolution. Any satisfactory resolution really needs consideration for either ones’ interests. So if you feel the incessant need to always be right and make everyone walk your way, then the easiest resolution to any conflict would be to simply get rid of the biggest trouble maker – You. Have some compassion to listen and understand your opponent’s opinion. Unless both parties accept and agree to make compromises, it would seem less like an effort towards improvement and more like an imposition. Just respond to a few questions and see if both walk out of the meeting, happy.

What’s in it for you that could satisfy you?
What’s in it for me that could satisfy me?
Do you agree?
And can we work this out together?
And if none of these work, play Solomon and chop the stapler in half!

Follow up and follow through

The ultimate goal, in resolving conflicts, is to work together in spite of the differences, not instead of. As long as you are able to work out an understanding, you should certainly make it a goal to follow through the decisions made together. What you really want is to build upon the trust, and respect, you have just shown the other person by considering their say. If either of you revert back to the behavior that led to the birth of the friction, in the first place, the situation will not only relapse but also aggravate. Regroup in some time to see if your master plan is working out. Chances are you will be able to identify the flaws and improve the effort. Or it might just be an excuse to get together and enjoy the small chat you left off hanging the last time…is it going to be a movie on illegal poaching of blackbucks. Oops! Too soon?
Your work life is a mixture of your duties, as an employee, and your social interactions in an official setting. Sometimes it is just hard to compartmentalize these aspects while trying to function independently. Clashes happen and when these clashes start interfering with your job role, and your peace of mind, your work suffers. As long as you are determined to work towards building and maintaining your relationships, your actions will follow.

And hopefully, Louis’ song will make sense all over again.
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.”
…What a wonderful world will it be indeed!

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Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

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