Conflicts with coworkers are inevitable. Sooner or later, every employee has to face various problems in communicating with colleagues. And people who consistently fail to establish good mechanisms for handling conflicts with coworkers often find it hard to find the job they like. Inversely, their employers also find it hard to keep cooperating with them, as people who don’t know how to resolve contentions and misunderstandings can potentially ruin the whole working atmosphere.

Moreover, knowing how to resolve a conflict with a coworker is sometimes more important than skill. Highly skilled employees who don’t know how to handle tricky situations often lose their jobs because of their lack of social intelligence.

Indeed, knowing how to manage conflicts with colleagues is one of the most important aspects of good emotional intelligence. Why? Because trust, acknowledgment, and understanding always contribute to the success of the whole team, while performance (i.e. skill) when unpaired with good social intelligence, contributes only individual success.

While the last paragraphs may seem to exaggerate the current state of affairs, the following story will change your mind.

In his newest books, Simon Sinek explains the importance of trust, and its relative importance with respect to individual skill. He analyzed an unlikely group- Navy Seals. You’d think that Navy Seals really should go for the top performers, regardless of the so-called “soft skills” (which, of course, include the ability to solve conflicts). Simon Sinek also expected this but found something completely different. Good human relations are important even in groups such as Navy Seals. Furthermore, the recruiters of Navy Seals would often prefer to have a low performer with good social skills than a high performer with bad social skills. We may safely surmise that in the typical office context, “soft skills” would be even more important.

What does all this mean? First of all, learning how to deal with coworker conflict is essential in all circumstances. Secondly, the story emphasizes that the lack of soft skills cannot be compensated for with more skill.


Most Popular Reasons For a Conflict With Co-Worker

While it’s not easy to enumerate all the reasons people misunderstand each other, we can still identify the most frequent ones:

  1. Office gossip- let’s face it, everybody likes to gossip from time to time. However, there’s a difference between gossiping occasionally and spreading toxic lies and about colleagues. So, just pay attention the next time you bring up someone’s “dirty laundry”- one thing is certain, doing this won’t make your relations with coworkers any better! Honesty is what counts here. Instead of gossiping about somebody and then pretending that everything’s fine, try to mention the things you gossiped about the next time you see your coworker. You can do this in a half-joking manner: “Hey, I gossiped about you the other day…”- this way you’ll show that honesty and good relationship matter to you.
  2. Being egocentric- there are a lot of words for this kind of behavior, egoism, egocentrism, narcissism, but the message is clear- self-centeredness is extremely detrimental to the group cohesion. People will think that you’re egocentric if you’re constantly putting yourself above them. This is evident in the way you speak and your whole demeanor, even if you are not necessarily aware of it. Sometimes, people who don’t know the basics of assertive communication may also give off the impression of a narcissistic, arrogant person, even though this might not be the case. For instance, a person who thinks that there’s no other way to make herself heard than to blatantly attack others will often be labeled as a narcissist or egoist who doesn’t contribute to the group’s cohesion. This is why the training of assertive communication can be useful to these people who simply lack the skills to make their voices heard.
  3. Unhealthy competition- what is an unhealthy competition? It happens when people have intense feelings of rivalry, contempt, and envy. The unhealthy competition involves at least 2 individuals torn apart by hate and attempts to sabotage the competitor. This is why unhealthy competition is bad- sometimes it becomes so toxic that everything the competitors care about is beating the other person, no matter the cost. Instead of being friends who are working together on a common task, they become enemies. That being said, competition is not necessarily bad. Healthy competitions happen when you try to beat another person’s record, not the person herself.
  4. Failure to admit your mistakes- while this may seem pretty straightforward, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge our own mistakes. Asking your colleague, from time to time, about any suggestions and/or reproaches they might be having, will prove to be a good strategy for establishing mutually beneficial relationships. It is necessary here to draw a clear line between reproaches and rebukes. In our opinion, being able to communicate your reproaches to a coworker is a type of assertive behavior, while dealing harsh rebukes is a good way to ruin relationships. This also works both ways, which means that you’ll have to learn how to deal with reproaches and rebukes. When dealing with rebukes, you’d want to be clear about one thing, namely, that you do not want to accept that type of communication. Backing before reprimands means that you’re too reluctant to take an assertive position and face unfair behavior exhibited by the coworkers.

When Should You Invite a Mediator to Resolve Your Conflict?

Usually, engaging a third party to resolve the contention is not necessary. However, when things get a bit out of hand, it is advisable to bring in a mediator. When, for instance, the other party, in spite of your attempts to calm the things down, responds with open insults and unfair criticism. Instead of escalating the situation even further, you should ignore these insults and invite someone to mediate between you and your coworker.

One the other hand, bringing a third party may sometimes be an overreaction and exaggeration- when for instance, the conflict could have been resolved between the two of you, without any mediators. This is why the correct assessment of one’s own and other’s behavior is crucial. When you’re dealing with assertive reproaches, there are practically no reasons to bring in a person who would try to solve the problem.

Best Ways to Peacefully Resolve a Conflict With a Co-Worker

One can learn how to handle conflicts with coworkers in many different ways:

  1. Assertiveness- as probably noted by now, assertiveness is the basis of all successful conflict solutions. If you’re not assertive, your conflicts are more likely to escalate, you’ll get overly defensive or aggressive, and generally speaking, your ability to peacefully resolve conflicts will decrease. Various cognitive-behavioral frameworks incorporate assertiveness training for people who are too aggressive, passive, or simply anxious. 
  2. Sticking to the topic- the frustration and tension build up when coworkers turn their focus from the work-related problem and instead concentrate on some irrelevant events from the past. We see this way too often. Imagine the following situation. Two colleagues are having an ongoing issue with the company’s administration. They are already behind the schedule, but they don’t know why. Before you know, they start blaming each other for their problems. Had they stuck with the original work-related problems, things wouldn’t have become as nearly as bad. 
  3. Avoid gossiping (badmouthing)– or, even better, acknowledge that gossiping can be really damaging both personal and professional relationships, and address this issue when needed (i.e. admit your mistakes). 
  4. Face to face conversation- instead of communicating via social networks or e-mail, have a face-to-face meeting. Getting to know the other person may help solve the issue. It also goes the other way around- the other side gets to know you better, and possibly sympathize with you and understand the problems you might be facing. 
  5. Address the problem as soon as possible- avoidance is the source of numerous issues human beings face every day. Pretending that the conflict doesn’t exist is a sure way to make it even worse. 
  6. Get a mediator- finally, when there are no other possible solutions, the third party should be able to resolve the contentious issue.

Conflict is not the end of the relationship between two co-workers (or a group), because it is sometimes quite natural that people disagree, but it can be managed and resolved. Mutually beneficial resolution of a conflict is a skill and an attitude that could be cultivated. And we have showed you the most basic way how to do just that. Being a good manager or a business owner means that it would be necessary to skillfully address possible conflicts. Do not fear it, deal with the conflicts, so you and your team can continue on your way to success.