Managing Interpersonal Conflict in the Busy Workplace

By Dr. Jack Singer

By Jack N. Singer, Ph.D.

Managing Interpersonal Conflict in the Busy Workplace by Dr. Jack SingerManaging interpersonal conflict in organizations is among the most critical and important skills that employees on all levels of the organization can possess.

Job insecurity, fueled by fears of downsizing, mergers, the unstable economy and an unknown organizational future, produces fertile ground for the development of conflict. Moreover, advances in technology , which are often viewed as threatening, magnify the potential for anger and frustration in the workplace.

Unresolved or insensitively managed conflict negatively impacts productivity and morale. Ultimately, the bottom line is affected. On the other hand, allowing conflict to surface and skillfully resolving it can be a platform for enhancing employee trust, team building and creativity.

The good news is that managers, trainers and human resources directors can easily learn conflict resolution strategies, put them into practice, and teach them to their employees.

The following three-step program for assessing and implementing a conflict resolution program is a proven, successful plan of attack:


Several self-assessment questionnaires have been developed over the years giving people insight into how they react in typical conflict situations. The insight derived from scoring these questionnaires provides an understanding of what “buttons” get pushed when a person is provoked.


People resort to their own, idiosyncratic behavioral habits when experiencing conflict with others. These reactions include:

Non-productive behaviors, such as: confronting, dominating, defending, using sarcasm, hostile humor, repressing emotions, insisting on being right, stonewalling, and blaming;

Neutral behaviors, such as: avoiding, cooling off, apologizing, and giving in or backing off to avoid confrontation;

Positive behaviors, such as: active listening, empathizing, disarming, inquiring, using “I feel” statements, and recognizing how your internal dialogue impacts your emotional reactions.

The goal is to eliminate negative and neutral behaviors and practice positive confrontation reduction skills until they become new habits. On the average, these skills can be learned in only 21 days of concentrated practice!


Active Listening. The key to all interpersonal communications is genuine listening, as opposed to defensive listening, where you think about your retort while the other person is talking to you, thus not really listening.

In order to begin to really listen, start by paraphrasing what the other person says in your own words, without judging, agreeing or disagreeing. Listen to and reflect the content, needs and feelings of the other person. For example, if someone is telling you about what he thinks is unfair because you chose not to give him a raise, you might reply: “It sounds like you believe that we don’t really care about you enough to consider what you have done this year in determining whether to give you a raise.”

Notice that you are not agreeing, nor disagreeing with the complainer, simply paraphrasing the words and emotions he believes the complainer is expressing.

Next, ask for feedback to determine whether you interpreted correctly. If you have missed the point, ask for clarification. Continue this process until you are sure that you have heard what the other person is saying and how he or she really feels emotionally. Simply getting clarification in order to be sure you have heard what the complainer is talking about will go a long way toward defusing the negative emotions he is feeling, because he is now feeling respected and listened to.

Once you are certain that you understand the message and feelings expressed by the other person, respond. The other person then listens and paraphrases for you. This process continues until you have both clarified your positions and are certain that the other person also really heard you and understands. And no one has to defend themselves here…you are both just trying to listen to each other’s points.

Empathizing. This involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to see the world through his or her eyes, taking into account cultural, racial, gender and experiential differences. Remember, empathizing with the other person is understanding her/his position from their perspective and with the information they have…it is not necessarily agreeing with them.
Example: “I understand that you believe your work product has been as good as Joe Smith’s and he did receive a raise. So you view this as unfair and personal.”

Disarming. The fastest way to defuse an argument is to find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you do not agree with the basic criticism or complaint. For example, saying “I can understand how you’d feel angry with me since you believe that Joe’s work is no better than yours and I did give him a raise,” acknowledges and validates the angry person’s feelings without actually agreeing with what was said. This opens the door to clarification, feedback and reconciliation.

Inquiring. By asking for clarification of ideas, needs and feelings you signal a feeling of respect and can then work toward mutual understanding and compromise.

“I Feel” Statements. This is a primary skill in interpersonal communications. Expressing yourself with such statements as, “I’m feeling sad and hurt because you believe I am being unfair to you” is much more productive than the accusatory, “Now you’re making me sad and hurt and I don’t like feeling that way.” In the first scenario, you take responsibility for your own feelings and share them; in the second, you escalate the confrontation by blaming and putting the person on the defensive.

In addition, you tell the other person specifically what will make you feel better or what can be done to improve the relationship and avoid further misunderstandings and confrontations.
Example: “I have a list of criteria that are involved in determining when someone is entitled to a raise. You are only looking at one of them when you decide I am being unfair. Let’s discuss how you can improve in the other areas so that you can earn a raise next time.”

Internal Dialogue. The key to analyzing your vulnerability to being provoked into confrontations is to understand how your automatic thoughts, including your assumptions and conclusions, cause every emotional reaction.

Examples of these distortions are: “He shouldn’t keep bugging me about a raise” (using should, must, and have to in judging someone’s actions); or…“My employees don’t really care about how difficult my job is” (reading your employees’ minds about what they must be thinking and feeling); or…“Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this job…it’s constant pressure” (catastrophising or fortune telling about what your incompetence or the future; …finally,“I must have been stupid for taking this job” (negatively labeling yourself instead of describing your behavior as unfortunate or unproductive).

Once you learn about the distortion thinking habits you use automatically, you can learn how to challenge them and develop more rational, alternative thoughts. The end result often dissolves away negative emotions and develops a healthy, more reasonable outlook on every situation in which you find yourself.

Interpersonal conflict is healthy when it brings a rich sharing of ideas, mutual respect and an understanding and appreciation of diverse opinions, needs, and values. Teaching your employees to understand how they traditionally react in conflict situations and how to use confrontation reduction skills leads to greater trust, less stress, more creativity, and can ignite the team. The ultimate benefits are enhanced quantity and quality of products and services!
Free 20 Minute Telephone Consultation with Psychologist Dr. Jack Singer

About the Author:

The Teacher's Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide by Dr. Jack SingerDr. Jack Singer is a professional speaker, trainer and psychologist. He has been speaking for and training Fortune 1000 companies, associations, CEO’s and elite athletes for 34 years. Among the association conventions which Dr. Jack has keynoted are those which serve financial planners.

Dr. Jack is a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, FOX SPORTS and countless radio talk shows across the U.S. and Canada. He is the author of “The Teacher’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide,” and several series of hypnotic audio programs, some specifically for athletes and some for anyone wanting to raise their self-confidence and esteem. To learn more about Dr. Singer’s speaking and consulting services, please visit and or call him in the U.S. at (800) 497-9880.

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