Deborah Hill is a writer and anthropologist who is fascinated with the way humans and businesses interact.
How can I bring this up without offending the boss? How can I get my point across when Johnny-with-the-skinny-tie keeps talking over me?
If company culture has you ranting in your head and stress-eating Doritos from the desk drawer, it’s time to get serious about finding strategies to help you thrive, not just survive.
If you work in a male-dominated field or a boys’ club atmosphere, it can be tempting to cope with unresolved conflict and being overlooked by trying to be “one of the boys.” But, research shows you can’t just act like a man. It tends to backfire because you’re not being authentic. So let’s put the focus back on being you, shall we?
Learning how to feel comfortable and valued at work takes courage, patience, and a strong inner sense of self. Using productive conflict skills, where you address conflict head on in a constructive way, can help lower your stress level and gain respect from your coworkers. It sounds crazy, but according to Bernie Mayer—a professor of conflict resolution at Creighton University—“encouraging conflict detoxifies conflict, suppressing conflict escalates it.”
Here are four ways to practice productive conflict with your work team.
1. Be curious about others’ ideas—even the odd ones
Don’t immediately pooh-pooh someone’s idea—that shuts people down and ticks them off. Ask them to explain their thinking and conclusions more fully. Why is this a good idea? There may be kernels of insight the team should consider. Plus, it encourages brainstorming and open discussion. No idea is all good or all bad, so model how to find the parts worth keeping.
What to say:
Can you walk us through that idea again? I want to understand your point of view fully.
2. Encourage dialogue on points of disagreement
When people seriously disagree in meetings, it creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for everyone. This can completely shut down creative discussion. Diffuse the conflict by restating the issue in a way that is non-threatening and not personal. Model how to lean into the discomfort of conflict and toward productive discussion.
What to say:
Both of you have strong, well-thought-out arguments. Let’s push and pull on these ideas as a team and find the best combination of options for moving forward.
3. Keep people engaged in the discussion by giving them credit for their ideas
Have you ever had the experience of offering an idea that gets ignored, only for someone else to say it later and suddenly it gets traction? It’s maddening. And it makes team members distrust one another. Defuse that by modeling the habit of acknowledging people’s contributions to the discussion. Doing this helps everyone feel heard and valued. It’s rewarding to see how your ideas contribute to the whole.
What to say:
Let’s reconnect with Sneha’s idea and see how it can strengthen this approach.
4. Bring up what is not being talked about
This piece of advice takes some courage, but it’s so valuable for defusing conflict. Acknowledging there is an elephant in the room can be a massive relief for people. It's frustrating to piece together makeshift solutions because you have to pretend the real problem doesn't exist. Create a safe space for the team to decide how to handle the taboo topic. You can acknowledge an issue and still retain the option to choose not to mess with it.
What to say:
It seems like we are avoiding one piece of this problem. Are we missing out on some reasonable solutions by leaving this issue unexplored? We can decide as a group whether to talk about this or not.