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Stop conflict before it happens

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Julia woke up that morning with a strong desire to stay home and don't go to work. She daydreamed for a while of calling in sick. As she prepared to go to the office, the dead weight feeling in her stomach increased as she thought of her upcoming meeting with her very temperamental colleague.

In the past few weeks, the tension with her colleague had been mounting steadily to the point where they barely said hi to each other in the hallway and tried sitting as far away as possible at meetings. This, however, did not prevent them from harshly criticising each other's proposals.

You might have been in a similar situation. Sometimes conflicts at work get so out of hand that you might even start dreading to go to work, or attending certain meetings, or having to work with a particular person.

Unfortunately, most of us notice conflict when it is already too late and it has already engulfed us. But the best way to deal with conflict is to prevent it from growing in the first place.

So how do we go about this?

Conflict prevention framework

We can use a health prevention model to think about conflict under a new light. Public health specialists divide their health prevention methods into primary, secondary, and tertiary strategies.

Primary prevention strategies happen a long time before any disease or accident has taken place. Examples include campaigns to keep people away from cigarettes or to use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

Secondary prevention strategies aim to reduce the impact of a disease or accident that has just happened. They can include airbags and seat-belts in cars which limit the damage in an accident. Or providing post-exposure prophylaxis treatment when someone has been exposed to HIV, to prevent the person from developing the infection.

As for tertiary prevention strategies, these kick in when it is already “too late”, with the aim of palliating the consequences of an accident or disease. Think of lifelong treatments to control hypertension or physical rehabilitation therapy after an injury.

So how can we apply this same framework to think about conflict and help us prevent it?

In conflict, we can think of primary prevention approaches as the techniques you employ every day to build trust and strong communication with your colleagues, your boss and your team, as well as your clients or beneficiaries. Saying hi, listening to people, being respectful, upholding your commitments, etc. If you don’t have any strategies in place to build this trust, then the chances of conflict arising will be higher.

Secondary prevention strategies are reflexes and tools you can develop to react quickly when conflict starts to brew and prevent it from building up. And tertiary prevention approaches are the strategies you can put into place when an ugly confrontation has already taken place, to heal your working relationships and restore communication and trust.

In this post we’ll focus on secondary prevention approaches, as chances are that if you are reading this, you are already dealing with some level of simmering conflict.

Act quickly

Cultures have been catalogued along a spectrum of confrontation that goes from confrontation happy to confrontation avoidance. If you come from confrontation happy culture, you might not have that much trouble speaking up immediately when something bothers you. If you come from a conflict-avoiding culture, you might, on the other hand, consciously or subconsciously try to avoid confronting the other person for as long as possible.

No matter your cultural setting, the first strategy in your conflict prevention arsenal is velocity. Don’t let conflict simmer. As soon as you start smelling trouble, act on it.

So how do you act on it?

Ask directly

Instead of responding by arguing or shouting, or on the other end of the spectrum, by digging your head in the sand, start by asking directly and politely to the other person what is the matter.

This looks something like “Say Don, I got the impression that you did not like my proposal at the meeting? Wanna talk about it?”. Speak from a personal perspective (i.e. your impression) and to avoid assumptions. Avoid insulting or antagonizing phrases such as “Say Don, why are you being such a jerk about my proposal?

Listen openly

If you went to the trouble of asking, then keep an open mind and a closed mouth while the person answers. Listen without thinking what you are going to answer back. Just try to consider the other person’s perspective for a moment.

Shift the perspective

When you’ve done your listening, answer from a “personal viewpoint” and not as if you owned all the truths in the world. Try to shift your perspective so that you think of Don as your ally in tackling a problem -the conflict per se- and not as Don attacking you personally.

This can look like “I see your point, my impression is that this proposal can help in X, Y and Z manners. How do you think we can make it better?”. This may help you in switching the confrontation from “you-versus-me” to “us-against-the-problem”.

Make a request, not a complaint.

If things have not gone well, you can still make something of this talk by making a polite request. A request is a respectful solicitation, made in a neutral tone. For example, instead of saying: “You always interrupt me before I finish talking. Stop doing it already!” (a complaint), you might want to try something like: “For our next meeting, I would appreciate it if you listened to my proposal until the end before providing feedback” (a request). The latter will probably be received more positively and thus have more chances of succeeding.

If things have gone well, and you’ve managed to shift the perspective and move towards a friendlier collaboration, it might still be useful to make a request that aims to prevent this type of situation in the future. For example, you could say “Going forward, I think it would be valuable to talk about our proposals before the meeting, so we clear up any misunderstandings beforehand. What do you think?”

Conflict at work is unavoidable, but a good toolbox of secondary strategies can help us feel more confident in handling it quickly and stopping it in its tracks. When this fails, it is time to bring out the tertiary prevention approaches, which I will cover in a future post.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your best techniques for stopping conflict early and constructively. Share in the comments below!

Additional resources

You might want to browse some additional resources on resolving conflict:

The Center for Non-Violent Communication teaches “Giraffe language”, one of my favorite strategies for conflict resolution. They have freely available material on their website

The secret of productive conversations, a post by Fred Kofman, VP of Leadership and Organizational Development at Linked In, is one of his multiple great discussions on conflict resolution.

In my book Build your Dream Team. Leadership based on a passion for people, I dedicate the last chapters to dealing with conflict constructively. I discuss conflict-solving strategies for interpersonal conflict, for acting as a mediator and for helping others with intra-personal conflict.



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