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What to do when you have a conflict with a co-worker

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Do you have the feeling that there is an ongoing unspoken conflict right now in your life? Do you feel like someone’s angry at you but is not saying it? Or, you know that you should talk to that person on your team about their lousy work, but you keep postponing it?

We all have to deal with conflict in our lives: at our jobs, with family, with partners and friends. It’s part of life. Yet they rarely teach us at school how to handle it. Maybe we got lucky and our parents or bosses taught us. Or we self-learned. Maybe we just just untangle ourselves out of conflict as best as we can, or we keep avoiding it for as long as possible, until it explodes.

What I want to talk about today is a systematic process to deal with conflict constructively and effectively. I stitched together this process years ago from different sources, and I have spent time tweaking it and adapting it as I go along.

Invite the person to talk

The first step is acknowledging the elephant in the room. The elephant, in this case, being the conflict. By inviting your colleague to talk, you are facing the issue, and paving the way to resolve it. If tension has been mounting between you and Kevin, and you spend your time criticising each other’s work at meetings, or barely talking to each other, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Next time you cross Kevin, ask him if you can talk for half an hour (propose a date and a time).

Prepare yourself for the meeting

If you want your talk to succeed, the first rule is to come prepared. Do your homework. Find a calm space and time to think and answer in writing these three questions:

  • What would be a home run? If this meeting was a huge success, what would this success look like? Clarify your end- goal. Do you want to just stop fighting, or do you want to set up a system that allow you and Kevin to have better communication? Do you only care about reaching a solution or agreement for the current project?

  • How do you want to act? How do you want to feel? You have no control on whether Kevin is going to be angry or annoying at the meeting. But you have control on how YOU will act, no matter what the other person says or does. You can decide beforehand that no matter what Kevin says, you will never raise your voice. You can also decide beforehand how you are going to feel by the end of the meeting. Satisfied of having gone through it, proud of yourself for trying to resolve the conflict.

  • What are you going to say? What examples are you going to use?  You need to think beforehand about this, and you’ll see a bit more of what I mean in a moment.

Follow the “giraffe talk” rules

“Giraffe talk” is the nickname people use for “Non-Violent communication”, a communication process developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist who passed away some years ago. As the story goes, Dr. Rosenberg chose the giraffe to represent non-violent communication because its is supposedly the land animal with the biggest heart (cute, but incorrect, the land mammal with the biggest heart is the african elephant!).

Giraffe talk uses a set of very simple (yet hard to put into practice) rules:

  • Listen actively: without interrupting and without thinking about what you are going to answer back. Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

  • Do not assume anything. Do not assume bad intentions. Give people the benefit of the doubt and ask them to explain why they acted in a certain way.  

  • Make requests rather than complaints. For example, instead of saying “you went away on holidays and left me with all the work for the report”, say “I would appreciate it if next time we could both avoid holidays before an important deadline”.

  • Avoid generalizations, words like “never” and “always”, as in “you’re always late”, “you never listen”. Avoid value judgement words (good/bad, annoying, stupid, lazy, etc)

  • Give specific examples, instead of generalizations. E.g. instead of saying “you’re always handing in sloppy work”, say “The last assignment you worked on was not up to the standards we need, because x, y and z.”.

  • Talk in the first person: “I think…”, “I feel..., “I believe…”, “I would appreciate…” ; instead of “You did...” “You said…”.

Describe the situation IN NEUTRAL terms

Start off the meeting by thanking the person for being there and describing the FACTS. Not how things made you feel, just the facts as objectively as possible. Be specific and use examples. Try framing the situation as “Us against the problem”.  For example, you could say “Kevin, thanks for coming. I wanted to talk about some of our last interactions. I think our last discussion got a bit heated. I believe we disagree on x and on how z was handled. Do you agree with this description of the situation?”

Acknowledge your part in the conflict

Only very, very rarely is a single person at fault in a conflict. In most situations, both parties have some stake in creating and maintaining it. Recognize your part, and even apologize if you think it is warranted. This step helps pave the way for a productive conversation. If this point is particularly hard, remind yourself that your goal is to solve the issue, not to be right (yeah, yeah, I know it’s hard!). Say “Look Kevin, I shouldn’t have criticized your project in such harsh terms at the last meeting. That was not constructive.”

Explain why you want to solve the conflict

Why are you going through all this hassle to talk to this person? Is it having negative repercussions on the team, on the project? Has the ambience become soured? Has a client complained? State the consequences as a way to explain why you are trying to solve this conflict.  You could say “ I’ve noticed that we are usually at odds with each other and this is delaying the project. I believe we can find a way to work better together”.

Here it is useful, if you can do it sincerely, to praise the other person. Think of it this way: if you are trying to patch up things with this person, there has to be something that you admire in him or her, even if you disagree in a number of issues. What is that something? Tell the other person about it. It helps restore respect and trust. Say, for example. “Even though I disagree with you on how to move the project forward, I do appreciate your attention to detail and your focus on quality”.

Make a request, specific and actionable

By now, hopefully, you have had a positive exchange with the other person, and the tension has eased significantly. It’s time to make a specific request. Ask for your home run, your ideal outcome, and then break it down into actionable items. For example, tell Kevin “I’d like us to create a system to work through our disagreements in private, so our team meetings can be more productive. Would you agree to a one-on-one talk the day before weekly meetings, so we can discuss points of agreement and figure out a way forward?”

Then finish your meeting by thanking the other person and summarizing any key agreements.

Try it out this week and let us know how it goes! Send us an email to

Your turn, what are your best strategies for handling conflict? Let us know in the comments or on FB! If you have a great tip or story, we may ask you to showcase it in our next blog post!

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 a lot of freely available material on their website.

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 intrapersonal conflict.



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