Tools and techniques for handling conflict in the workplace

56We offer tools and techniques for understanding and addressing conflict in the workplace, including the different personality types you may have to contend with, and how they might react under pressure.

We will offer advice and guidance on conflict management strategies, and look at the theory behind transactional analysis.

Tools and techniques for addressing conflict in the workplace, advice and guidance on conflict management strategies, and the theory behind transactional analysis.

Understanding people

As always it helps to solve a problem if we analyse the causes. It is important to remember that people are not all the same, each have different wants and needs, and different motivations and fears. They communicate in different ways, may see things differently, and have different responses to situations.

Personality types

Different personalities benefit from being handled in different ways, so first of all consider the type of person you are dealing with, and how they’re likely to behave under stress or in a conflict situation.

The Attacker- tends to be abusive, intimidating and arrogant

Short Tempered people –Are prone to outbursts of anger and loss of temper

The Moaner – Finds fault with everything

The Strong Silent one – communicates in monosyllables -yes or no is the most you can get out of them.

The Pessimist –Whatever you suggest, responds with “we tried that, it didn’t work“

Know it all –expert on all matters

Indecisive- will not make a decision.

How to approach different type of people.

The Attacker

Get them to sit down and discuss the problem, ideally in private, where they don’t have an audience to impress. Don’t allow them to intimidate you, keep calm, be friendly and maintain eye contact. State your opinions forcefully, and don’t apologise for them. You must defend yourself and your position, so stand up to them but don’t get into an argument. Let them have their say, but make sure you get your point across too. Be willing to negotiate.

Short Tempered person

Take them away from the problem by moving to a private area for further discussion. Calm them down, let them state their position and regain self-control before you address the problem. Use Active Listening and demonstrate that you take them and their concerns seriously.

The Complainer

Listen to and acknowledge their complaints, paraphrase to check you have understood. But don’t accept, agree with or apologize for their complaints. Remain impartial, state facts without emotion or comment. Don’t get involved in accusations and defence. Ask that issues be addressed in a problem solving manner, rather than complaining. What do they want the outcome to be? Try to solve the problem by asking specific questions, arranging investigation into complaints, or asking for the complaints and proposed resolution be put in writing.

The strong silent one

Encourage them to discuss what they want or state what the problem is. Ask open-ended questions, and wait for a response. If you don’t get one, stay quiet, don’t be tempted to fill the silence with your ideas, but ask more open-ended questions. Make some comment on your interpretation of the situation, and try to make eye contact.

The Pessimist

Don’t get drawn into their pessimism. Counter their negativity by providing realistic examples of past successes if possible. Don‘t try to argue them out of their pessimism, but engage them in rational problem solving. Don’t offer your solutions until they have discussed the problem. Raise questions, discuss possible outcomes. Ultimately you may need to take action on your own and leave them to their negativity!


Be prepared, they will want facts and figures. Try to get them to consider alternative ideas without directly challenging their knowledge. Listen to their ideas, and paraphrase to check understanding. Ask questions in – depth, but be tentative in any disagreements. Don’t get involved in “who knows the most “arguments. Try not to be dogmatic or over-generalize or come up with your own “Know-it-all” statements in retaliation.


You may have to recognize that this is their preferred method of problem solving. Try to engage them in problem solving, by listening to the issues they bring up, and address them. Examine the facts with them, and offer support for any decision they propose or discuss, but don’t take on the problem yourself. Specify that they are responsible for resolving the problem

Conflict Management Strategies

There are five basic approaches to resolving conflict

  • Withdrawal
  • Smoothing over
  • Forcing a solution
  • Compromise
  • Collaboration

Let’s look at each of these in turn.


Use this when neither the goal nor the relationship are important to you, so you try to solve the problem by denying its existence or ignoring it, and withdrawing from interaction.

This tactic is appropriate when the issue is relatively unimportant, does not need to be addressed urgently, or would be best dealt with when tempers have cooled down.

But it is not appropriate to use when the issue is important and will not go away, and may actually build up and cause more trouble at a later date.

Smoothing over

Use this if the relationship is more important than the goal, and you don’t want to make an issue if you can avoid it. So you play down the problem, and harmony exists at least on the surface. This can result in resentment or lack of clarity.

This tactic is appropriate to use when the issue is relatively unimportant, or when preservation of the relationship or status quo is more important at the moment.

But it is not appropriate to use when failure to deal with the conflict leads to evasion of an important issue or when others are ready and willing to deal with the issue.

Forcing a solution

Use this when the goal is important but not the relationship, and energy needs to be focused on the job rather than people be distracted by the conflict.

In this case the manager steps in to settle the conflict using their authority. This can result in discouragement if people feel the problem has not been solved.

This is appropriate to use when authority and responsibility are clearly defined, and processes are in place.

But not appropriate to use when the losing party have no way to express their dissatisfaction, so it could result in future disruptions


This is useful when both goals and relationships are important, but there is a lack of time, or no clear right outcome. Both parties gain and lose something .This can results in a win/lose feeling, Perhaps both parties will feel they have lost.

However if the compromise is cleverly managed, both parties may feel they have won.

It is an appropriate tactic to use when both parties have enough leeway to give some ground, it seems fair, and resources are limited, and also when a win/lose situation is undesirable.

But it is not appropriate to use if the solution becomes too watered down to be effective.


This works when the goals and relationships are equally important, and you define the conflict as a problem solving situation. In this case the abilities, values, and expertise of both parties can be recognized, each person’s position acknowledged and accepted but the emphasis is on a group solution and a win/win outcome.

This is appropriate when time allows and both parties are committed to the task.

But inappropriate when there is not the time, ability and commitment needed to achieve the required outcome

Transactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis was developed by Eric Byrne and is a technique used for building confidence in verbal communication.

He says that people can adopt one of three states in a communication – the Parent, Adult or Child.

The state they adopt depends on how they feel, or are made to feel by others, during the communication.

The Parent feels superior and caring, even if it is not always obvious. They may act as critical, dominating, patronising and intimidating.

The Child feels inferior, powerless and inadequate, and so interacts in an anxious, and so possibly irrational, way.

In contrast the Adult thinks rationally and is in control. The ideal interaction type takes place between two Adults.

When someone is addressed in a critical Parent way, this may cause them to react by subconsciously adopting the helpless Child state. Internal emotions make them lose the ability to act assertively and think rationally, body language conveys submission and anger.

It becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy “. The more they act like a child, the less seriously they’re taken professionally, confidence is diminished, self-esteem lowers, and eventually verbal communication is fraught with difficulty.

The most effective communication is achieved by maintaining the Adult state. Lack of balance between the different states leads to poor communication.

Transactional Analysis is a technique that helps parties achieve the desired Adult to Adult state in interactions with others. It facilitates controlling interactions with stressed and emotional colleagues and managers or difficult customers.

The advice on building confidence in verbal communication, behaving and giving the appearance of a rational adult includes:-

Look at the person you are interacting with on an equal level, eye-to-eye to avoid a subconscious feeling of superiority or inferiority .So if they are standing, you stand, if they are sitting, you do too, rather than standing over someone.

Ensure your body language is open, stand up straight, head upright, but check you are not adopting a rigid stance, maintain good eye contact, and look straight ahead. This signals assertiveness without intimidation

Keep your breathing steady.

Aim for an even speaking pace. Short pauses between sentences are fine, it gives the impression of someone who is considering what they are saying. Avoid long pauses.
Use assertive statements, prefacing comments with remarks such as e.g. “in my view, “or “I believe …”

Remember that an Adult will consider both points of view and act with respect for the other party ,so use phrases such as ‘I agree” or “perhaps we should … “.

If you are interacting with an individual who is using the Parent or Child state, move to their level of interaction by sitting or standing to match them and re-instate them in the middle Adult ground.

If the other person acts as the Parent by raising their voice, raise yours within reason and politely ask them to remain calm and respectful before you begin a verbal interaction.

If they act as the Child by mocking you, smile, and state quietly and confidently that you do not find that appropriate.

You want to demonstrate you are willing to interact, but on a rational Adult to Adult basis. Neither of you is inferior or superior.

Conflict can be positive

Some conflict and disagreement is almost inevitable in a work context where everyone is striving to do their best and outperform colleagues. It can be viewed positively, and if conflict is not seen as threatening, and can be resolved in constructive ways, it can actually improve performance, strengthen trust, and foster freedom, creativity, and excellence.

Resolve conflict positively

Focus on the current issue, without maintaining old grudges and resentments.

Choose your arguments well. Decide what is worth arguing about, you won’t win them all so play your best card first.

Forgive and forget past problems, don’t seek to punish or extract revenge. Move on.

End conflicts that can’t be resolved. Don’t keep an argument going. You can disengage from a conflict, and agree to disagree.