Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts at Work

How to resolve interpersonal conflicts at work

That boss who always seems to find fault with you—including in front of others. That colleague who claimed credit for your idea. That direct report who treats you disrespectfully. Ugh. The many interpersonal conflicts we have to deal with at work!

I’m Katherine Akbar, president of YES Career Coaching & Resume Writing Services. In this week’s career advancement video, we’ll talk about two powerful secrets for resolving interpersonal conflicts at work.

The workplace is a primary arena for perfecting your interpersonal skills, which is for most of us a lifelong journey. Each situation of interpersonal conflict is unique, yet there are two personal development principles that can be helpful in most conflict situations: reframing and taking responsibility.

These may be new ideas that might not make sense at first, so I will go into a detailed example. First, some background: The first time I took the Landmark Forum, a personal development weekend I highly recommend, I stood up to complain that some people in my life were chronically critical of me. How could I get them to stop? The instructor made me see that blaming people for their behavior never works and just makes you unpleasant to be around. I then felt bad and thought that I was to blame for the stress between me and these people.

“Stop!” said the instructor. “Just because they are not wrong does not mean that you are wrong either.” Eureka! Nobody is necessarily wrong. Taking responsibility does not mean taking blame. It means noticing that you are in a situation of conflict and saying that you are going to resolve it. Never give all your power away by acting like you are a helpless victim of other people’s behavior. The amount of power you have is equal to the amount of responsibility you take. If you take 100% responsibility, you will be at maximum power.


This is a deep and powerful concept, so let me illustrate the first example I set out at the beginning. Your boss always seems to find fault with you—including in front of others. Notice that this is your characterization of the situation; it is not factual. How do I know that it is not factual? For one thing, no one “always” does anything. Now what exactly did your boss say the last time you felt aggrieved? Try to recall the exact words, not your summation of it, which your ego will try to dramatize. Look … just this exercise alone will probably help you feel less upset. This is what I mean by reframing.

Now what did you do—nothing? Give a defensive response? Glare at her? What did you contribute to the situation that you can change? Note: our brains always want to try to get other people to change, but this is the hardest and least likely way to effectuate change.

Now what would be a productive response? Go to her and say that you won’t tolerate her bullying anymore? Probably not. Now you are finding fault with her again and giving away some of your power.

The right response

What about a non-defensive, constructive response instead? This might look like requesting a meeting and saying something completely responsible, like “The other day at the staff meeting, you stated that I had not turned in my report on time, which set you back. First of all, I’m sorry that you needed the report earlier than you got it. I must not have understood your expectations clearly. Going forward, I will check with you when I get an assignment to make sure I understand when you need something. Second, I felt really embarrassed to hear this discussed in front of everyone. Would you be willing to discuss this kind of feedback with me privately going forward? Finally, I have been feeling this way for a while, and I am sorry I have not cleared up the issue earlier. I do want you to feel free to tell me how I can improve, especially if you can do it privately so that I can learn from it without feeling so awkward.”

Now if your boss is a nice person, she will apologize for having embarrassed you, but your emotional well-being absolutely cannot depend on that. You need to be completely OK just through expressing yourself and taking responsibility for your feelings and actions. Assume that everyone is doing their best and that no one meant to hurt you.

Show how open you are to feedback, never be defensive, and never take business matters personally. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. The more gracious and eager to learn that you are, I bet the less harsh your boss will be toward you. Of course, you can also cultivate other bosses at the organization so that you may get promoted up and away from this cranky pants anyway.

Even if the feedback is personal in a way—like the person is prejudiced against people like you—again that is not really personal; it’s just their bias against a group. This is their problem and nothing you need to upset yourself about.

Please note: I am not saying you need to tolerate discrimination or bullying. Nor am I saying that you are wrong if you get upset. I’m sorry if that happened to you! You can certainly take whatever action seems best to you. I’m just saying that upset is always optional and almost never helpful.

The secrets to resolving interpersonal conflicts at work are both taking responsibility and reducing the drama in your own head. Try it and let me know how it goes!

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