Four Tips for Having Conflict-Busting Conversations in the Workplace

Putting out fires is an all-too-common job requirement for many managers. If you’re struggling with establishing positive conflict resolutions among your employees or just need a little help confronting these challenges, find out how you can master these tough talks.

Steven Dinkin, Barbara Filner and Lisa Maxwell

A long-time consultant is offended by something a new employee said on a conference call and is threatening to leave. An employee in marketing is furious about being passed over for a promotion in favor of her coworker and is trying to discredit her. These are just a couple of examples of the workplace conflicts that take up 42 percent of the typical manager’s time. The trick to moving past these conflicts and on to increased productivity for everyone at your organization is knowing how to broach the topics in a way that leads to improved working relationships.

Disagreements, disputes, and honest differences are normal in any workplace. When these normal occurrences are treated as opportunities for exploring new ideas about projects, they can become catalysts for increased energy and productivity. Getting to that place starts with an honest discussion.

Conflict Resolution Model

Thankfully, proven tools exist for resolving emotionally charged disputes. The Exchange is a four-stage, structured conflict resolution model used successfully by mediators at the National Conflict Resolution Center for more than 25 years. It includes constructive techniques to use in face-to-face meetings with disputing or disruptive employees.

Often, workplace conflict resolution begins with the manager and ends with employees meeting with the manager to develop effective solutions. A key difference between managers and mediators is that managers are not expected to be neutral. They have the responsibility of reinforcing the interests of the department and the company for which they work.

When you find yourself in this role, it’s important to encourage discussion of all the issues in a dispute—even the intense, emotional issues—in ways that are more productive than a gripe session. Resist the temptation to simply tell people what to do. Actively engaging your employees in problem solving helps them take responsibility for the problem and for the solution. When you know how to address workplace conflicts properly, these challenging situations can lead to creative resolutions that re-energize the workplace and bring new ideas to old problems. The following tips will teach you how to turn your next meeting with conflicting employees into a productive conversation.

#1: Start with an Icebreaker

Most people will be ready to complain, debate or argue at the beginning of any conflict-based conversation. They have marshaled their most compelling arguments and are ready for battle. If you go straight to the topic of controversy, most people will quickly get stuck in defending their positions and attacking their opponents.

That’s why you need to do something different. Begin with an icebreaker. This is not just a light introductory activity. It is a way to non-confrontationally initiate a conversation about difficult issues. An ideal icebreaker asks for a person’s own take on something that’s both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two employees involved in the same project, you might break the ice by asking each of them how they became involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve.

#2: Listen

Conflict resolution is tricky because too many managers ignore the fact that sometimes what they aren’t saying is more important than what they are saying. Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about him or her and the dispute. Put plain and simply, it’s the best way to get good information.

Ask an open-ended question. It can be as simple as, “So, tell me, what’s going on?” Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. You’ll know it’s time to insert yourself into the conversation when the discussion turns negative.

You can acknowledge someone’s emotions without seeming like you are taking his or her side. Especially at the beginning of talking about a conflict, you’re building rapport, even if it’s with an employee you’ve spoken with millions of times before. When there’s a conflict, you’re treading on new ground, and showing that person you are willing to see his or her side of the story is how you will set the foundation for working toward a solution.

#3: Use and Encourage Positive Language

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but any frustrated manager knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity after a conflict has affected a workgroup. Always think before you speak. Use positive, easy-to-understand language. Don’t fall into repeating, verbatim, paragraphs from your company’s HR manual.

Remember, you’re having a conversation, not a trial. If you keep the language positive, whoever you’re addressing will likely mirror what you’re doing. Even referring to the department’s needs can be stated in very positive terms, which will lead to a more collaborative (rather than punitive) tone in the discussion. For example, if the manager says, “This has increasingly affected the entire team, and we need to address it so we can get everyone focused back on the project goals and having a comfortable working environment. I am looking forward to establishing a good working relationship between the two of you and improving morale for everyone on the team,” it will set a constructive atmosphere. When you keep things positive, you can work toward great solutions efficiently and effectively.

#4: Work Toward SMART Solutions

Sustainable solutions are SMART solutions. That means they’re:

  • Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where, and how.

  • Measurable: Be clear about how you will all be able to tell that something has been done, achieved, or completed.

  • Achievable: Make sure that whatever solution you agree on fits the situation; that it complies with both the law and organizational policy; that everyone involved has the ability and opportunity to do what is required of them. Don’t set up anyone to fail.

  • Realistic: Check calendar dates for holidays and vacations; look at past performance to predict future actions; allow extra time for glitches and delays; don’t assume that the best-case scenarios will come true.

  • Timed: Create reasonable deadlines or target dates; include a few ideas about what to do if something unexpected occurs; be willing to set new dates if necessary.

Once you have your SMART solutions in place, immediately put them in writing. Putting solutions in writing is very important, and not just for legal reasons (and for covering your back). It’s a way to honor the work that you and your employees have accomplished. It’s also a way to keep people’s memories from diverging from the agreed-upon solutions. Verbal agreements have a way of being remembered very differently by different people—and then becoming the subject of another conflict. It’s safer and easier for everyone to have the solutions written down, in order to be able to easily verify them later.


Disputes, full of emotional complexities and interpersonal histories, are the headaches of the workplace. They’re always going to pop up, even in the most cordial of workplace environments. The good news is that when you’re armed with the tools you need to work toward productive resolutions, you and your employees can use them to strengthen your organization rather than harm it.

Steven P. Dinkinis president of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). For several years with the Center for Dispute Settlement in Washington, D.C., Steve served as an employment and workplace mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies. In 2003, he moved to San Diego to lead NCRC. His experience managing a talented and opinionated staff has contributed to the realism of his book, The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict (CRC Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-4398529-8-9, $39.95, which is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. He can be reached at [email protected].

Barbara Filnerwas the director of training for National Conflict Resolution center (NCRC) from 1984 to 2010. She currently works as a consultant for NCRC. She has designed and conducted workshops on mediation and conflict resolution in the workplace in both the United States and Europe. She has lived in Pakistan, India, and Egypt, and thus brings a multicultural perspective to the book. She has also co-written two books about culture and conflict, Conflict Resolution Across Cultures (Diversity Resources) and Mediation Across Cultures (Amherst Educational Publishing).

Lisa Maxwell is currently the director of the training institute at NCRC. She has traveled all over the world as a trainer for NCRC for almost 20 years. She developed and is the lead trainer in The Exchange Training. Lisa has worked with businesses, with the military, and with nonprofit organizations on finding creative, effective ways to manage conflicts. She can be reached at [email protected].

The NCRC (San Diego, CA) has provided mediation, facilitation, and conflict resolution training since 1983. It is one of the largest full-service conflict resolution centers in the U.S. and it is the first to have developed a mediator credential based on training, experience, and performance. NCRC offers training in The Exchange for executives, managers, students, and community members. These trainings can be adapted for organizations of all types. For more information or to attend an upcoming training session, visit or or contact Ashley Virtue, Director, External Relations, [email protected].