How to Handle Confrontation in the Workplace

Jan 31 2021 | Tags: Emotional Intelligence

How to Handle Confrontation in the Workplace

We’ve all been there at some point: a conflict arises at work that we want to face head on, but aren’t quite sure how to do so without making our colleagues feel angry or upset. Often when we are faced with a necessary conflict at work, we can be guilty of fearing the worst, and then manifesting that fear through our negatively driven actions. Approaching the most difficult of social interactions with emotional intelligence helps ensure that even confrontations can be productive, positive parts of the process.

We have difficult conversations in almost every aspect of our lives, often as an active means to improve relationships, so it’s important not to shy away from them at work too.

We all dream of a truly harmonious workplace, one where no outside influences interrupt the creative thinking space, but of course, that’s rarely how it works out in real life. Confrontations are an inevitable part of the working process, but with work to improve your approach they needn’t carry the negative connotations we expect.

From the CEO all the way down the chain, setting the mode of handling confrontations with empathy, mindfulness and emotional intelligence can improve your workplace’s processes immeasurably.

Defining the Problem

But what exactly is a confrontation? When we hear that word we often imagine an argument, an outburst or a conflict that’s gone too far to be properly resolved. On the contrary, confrontations aren’t obliged to be fraught with anger or heightened emotion. Reframing the scenario as a positive one can go a long way to de-escalating our expectations of their difficulty.

When approaching a confrontation think of it as a necessary, healthy way to improve the way you work with the person in question. Are you pointing out their shortcomings? Done the right way, you can be the person who helps them overcome a personal hurdle and move forward in their development. Perhaps you are querying why something wasn’t done correctly or on time? Go forward expecting a perfectly reasonable explanation and you’ll find the solution presents itself much more easily down the line.

Of course, some confrontations are necessarily more difficult than others. If this is a sensitive topic that could upset either party, it’s important to approach it is a measured way. So how do we turn what could inflate into a spiralling conflict into a healthy confrontation ahead of time?

Steps To Take

Embrace your peers

Escalating a confrontation up the chain of authority can often make the person you’re confronting feel undermined. Tackling problems peer-to-peer breeds respect, trust and a calmer space where solutions can more easily be fostered. If the problem can be tackled before getting senior staff involved, do it! If you’re a senior staff member receiving a complaint, double check that all that’s possible has been done to tackle the problem within the team before you step in to mediate.

Define the problem clearly

Before entering any confrontation, clearly set out what it is you want to achieve from the discussion. What was the circumstance that led to this? Clarify the problem to be tackled in your mind in a calm, concise and clear-headed way, making sure there’s no negativity or emotional response clouding your judgement. Now, what’s the ideal outcome? Try ahead of time to picture the best resolution, giving something positive to aim for while discussions take place.

Choose neutral ground

You’ve probably been in this position: you are summoned to an office or boardroom for a private chat. While you walked toward that meeting, were you carefree and relaxed, or were you pent up with worry? The setting of confrontations matters in how each person approaches them. Where possible, avoid formal sit-downs in favour of a coffee in a neutral, yet private, space. When each person feels as comfortable as the other, there is less opportunity for fearful emotional response.

Combine logic and emotion

You’ve got a location and defined the problem clearly, now how do you tackle the confrontation itself? The key is finding the balance between logical and emotional response. Too much of either will find you failing to reach a satisfactory conclusion for both parties, so set out to be as clear and factual as possible while always being attuned to the emotions of both you and the other party. Don’t forget to be adaptable – a purely factual approach may fail to take into account the emotional response and needs of your colleague.

Always choose empathy

Putting yourself in the shoes of the person you’re confronting is always a key to a peaceful resolution, and is the core of keeping emotional intelligence in mind. Always be sure to truly hear any justifications and mitigating circumstances that the other party may offer, and consider them deeply when formulating your plan for moving forward from the confrontation. The result will be that you both can walk away feeling understood and upbeat about the interaction.

The Resolution

One thing that many workplace confrontations that spiral can forget is what you’re seeking to achieve. A resolution must always be the goal in any attempt to tackle conflict, instead of simply hashing out problems, which may continue to arise in the future. The key to a great resolution is one which suits both parties and has a clearly achievable journey. So don’t just name an end goal, work together and decide how that end goal can be worked towards. Avoid setting deadlines on improvement – instead, support the person in question in their journey to solving the problem at every step. Make yours an open door for questions and counsel, and fewer needs for conflict will arise as you work forward.

The Checklist

A quickfire way to remember your steps to successful confrontation:

  • Start out calm
  • Clarify the problem
  • Choose a neutral space
  • Ask to chat
  • Tackle the issue
  • Seek a resolution
  • Thank them for hearing you out

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