An antidote to workplace conflict: nonviolent communication

an antidote to workplace conflict: non violent communication

It’s fun to work in human resources – most of the time. You get to:

  • Find the perfect talent to fill a job posting 
  • Lead initiatives to improve company culture
  • Get to know people across the organization

That sounds great, right?

But we bet that when an argument breaks out, you often wish you had any other job.

We get it – resolving disputes at work is hard. A good HR rep wants to resolve conflicts in a way that makes employees feel supported and protects the company, but this is easier said than done.

However, it’s also critical to your job success.

Organizations with a poor culture have turnover rates of almost 50% on average compared with just 13% for healthy ones, and conflict is a big part of that. That’s a lot of pressure! 

But don’t worry – there are guidelines in place to help you handle employee conflict.

In this blog post, we’ll run you through what counts as workplace conflict, the communication techniques you can use to resolve it, and an example of conflict resolution in action.

Table of contents

Defining workplace conflict

First up, the big question: What is conflict in the workplace anyway?

Workplace conflict refers to any disagreement between employees because of differences in:

  • Interests
  • Beliefs
  • Personalities
  • Ideas

At first glance, this definition seems pretty vague. After all, this stuff comes up all the time, and not all conflict is bad, right? 

For example, if a designer and a developer disagree about how to implement a new feature on a website, the resulting compromise could produce a better outcome for the whole team because the debate will ensure that the new feature meets all of the requirements.

In fact, Harvard experts have advocated for disagreeing more at work exactly for this reason.

But these kinds of conflicts are not what we’re talking about here. They may temporarily slow down, say, a sprint planning meeting. But the goal of both parties is the same: to produce the best work possible. These conflicts ultimately serve the business and move the team toward its goals.

The kind of workplace conflict we’re talking about is any conflict that disrupts the flow of work. If a conflict gets ugly or personal, stops team members from doing their jobs, or negatively affects the work environment, that’s when you need to step in.

We’ll discuss some examples (and their resolutions) in more depth below, but these are some of the common impacts of workplace conflict, according to an international study by CPP Global, the publishers of the Myers-Briggs assessment.

The disruptive impact of workplace conflict

Why workplace conflict arises

As your team expands, there will inevitably be conflict. This is true even if your business is growing remotely: 80% of remote professionals say they’ve experienced conflict in the (virtual) workplace.

These conflicts could be major, like a blow-up argument, or minor, like some frosty emails.

Both can get out of hand fast if you don’t handle them correctly.

The best time to resolve a workplace conflict is before it even starts – by creating a positive workplace culture in which people can air the small stuff so it never escalates into big stuff. 

This is cheaper for your company and less stressful for you. Defending and settling a lawsuit costs organizations $125,000 on average and takes about 275 days to resolve. By contrast, pulling one or two people aside after an uncomfortable meeting takes five minutes and costs the price of a coffee.

Knowing the warning signs and sources of conflict can help you put this into practice.

Here are four key sources of workplace conflict:

why workplace conflict arises

1. Personality conflict

We’ve all worked with someone who rubbed us up the wrong way. Maybe you found their jokes immature – or the opposite: You’re a joker and they never cracked a smile.

Workplace conflict stories like these are a natural part of life and among the most common to occur in a workplace. Different personalities are bound to clash. However, there are things you can do to limit how much they impact your team.

One way is to look at people’s personality types while hiring and put together complementary teams whenever possible.

Another is to screen candidates for culture add. This is different from culture fit because the underlying question isn’t “Would I get a beer with this person?” This old way of doing things just leads to a culture in which anyone who doesn’t fit in socially is ostracized – in other words, MORE conflict. 

Instead, when you’re screening applicants for culture add, the key question you should ask is “Do they share the values of the organization?”

Superficial squabbles might still happen when employees share the same values, but deeper, more difficult conflicts are less likely to arise.

You might not make as many drinking buddies this way, but you will limit the severity of the issues employees are likely to have with each other and make real conflicts easier to spot.

2. Task-based conflict

Unlike personality conflict, which is about the people you work with, task-based conflict is about the work itself.

There are many instances when this can arise, for example:

  • Poor communication between interdependent teams
  • Disagreement about the allocation of resources
  • Differing views on project strategy
  • Frustration at outdated processes

Fortunately, this source of conflict is relatively easy to screen before interviews by using a situational judgment test, which asks candidates how they would react to task-based obstacles.

3. Working style conflict

If personality conflicts are about the people and task-based conflicts are about the work, then working style conflict is somewhere in the middle: It occurs when the way that people prefer to work is incompatible.

You’ve probably experienced this, perhaps with the same coworker we mentioned earlier. Maybe you like to get on with work quietly and they want to verbalize their ideas; they’re straight down the line and you prefer to be more tactful. 

Whatever these differences are, they’re fertile ground for resentment to arise, especially in small teams.

4. Leadership conflict

This last source of conflict is a major one and usually draws in some elements of all three other conflict sources because business leaders set the atmosphere for the teams and workplaces they manage.

There are different leadership styles in business, and any one of them could be perfect for one stage in your company’s growth and terrible for another.

Let’s say you hire a visionary, big-picture thinker for a project management role. They’re all about the vision – and not at all about creating an actual list of tasks. It’s pretty likely you’d have to deal with a load of task-based and working style conflicts – and maybe even some personality ones for good measure.

Assessing leadership skills before you make a hire is important to avoid this. 

Summary of workplace conflict sources

Conflict typeBrief descriptionExample
Personality conflictPersonal disagreements or “just not liking” someoneFinding a colleague’s sense of humor annoying
Task-based conflictDisagreements about work itselfDisagreeing over the format of a team presentation
Working style conflictDisliking how someone prefers to workWanting to work in silence while a colleague prefers to work with the radio on
Leadership conflictFrustration with how someone is leading a teamComplaining about being micromanaged

You might have noticed that we didn’t include discrimination in this list. That’s because when someone makes an accusation of discrimination, it’s usually pretty clear that an intervention is needed, and there’s a strict set of guidelines you need to follow to resolve it. The techniques we cover here are a start, but they’re not the whole picture.

A guide to conflict resolution through nonviolent communication

So, we’ve covered:

  • What workplace conflict looks like
  • Its impact
  • Where it comes from

There’s only one thing left on the agenda: how to resolve conflict. It’s time to talk about nonviolent communication.

What is nonviolent communication?

We know this makes it sound like HR reps normally walk into conflict management meetings with fists swinging.

But nonviolent communication is just a communication tool designed to create empathy in a discussion.

It does this by throwing out “coercive language” – any language that is designed to make someone feel afraid, guilty, or ashamed. (This is what’s classed as “violent” communication, FYI.)

By doing this, you clear away distractions so that all parties can focus on clarifying the deeper causes of the conflict – the needs that aren’t being met, the feelings that are hurt, and the actions they need taken. 

Let’s look a little closer at how nonviolent communication actually works.

How does nonviolent communication work?

In a discussion using nonviolent communication, there are two modes that each participant needs to be in at all times: 

  1. Clearly expressing themselves without assigning blame or criticism
  2. Empathically listening to others without assuming blame or criticism

This isn’t a case where Scout’s honor will suffice: All parties have to communicate that they are doing this throughout the conflict resolution process.

The basic format of conflict resolution using nonviolent communication looks something like this.

  1. Person A speaks
  2. Person B reflects back their understanding of what Person A said
  3. Person A confirms that Person B understood them correctly (or clarifies their message, going back to step 1)
  4. Person B speaks
  5. Person A reflects back their understanding of what Person B said
  6. Person B confirms that Person A understood them correctly (or clarifies their message, going back to step 4)
  7. Repeat – go back to step 1

You run through this general script for each of the four components below:

ComponentDefinitionPhrase for speakerPhrase for listener
ObservationsWhat you observe that does not contribute to your well-being“When I see/hear [source of conflict]…”“When you see/hear [source of conflict]…”
FeelingsHow you feel in relation to what you’ve observed“… I feel [emotion or sensation]…”“… you feel [emotion or sensation]…”
NeedsWhat you need or value that causes you to have these feelings“… because I need/value [underlying need].”“… because you need/value [underlying need].”
RequestsYour requests (not demands) for the concrete actions you want taken“Would you be willing to…?”“Would you like me to…?”

Your role as the mediator is to:

  • Guide the conflicting parties through these four components
  • Recognize and redirect statements that assign blame or go too far off script while allowing the parties to express themselves in their own words (they don’t have to follow the phrases outlined above word for word)
  • Make sure both parties are engaged in expression and active listening

We won’t lie to you – this is easier said than done, particularly if the conflict is a heated one. But staying calm and sticking to these guidelines can help you through the rough parts and find common ground.

An example of conflict resolution in the workplace

Each Wednesday, Jonathan is supposed to send his colleague Nicky data for a report. However, he has been late in doing so for several weeks. Nicky needs to present the report in her Thursday morning meeting with senior executives, forcing her to stay late on Wednesdays to finish her report.

Communications between Jonathan and Nicky have turned sour, and Nicky has been refusing to help Jonathan when he needs something from her, even if it’s unrelated to the report.

This is an example of a task-based conflict that nonviolent communication could help resolve.

The “violent” statements that Nicky might direct to Jonathan are that he’s lazy or inconsiderate and that he needs to get her the data when she asks for it.

Jonathan, on the other hand, might say that he has a heavy workload, is too busy to help her, and deserves more patience.

These statements fall under “the four Ds of disconnection”:

  1. Diagnosing the other person’s “problem,” usually with a criticism
  2. Denying responsibility
  3. Demanding action
  4. Telling the other party what you “deserve”

Using the nonviolent communication script laid out above, Nicky might instead lead with a statement like this:

“I’m frustrated because when I don’t get the data for the report on time, I either have to stay late after work to finish it or arrive unprepared for my morning meeting. 

“I need to be able to enjoy my personal time and remain professional in my meetings with senior stakeholders. Would you be able to explain the delays in getting the data to me for the past few weeks?”

Jonathan would then be able to explain the tasks that have been preventing him from meeting the deadline and propose a solution, such as moving the weekly meetings that take up his time on Wednesdays or making the report a shared document he and Nicky can collaborate on.

Resolve workplace conflict with nonviolent communication

Conflict resolution might never become your favorite part of the job.

You can find out more about how to evaluate workplace communication in our hiring team’s guide to workplace communication tests, or read about conducting HR meetings in our other blog posts.

With hiring tools to prevent conflict and the communication skills to resolve it when it happens, we reckon you won’t find it as daunting the next time you hear the sound of raised voices echoing down the office hallway. TestGorilla is an example of such tool. Try it for free today.

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