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The simple 4-step process to resolve conflicts at work

It starts with making people feel heard.

The simple 4-step process to resolve conflicts at work
[Photo: alphaspirit/iStock]

There are a few simple steps to every conflict resolution process, which can you can use for disputes between coworkers or between supervisors and employees. These steps comprise the acronym LEAD—Listen, Empathize, Acknowledge (and Apologize), and Do something.

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Managers at work must have a quick and straightforward blueprint for resolving interpersonal matters in the office. When you’re managing a team of people who have to work with each other, conflict will arise. Here’s a four-step process you can follow.

1. Listen

Every conflict resolution process begins with listening. It might sound simple, but it tends to be one of the more difficult things for many people to do. This is especially the case for leaders at work who prefer to move past problems quickly by avoiding confrontation or jumping straight into the solution.

You won’t craft an effective solution without actively listening to people. That means no presuppositions or assumptions, and being curious about what they may be experiencing—whether or not you agree with them.

2. Empathize

Now it’s time to take what you heard and do your best to put yourself in their shoes. Remember, this does not mean you have to agree with their assessment. You do, however, need to understand how they feel about a situation. What might they be going through? What feelings are beneath the words they are saying? How does it feel to experience those emotions?

Regardless of how they saw the situation, it’s essential to acknowledge that they’re experiencing powerful emotions. You might not be able to relate to why they’re feeling that way, but you can probably relate to how sadness or anger or fear feel. So, do your best to focus on the underlying feelings rather than the story.

3. Acknowledge (and apologize)

Next, we take empathy one step further and vocalize what we sense is going on for the individual. In other words, you are going to acknowledge their underlying feelings. Some people call this labeling, reflecting, or paraphrasing. The idea is to recognize and validate the other’s feelings about the particular situation. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to agree with the content of their story or their assessment of the situation. You’re just letting them know they have been heard and understood.

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It may sound something like, “I can tell how upset you are.” Or “You’re angry, and I get it.” Or “Wow, that sounds seriously scary. You must have been afraid.” Acknowledging that you understand what they are feeling helps people drop their guards, and as a result, can become more open to working with you on a solution. Until someone feels heard and validated, it’s pretty difficult for them to move past the feeling and into a more solution-focused mindset.

Now, if you were part of the problem they are bringing up, then it may be necessary for you to apologize. Apologies go a long way in helping people feel validated. Again you can apologize and own your actions without necessarily agreeing with their assessment or story. Apologies and agreement can be mutually exclusive.

Make the apology about you—your actions—not about them. Never, for instance, apologize for how they feel or how they’re reacting. “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you saw it like that” are truly ways of discounting their feelings, negating any acknowledgment or validation you are aiming for. Instead, own your role. For example, “I’m sorry I said that without considering how it might make you feel” or “I apologize for doing that. I didn’t realize how it might come off.” Notice that you don’t have to say “you’re right” or “I agree.” Just own your role, what you did, and where you fell short. However, if you do agree with their assessment, then let them know. And then tell them what you’re going to do about it.

4. Do something

Now, you can move into the solution. After all, you also want to make it clear that something will change, so this won’t happen again in the future. Let them know you’re not just there to hear them, but also to be their partner and ally in addressing the situation.

You may suggest a solution and ask if that would be sufficient. For instance, “I’m going to talk to the director and see if we can officially change that policy. Would that solve the problem?” Or “What if I make an announcement to the team to assure everyone understands the policy. Do you think that would be enough?” When you do this, you’re signaling that their feelings and perspectives matter. Allow space for them to make additional suggestions to your proposed solution.

If you’re not clear on an appropriate solution, you can ask what they would like. It may sound like: “What can I do to make this right?” Or “How can I help fix this?”

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Resolving conflict starts with making people feel heard. Your employees must know that they have a voice, and feel safe about sharing their experiences. While you might not always agree with what they think, it is crucial to acknowledge their feelings and viewpoints. When they feel like they have some control over their situation, you’ll be surprised at just how open and cooperative they can be.


Jeremy Pollack is the founder of Pollack Peacebuilding and an anthropologist and conflict-resolution consultant in Silicon Valley. 

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