Tips for Handling Workplace Confrontation (Conflict Management)

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Confrontation has become commonplace at work. Divisive social and political influences follow us everywhere. Many of these situations involve leaders and their colleagues or direct reports. Our differing perspectives about confrontation will influence how we respond.

Some leaders embrace the opportunity to compete and will try to win the argument or assert their control. Others avoid confrontation by keeping personal views to themselves or evading those with whom they might disagree. Neither option seeks common ground or moves toward a potential solution.

One effective way to calm a workplace confrontation is to use questions. This approach replaces defensiveness with an openness to discovery. It encourages conversation and preserves relationships. Here are some situations where questions can be effective:

  • When you are feeling criticized, ask for specifics without getting defensive. Say, “Can you share an example that illustrates your point?” When the accuser must offer details instead of generalities you will find it easier to evaluate and verify their facts. This demonstrates your openness to feedback by seeking suggestions that might address their concerns.
  • When your personal values or beliefs are the point of contention, assume the role of someone who is seeking to learn. It’s hard not to defend when a deeply held conviction is being challenged. This is especially true when accompanied by an accusatory tone or terms like “hypocrite” or “liar.” Ask, “What troubles you about my position or ethics?” Then listen carefully to understand how they see things differently.
  • When anger is the primary emotion on display, don’t fuel the fire by matching the other person’s intensity. You might suggest starting the conversation over or simply maintain your composure until they have calmed down. Then you can attempt to ask questions that show your willingness to help.
  • When the other person seems apathetic (“I guess there is nothing we can really do.”), ask more questions and wait quietly for them to respond. You might say, “I sense that you are still unhappy. Tell me more about how you are feeling and what I can do to help.” Uncovering their hidden basic issues shows how much you care.

The intensity of a workplace confrontation can wear out even the most seasoned leader. That’s why asking questions is such a useful tactic. Your fact-finding mission can diffuse the emotion. It also keeps you, the accused, from ratcheting up your defenses to win the argument.

More importantly, it just might reveal a truth you hadn’t considered.

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Ken Byler is Principal and Founder of Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC, a Souderton, Pennsylvania firm that has provided leadership training, coaching, and facilitation services since 2002. He is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, and PXT Select™ all registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.