8 Sentences that Defuse Conflict at Work

HR Insights for Professionals

HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Defusing conflict is the only way to get something productive out of a conversation or meeting that has gone off the rails. But what do you say to avoid causing more disruption?

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Internal conflict can be challenging for even the most experienced HR professional to handle but defusing the situation is the only way to get something productive out of it. Depending on the situation, resolving problems between employees can also mean productivity is able to return to normal.

This means it's always in the best interests of the company to resolve internal conflicts quickly and effectively to ensure there's no lingering impact on individuals or the business as a whole.

Here are eight sentences that can defuse conflict in the workplace and why they are so effective:

1. "I wasn't aware of the situation. Please tell me what happened."

Often the most important part of resolving conflict is remembering to listen. People don't always want a solution to their issue (though this is obviously advantageous) but just want someone to recognize what they've had to deal with. Saying you weren't aware of the situation will allow them to view you as an impartial party, which should instill confidence in your ability to be fair and judgement-free.

2. "I understand you're upset but yelling at me won't help."

With internal conflicts it's easy for employees to let their emotions get the better of them, but this anger or upset is very rarely targeted at the person they're speaking to. This short but effective sentence lets them know you empathize with their situation but that you need them to act in a certain manner to reach a constructive conclusion. This is also advantageous for the injured party as people rarely say what they mean when they're feeling overly emotional.

3. "How could we avoid this happening again?"

Most workplace conflicts can be attributed to a breakdown in communication at some point. Asking the individual about where improvements could be made shows that you care about the severity of the situation's impact on them and want to prevent any other employee from experiencing it. It also allows them to think in a way that doesn't necessarily assign blame to a single party, making them consider how their own actions may have led to the end result.

4. "I value your opinion but I don't see it that way."

One of the biggest challenges in handling internal conflicts is when you disagree with the injured party's position. This can easily lead to an escalating situation. By telling them you value their opinion first and foremost, you're reassuring them that you've been listening to them and empathize with how they feel. However, agreeing with them face-to-face only to change your mind after the fact will damage trust in you and the wider company. Instead be honest about how you view the situation and why you see it that way, then give them the opportunity to respond to you.

5. "As we're not agreeing, I think we should arrange another meeting at a later date."

It's unrealistic to expect every conflict to be resolved in a single meeting and it may be an ongoing process to ensure any parties involved feel content with the solution. It's natural that nerves get fraught towards the end of a meeting, especially if both parties feel wronged. By arranging to hold another session at a later date, you are giving everyone the opportunity to collect their thoughts and try to come up with a solution.

6. "How should we proceed?"

This is especially important if the dispute involves a senior employee and someone under their management. Asking them how they want to proceed from here puts the control back in their hands and allows them to constructively think of how they can continue working at the company without being concerned about the same dispute happening again. Of course, what they say may not be possible in reality but it can help you form a judgement on what the next steps should be.

7. "I will bear that in mind going forward."

Depending on the situation, there may not be anything that needs to be done but it's more about ensuring that all parties feel comfortable working together. Often, just knowing that they have been heard and understood is enough for employees to be able to move on. Few people enjoy conflict, especially with their colleagues, so just noting a complaint can be all you need to do.

8. "I'm sorry you feel that way."

If the situation involves another party who isn't at the meeting, you can be extremely limited as to what you can say without assigning blame to another employee. This is especially important if the other party is in a more senior position in the company. This sentence allows you to still recognize their feelings and empathize with what's happened without agreeing with their version of events.

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