4 steps to better work relationshipsConflict, whether we like it or not, is part and parcel of life, and it’s inevitable in our work relationships.Article by Lisa Templeton - 28 May 2019 - Read Time: 3 min
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The real leadership skill, says Neil Harper, a Johannesburg-based business and leadership coach, is to embrace conflict as part of a healthy workspace, keep an open mind and ear, and know yourself well enough to be aware of your own triggers and when you might trigger others.

He breaks this process down into four steps that will help you to maintain healthier, productive relationships at work.

1. Embrace it

Conflict among team members can be positive, says Harper, as long as the team operates on a foundation of trust.

‘One of the major dysfunctions in any team or relationship is fear of conflict. What you want, is an environment in which conflict can be embraced in a constructive and trusting way. Through conflict, you can get the best ideas on the table, discuss the elephant in the room and resolve issues with the least politics.’

A trusting environment is one in which people know that:

  • they can admit weaknesses and mistakes without judgment
  • it’s okay to ask for help
  • everyone will be given the benefit of the doubt and that no-one will jump to negative conclusions
  • differences between people are valued

The flip side of this is a culture in which team members conceal mistakes and weakness, are reluctant to ask for or accept feedback and where their skills and values go unacknowledged.

‘Without a foundation of trust, conflict is typically avoided as it’s not a safe option,’ he says.

2. Know yourself

Self-awareness is key in such situations and Harper always begins with it in his executive and management coaching work. ‘Until you know yourself, you cannot grow, and the better you know yourself, the better you will be able to interact with others because you will understand your own reactions to nudges and know the effect you have on others.

‘Sometimes others’ response to you might be completely different to what you had intended and cause conflict you didn’t anticipate.’

The key is to reach a stage where your self-awareness is heightened to the degree that you can align your intention and the impact.

‘It is critical especially for leaders to develop both intrapersonal competence based on how well they know and understand themselves, and interpersonal competence based on their understanding of others through observation and empathic listening. This is what allows you to see things from someone else’s viewpoint.’

When faced with conflict, always ask yourself how you have contributed to the situation. This will prevent you from defaulting to wanting to apportion blame and put you in a problem-solving mindset that looks at what is really going on and what your role is.

‘While 360-degree feedback is interesting, the real trick is to observe yourself in real time and monitor your thought and feeling patterns as well as your physical sensations, and linking your moods to actions. If you can become sufficiently self-aware, you will be able to decide how to respond rather than reacting instinctively. ‘Your most important questions must be ‘how do I impact others?’ and ‘how can I deal with disagreements more effectively?’

‘What you want, is an environment in which conflict can be embraced in a constructive and trusting way.’


3. Reserve judgment

‘The art of exploring through open-ended questions is a vital skill to develop,’ says Harper.

To get a true understanding of an issue and players’ positions, it is necessary to suspend judgment and all preconceptions you may have, and to be open to all you are told. Harper suggests that you:

  • Accept what is happening. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with everything, but that you are accepting another’s understanding and point of view.
  • Remain grounded and present, so that you can explore and question with curiosity and without preconceptions.
  • Ask open-ended questions that lead to discussion rather than yes and no answers. You want to start a conversation, not shut it down. For example, instead of asking why, which implies judgment, ask the person to tell you about the problem or their experience of it to encourage discussion.

4. Listen – in a specific and conscious way

We can choose to listen in one of several ways, such as the downloading style, in which we listen only to confirm what we already know; or the factual style, which allows us to hear everything new that may expand our data; and then active, empathic listening.

Empathic listening and questioning can take a conversation from a superficial transactional level to one that divulges what is going on below the surface – the thoughts, worries and hopes behind someone’s words.

Emphatic listening will allow you to:

  • Initiate difficult conversations that go beyond the transactional to feelings by using prompts such as ‘that is very interesting, how do you feel about it, what will it do for you?’
  • Set aside your own agenda and listen to how the other person is feeling
  • Glean much more than what is already known to gain a deeper understanding
  • Give your full attention to the speaker

‘Always remember that to get to a point of real conflict resolution, everything must be built from a place of trust. Team members have to know that you fully understood their point of view and accept it, a leader has to be willing to compromise and everyone must get an opportunity to speak – and to be heard,’ says Harper.

Lisa Templeton
A highly-experienced freelance writer with a background in hard news and magazine feature-writing, as well corporate communications management.

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