In this article, I will show you an approach for resolving a conflict in the workplace, that allows you to constructively work with conflicts and even use them to deepen mutual understanding.
Integrating this social intelligence to resolve conflicts is important for all smooth cooperation and exchange within a team.
To explain this approach to conflict resolution I will use the 5 principles of Circling as an orientation.
Circling is a tool that can support teams towards better organizational practices that are based on trust, integrity, and mutual support. Learn more about Circling: What is Circling?
But not only in the workplace is this kind of conflict resolution very important and helpful.
Especially in a world as we have it today, where polarization and division seem to become the new norm, it becomes even more necessary to find a possibility to resolve conflict in a sustainable and integrative way.
We are in need of a culture with a more authentic and holistic approach to conflict.
This becomes possible when we let go of the need to ‚be right‘. We can cultivate an attitude, where there is space for both our own truth and the truth of everyone else involved.
This attitude comes from a deeper understanding of conflicts.
After reading this short article, you will have had an insight into this understanding of conflicts. You will be able to approach conflicts differently and try this attitude for yourself.
This is how resolving a Conflict in the Workplace becomes possible
Truly resolving a conflict in the workplace – or in any other situation – is an art.
I haven’t found the approach to conflict that I’m describing in this article anywhere else and it can seem pretty unusual at first.
But from my experience of leading circling events and supporting people in a variety of conflicts, I have found that this approach is the best there is for effectively resolving conflicts.
I recommend trying it out and seeing for yourself!
Here are the 5 most important points for resolving a conflict in the workplace in a constructive and sustainable way:
1. Seeing Conflict as Potential
It is important, that we see conflict as a potential, instead of something bad or problematic. Wherever people live and work together, there will be conflict.
But conflict is not just an inevitable burden, that we have to live with but actually a huge potential.
We only need to know how to get to the core of it, in order to find the true gift and treasure of every conflict.
In his brilliant book ‚The Elegant Self‘ Rob McNamara writes: ‚We cannot solve conflicts, but we can let ourselves be solved by conflict.‘
Having a holistic approach to conflict means first and foremost to have the openness to be changed by the conflict.
The conflict is not something ‚out there‘ that we can figure out and solve without really getting involved ourselves. Conflict always points to a deeper layer of our experience, that we are not yet able to grasp. Conflict is the invitation to take a closer and deeper look at ourselves and grow in the process.
To truly resolve conflict, we have to train the ability to be present with what a conflict brings into our awareness. Instead of pushing the conflict away, or trying to solve it intellectually, we can open ourselves to our full experience. We can take into account the other people involved in the conflict. We can consider the Connection we have with these people.
‚Truth is never with simple one person, but always among us.‘
If we allow conflict to guide our attention to what is truly happening between us and other people, we move a step closer to a truly integrative resolution.
Your whole perception of yourself, others, and the world can change through conflict. But for that to happen you need to be able to allow this change to occur.
Being able to allow conflict to change you is dependent on other things: feeling safe, being able to observe your own feelings and reactions, trusting the others involved, and the process.
We look at these prerequisites in the next sections!
Commitment to Connection
‚Commitment to Connection‘ is the principle in Circling, that describes this willingness to be authentically present with everything that comes up in a conflict between two or more people. The principle is an invitation to check with ourselves if we are actively leaning into the connection or if we are withdrawing from it, censoring ourselves, or avoiding certain thoughts, feelings, and reactions within us.
The Elegant Self
2. Communicating with Meta-Awareness
In most situations, it’s not the factual level but the emotional level that is the cause of conflicts.
Being able to observe our own emotional reactions from a certain distance, is an important ability for constructive conflict resolution. The aim is to just have enough space around your feelings, so that you can talk about your emotional reactions, instead of from your emotions.
At the same time, we want to cultivate enough closeness and intimacy with our feelings, so that we can observe and understand our own emotional reactions better and better.
There’s no point in trying to avoid our feelings and emotional reactions. Suppressing or excluding our feelings from a conflict and trying to solve it mentally just doesn’t work.
Even if we can manage to find a place of objective observation within ourselves, we are still unable to truly resolve the conflict, if we do not include the emotional level at some point.
If we are not in contact with our emotions, they are simply influencing our actions and behavior from an unconscious place.
We want to train the ability to observe our internal happenings without getting pulled into them. This is what I mean by Meta-Awareness. You are able to think about thinking, intuit on your feelings, and reflect on your behavior.
If we want to truly resolve a conflict, there’s also no point in discussing why somebody feels or reacts the way they do. Emotional reactions do not need to be explained! It’s way too easy to get into blaming or invalidating someone else’s reactions if we try to figure out why they are feeling the way they do.
What truly helps for the resolution of a conflict, is when you are able to observe your own reactions and name them from a place of calm. ‚I notice I’m getting angry‘, ‚Hearing this makes my belly contract.‘
Of course, there are moments, when it isn’t possible to stay present with what we are feeling without getting swept away by emotions. If the emotional charge is too big, it’s better to take time to calm down, before attempting to resolve a conflict. Real resolution of conflict needs a safe space without blame and grounded individuals, who can reflect on their behavior. Neither is given when we are too caught up in our emotional reactions.
Staying at the Level of Sensations
‚Staying at the Level of Sensations‘ is the principle in Circling, which is expressing this attitude. The level of sensations and feelings can act as an anchor in the here and now. We can return to this in every situation.
What am I feeling at the moment in connection with you? What sensations am I aware of? Instead of going into autopilot, and letting our habitual patterns run us, we can take a step back, observe our experience and communicate what is happening for us. Doing this at the base level of sensations and feelings roots us in the body. This can give us a level of meta-awareness.
We create a space around our emotional reactions instead of being them and acting them out. This creates a space of vulnerability and intimacy. Others are invited to also step back from their protective stances. What is really happening in the conflict can be seen more easily and the needs and feelings of all people involved can be recognized and included.
3. Staying with your Truth and Owning your Experience
Additionally, to the meta-awareness described above, we can start to ‚own‘ our experience.
Nobody is making us angry, sad, fearful, or happy. These are all our own reactions to a situation.
Our own reactions are a mix of learned ways behavior we took on throughout our lives and the creative and spontaneous aspect that happens in the present moment.
Taking ownership of our experience means recognizing that all our reactions are coming from within us and that nobody can be blamed for them.
When we orient around the previous principle and train our ability to observe and communicate our feelings and sensations in the present moment, it will get easier and easier to distinguish between your spontaneous, creative reactions and your reactive habits coming from the past.
Coming from our reactive habits, we project emotions, relationship dynamics, and meaning that have their root in past experience into the current conflict. These emotions and dynamics are being triggered by the current situation.
For example, can the manner with which somebody is interacting with us, trigger a strong reaction of feelings. The reaction can be mainly coming from a past experience, to which our system is reacting as if it were the same situation.
To resolve a conflict in the here and now, we have to try our best in taking the responsibility for this reaction and to openly share what is being triggered in us. In other words: We have to become whistleblowers for our own reactive habits.
This is no easy feat! But training the ability to halt in even the most heated argument and have a close look at what’s going on within you and then communicating this without blame, is definitely worth it!
It opens up completely new possibilities for the direction the conflict can go. This vulnerability and Self-Responsibility is an open invitation for everyone included to let the guard down and show themselves as well.
The conflict is suddenly shifted from ‚me against you‘ towards ‚being seen and seeing the other‘.
Owning your Experience
‚Owning your Experience’ summarizes this approach. Sometimes we react more strongly than the external situation needs us to. There is nothing wrong with such strong, and often emotional reactions. But they tend to bring us into an attitude, where we give away the responsibility for our experience to others, blaming them for how we feel.
This principle invites us to always come back into this place of empowerment, where we are in full responsibility for our experience, and we are communicating what we are feeling, sensing, and thinking.
4. Including everything in the Connection
Some people are of the opinion, that we shouldn’t project the reactions and behaviors of the past into our conflicts in the here and now. The idea being, that it is better to solve them somewhere else – either alone or with a therapist.
There is some truth to this approach because there are projections that cannot be seen and resolved in a conflict situation and need another space to be worked with.
But at the same time, this creates the story that projections are bad and shouldn’t happen in adults. It also gives a simple excuse for people not to look at their involvement in a conflict and say ‚This is only your projection and has nothing to do with me‘. This makes any constructive conflict resolution impossible!
It is simply impossible not to project! Our attitude and behavior are always a mixture of old patterns and spontaneous reactions in the present moment.
A more practical and humane approach is therefore to include everything that is happening within you into the conflict and take full ownership and responsibility for it.
I’m angry at my coworker for finishing a report late. Now I have to stay longer. This stresses me out because I have an appointment later on. I approach my coworker with this anger and tell him that I don’t like it when he does this.
A conflict erupts because he feels threatened and starts to defend himself. I realize that we get nowhere in this atmosphere and I become curious about the connection with my coworker. Why am I really this angry? While observing myself in my anger I realize, that part of the anger is not coming from the situation in the here and now, but from my history.
My dad was never planning ahead and I couldn’t trust that he would keep his word. Because of that I missed out on a lot of trust and structure and felt that I was the one having to keep everyone around me on track. The anger about that now came into the conflict in the here and now, where I’m projecting on my coworker that he’s never finishing his stuff on time and I cannot trust him.
Owning my realization and letting my coworker know, that there’s this story happening in me as well, he becomes able to drop his defenses. The anger about the unfinished work is still there and gives a good signal to my coworker because he feels the connection and the importance of keeping up deadlines.
There's a Reason for what you're experiencing
It’s about allowing our reactions. Not acting them out, as soon as we see them for what they are. But taking responsibility for them and bringing them into the connection. There is always a reason for this reaction.
In other words: Our reactions (even the triggers from the past) aren’t happening for no reason, but are always connected to something in the Connection with the other person. Somewhere in this conflict, there’s an opposite piece to our own reaction.
When the approach to conflict shifts from one of ‚I’m in the right and I fight you‘ to ‚I experience this and I would like us to understand why this is happening between us‘, a huge step is taken towards constructive conflict resolution.
And a huge step is taken in the direction of the treasure that lies hidden in every conflict: Self-Knowledge, Intimacy, and deep Connection.
Trusting your Experience
‚Trusting your Experience‘ describes this attitude in Circling: Bringing everything into the connection, that is happening now. This includes feelings, thoughts and assumptions, even old patterns. We do not need to exclude them or rationalize them.
In other words: Trusting that everything that is happening within you is is important for this conflict and helps in resolving it. When you responsibly bring everything, you will be surprised how your and the other’s experience are fitting together.
Even when you think some feeling that emerges in the conflict has nothing to do with the here and now. When you share it, you will notice the impact it has on the connection.
5. Understanding the Other’s World
In most conflicts, the main theme is the unfulfilled needs of the people involved.
In the example above it was the unfulfilled need for trust and reliability of others, that drives my anger.
One key ability for resolving conflict is to observe and communicate our own feelings and needs.
The other is to be able to really hear and understand the needs and feelings of another person.
What is your opposite really experiencing?
When you are able to shift your attitude from one of fighting for your own needs, to try to understand both sides of the conflict, you become open to the experience of the other.
We want to cultivate curiosity and openness towards the world of the other. This is only possible when we can step back from our own reactivity and defensiveness and approach the conflict as something valuable, where both parties can win.
We also want to allow the other person to define their own reality, instead of putting our own assumptions and understandings on them.
Questions can help in this process. When your opposite shares, that she feels angry: What kind of anger is she feeling? How is it to be with this anger and in the connection?
Of course, these questions only work, if they’re coming from a place of true curiosity and do not have a hidden agenda.
Being with the Other in their World
‚Being with the Other in their World‘ describes this way of curiously, openly approaching the other person. When someone shares ‚I feel sad‘, we do not automatically assume that his/her experience with sadness is the same as ours. We can ask ‚How is it for you to be sad right now? Is it ok for you to be sad? Is it comfortable or uncomfortable sadness? What kind of sadness do you feel?’
Because of the impartiality, we get to know what is really happening for our opposite way faster.
And we get to experience her/his world, without our assumptions and stories about it.
Mediation and Group-Processes
It is best to get support from other people if a conflict cannot be resolved or held by the people involved. Other people can take the role of mediators, reflecting back to the people involved in conflict what’s visible from outside.
Circling is a very effective practice to resolve conflict. This is because there are a lot of people present who are not directly involved with the conflict itself and can give feedback from their own subjective experience.
The group context with the principles explicitly guiding us in how we relate to each other creates a lot of safety and space for vulnerability.
The trained facilitators are able to navigate and moderate conflicts and uphold this integrative approach even if a lot of reactivity is triggered.
So if there’s a conflict in your workplace that you cannot solve you can reach out to our team or find a trained facilitator or mediator in your surroundings.
Resolving Conflict - A new Culture
Resolving conflicts in this way, and allowing yourself to be solved by the conflict, is unfortunately not something that is truly understood by a lot of people.
Often, we compromise and go for the first ‚solution‘ we find, before we even got to and understood the core of the argument.
An unsatisfied sense and even a grudge will stay. The treasure of self-revelation that is hidden in the conflict, is not found.
That is precisely why it is so important, that we have a safe space in which we can train the needed abilities to resolve conflict in this constructive, integrative way.
One of the ‚problems‘ with implementing this approach towards conflict is that the climate in the workspace is very different from the safe spaces we can create with Circling and the 5 principles.
In the workplace and also in intimate relationships we often fear trying out something new that feels vulnerable. We tell ourselves, that there is too much at stake. Or that we will be ridiculed for our openness and sharing.
This is why Circling Workshops and Team Events are so important!
These give you a safe environment to experiment with this approach and attitude. Like this, you can build experience with it and then start to implement it in your life from a grounded and trusting place.
On the other hand, as it always takes two for a fight, it also needs two for true conflict resolution.
Create an understanding of your approach towards conflict resolution before you go into the exploration. All parties involved could read this blog article for example.
Are they willing to open up to this experience? Are they willing to look at their involvement and let themselves change by the conflict?
In the end, it needs everyone involved to get to this very rich exploration of our interpersonal dynamics! But the more each individual trains these abilities to resolve conflict in this integrative way, the faster a culture can be established, in which the potential in conflict is seen.
And more conflict will be experienced as something that creates more connection and intimacy, instead of polarization and separation!
Please let me know what you think in the comments below!