a male colleague in a meeting with his co-workers
Points of view: disagreement is inevitable and often creative, but requires resolution if it gets out of hand © Getty Images

Having to get along with different kinds of people is a normal part of working life, and some disagreement is inevitable. In fact, it is even a sign of a healthy business, experts say.

“Conflict is a sign of a high-performance workplace . . . of people who care, people who are passionate,” says Leigh Thompson, professor of dispute resolution and organisations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois.

Conversely, organisations where people are too fearful of confrontation can suffer because no one wants to say they disagree or offer a different perspective. “We’re hard-wired for likeability, it’s how we have survived as humans,” says Amy Gallo, contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).

We really worry about hurting people’s feelings — women, especially, because of the way we’re socialised.”

But sometimes there is someone you hit a brick wall with. What then?

There’s a colleague I really struggle to work with. What can I do?

The first step is self-awareness, so you understand what you are bringing to a conflict situation, says Sala Sihombing, a mediator and conflict management consultant in Hong Kong.

FT Women in Business Forum

Conflict at work was recently discussed at an event held by the FT Women in Business Forum, a members-only career development programme. Learn about future sessions at forums.ft.com/women-in-business-forum

An intense reaction to something or someone is often “a clue to how important that issue might be to us”, she points out. It is influenced by beliefs and experiences that we all have about handling conflict, whether from childhood, society, training or previous jobs.

The problem may be that expectations are misaligned, says Gallo. “We presume people see things the same way we do and often make shortcuts.”

The next step is empathy: “Put yourself in their shoes,” Gallo adds. “This is not out of generosity — it’s a strategic move, because the more you understand what motivates them, the more you’ll be able to respond in a way that is constructive.”

Thompson suggests asking yourself how desirable it is to have a good relationship with this person. Sometimes, people say things are so bad they just “want this person to ‘fall into a crevasse’”, but she believes it is always worth giving repair a chance — even if your instinct is to avoid the individual. Ask yourself how far you would adjust your own communication or work style. “And then, might [the other person] also want to have a better relationship?”

Finally — and this is the hard part — you need to figure out a time and place to approach the person and ask for a meeting, she says.

But I hate confrontation. How can I make sure the conversation goes well?

Framing your intention clearly at the start will help, says Thompson: “Recognise that this is an uncomfortable conversation.” She suggests starting with something like: “There’s been tension between us, and I think I have contributed to that.”

Emphasise your shared goal, says Gallo, by saying, for instance, “we both really care about getting this project done on time”, or “we’re both committed to this client”. Then, clarify what you are disagreeing about — such as, “where we’re not seeing eye to eye is the process”.

Approach the meeting with a curious mindset, adds Sihombing: “It keeps you flexible and open to new information. You’ll keep asking questions and wanting to problem-solve.” Also, do something physical beforehand that gets you moving, such as taking a walk (her own favourite is to play “Permission to Dance” by K-pop band BTS on YouTube — “it’s very boppy”).

How to respond to hostility: the ‘Biff’ technique

Brief: Keep your response brief — it signals that you don’t want to get into a prolonged dialogue

Informative: Focus on facts, rather than emotion, opinion or argument

Friendly: Aim for a friendly, or at least neutral, manner

Firm: Say something that ends the conversation calmly. Avoid comments that invite more discussion. If you need a further response, ask a question seeking a yes/no answer by a certain date

To agree a plan of action, Thompson suggests proposing ways you could change your own behaviour first. The other person may then be open to suggesting how they could also work more constructively.

And if none of this works? “Remember that someone else’s difficult behaviour is not a reflection [on] you,” says Gallo. “Sometimes, we think, ‘why does this bother me? Why am I losing sleep over this?’ [But] it’s normal when we experience conflict with someone.”

Another tactic is to “think like a scientist”, says Gallo, and experiment with your conversations. If you have been liaising over email or in the office, try a non-work venue, such as a café. Or find someone who also works with the person and whom you both trust, and ask “what works well, what do they care about?” Your approach must be sincere and well-meaning, she warns.

Ultimately, if you keep arguing and getting stuck in negative emotional language, you need to set boundaries with the person, advises Sihombing. To prevent further escalation, she recommends applying the “Biff” technique — brief, informative, friendly and firm, devised by Bill Eddy, an expert in conflict at work — when devising a way to respond.

What if the person I clash with is my boss?

There are limits to the boundaries you can set when it’s your manager, says Gallo. “You have to really keep an eye on the stress: is this taking a physical, mental, emotional toll on you?”

In this situation, focus on mental boundaries, such as “I’m not going to think about them after 5pm”, she advises. Nevertheless, document your interactions, too, in case the issue comes to a head later on. Also, consider other job options — even just updating your CV — so you can avoid feeling trapped.

And, perhaps, be thankful you are not like the other person: “Sometimes, I tell myself, they have to live life as them, and that looks miserable,” Gallo says. “And I get to live life as me.”

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