4 Entirely Attainable Skills to Handle Tough Conversations Within Your Company

January 1, 2024

Tough conversations in the workplace can arise out of many different situations. There are so many ways conflict arises, especially when you get more than two people in a room, that learning to effectively resolve conflict should be a top priority for everyone.

Despite the discomfort conflict poses for most of us, it is not always an unfavorable situation for an organization. It can provide significant opportunities for growth if handled correctly. According to Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., “Conflict itself is not always a bad thing in an organization; in fact, managed conflict leads to organizational growth, change and evolution. The way in which we approach conflict can and will make all the difference.”

To make the most of every opportunity for growth, this article will discuss four learnable skills that employers and employees alike can benefit from. These skills will help you navigate tough conversations, adding to your arsenal conflict management tools.

Before we get started, there is one crucial aspect of handling conflict that must be faced: timing is everything. Especially within an organization, dealing with conflict has to be done in real time because real people are involved. Organizations cannot afford to sweep conflict under the rug or deal with it in a leisurely manner. Conflict not addressed head-on will boil over and cause bigger problems than if it had been dealt with right away. So, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel having tough conversations, it is wise to address them as soon as possible. It doesn’t mean you move forward recklessly without any preparation first. You should prepare yourself in times of peace, so that when conflict arises, you have the skills to conquer it. 

To achieve that aim, let’s start with one of the seemingly simple skills that is maybe the trickiest to master:

1. Active Listening  — Listening to understand, not to respond

Hands down, the most crucial skill to develop when handling workplace conflict is active listening. Active listening is the ability to listen with the intention and purpose of understanding a situation to the fullest extent. It is starkly different from listening to respond. Without the ability to listen to understand (and not to speak), a leader or employer risks missing the point that the other party is trying to make. Active listening can help diffuse situations when someone may be emotionally charged because of not feeling heard.

What does active listening look like?
Active listeners seek to maintain eye contact during communication, even when difficult. They physically lean into the conversation and remain still to not distract from what the other person is saying. They are fully engaged in the conversation without interrupting. Active listeners may also pause in responding to a situation, knowing that a hasty reply may not effectively communicate what they are trying to say. That “interested silence” gives them time to collect and organize their thoughts before giving feedback. Active listeners can reflect on what the other person is saying and also what they may be feeling. They are adept at reading nonverbal cues, withholding judgment, and showing patience.

How does active listening help in conflict resolution?
By ensuring that all parties in a conflict are heard, active listening levels the playing field of the conflict. People can acknowledge what they need from a situation or a colleague (an apology, further clarification, or even a little empathy, for example) and reciprocate the same as requested of them. It takes away the places where miscommunication and misunderstanding hide and promotes clarity, transparency, and the space to move on from the conflict.

2. Emotional Intelligence — Recognizing the Sway Emotions Can Have

A second necessary skill set in managing conflict within the workplace is the ability to recognize and manage your emotions in a stressful situation. High emotionally intelligent people are also able to identify the feelings of others and how they affect any given situation. The ability to discern and manage one's emotions facilitates a shift towards objectivity when making decisions or assessing situations, leading to improved clarity and rationality. The good news is you can improve your emotional intelligence through training and experience. In doing so, you will become a better team player and more self-aware through knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

How does emotional intelligence help in conflict resolution?
Developing a high emotional IQ will help you to dispel conflict situations and improve communication to help resolve them. Once you recognize how and why other people are acting or responding in a particular way, you might even be able to help them learn to process their emotions and grow their emotional intelligence.

3. Empathy — Understanding Someone Other Than Yourself

The third skill for handling tough conversations builds on where emotional intelligence leaves off. Empathy — or the ability to understand and reflect on someone else's feelings — can have a domino effect on your communication and conflict situations. Imagine a situation where you are confronting an employee for not following a procedure outlined in your employee handbook. To approach the situation with empathy means listening first to your employee for information that may have affected his behavior. To this end, you can ask empathy-building questions like:

  • How are my actions contributing to the situation?
  • What am I missing in this interaction that will help me understand my employee’s perspective?
  • What organizational factors might be contributing?
  • What am I learning about myself?
  • What am I learning about the other person?
  • What am I accountable for?
  • What do I need to hold my employee accountable for?

After listening, you can objectively determine and enforce the repercussions warranted by the action of your employee. Through objectivity, emotionally-charged conversations lose their charge because the decisions are not fueled or swayed by unreasonable feelings.

How does empathy help in conflict resolution?
Empathy is not a license to disregard boundaries. Quite the opposite. Empathy allows you to enforce boundaries while still helping your employees be heard and feel seen so that they can take responsibility and deal with the consequences of their actions. Empathy builds trust, fosters engagement, and becomes a breeding ground for growth opportunities for all parties involved.

4. Mediation Skills — Putting it all together and remaining objective

Mediation skills require all of the skills we’ve mentioned, but takes the process further. Mediation skills include the ability to ask appropriate and necessary questions, as well as clarifying follow-up questions. One easy way to improve your ability to ask good questions is to intentionally develop a natural curiosity about the people around you. As your curiosity expands, you will refine your instinct for posing pertinent questions and delving further with follow-up inquiries.

Mediation also requires the ability to summarize what you hear other people tell you. As you are listening to one person’s side of a conflict, being able to repeat back to them what they said will help to ensure that you correctly understood what they said. Remaining objective and practicing a healthy dose of humility can also help your mediation skills to grow.

You don’t have to do it alone — How Syndeo partners with our clients to handle conflict
One of Syndeo’s HR Business Partners (HRBPs) received a call from a client’s manager who was having trouble communicating effectively with one staff member. After accessing our pre-employment behavioral assessments gathered by Syndeo, our HRBP provided the manager with some helpful information about how manager and the employee could both do a better job of communicating using each other’s personal styles (EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE and EMPATHY). In a collaborative session between both parties (MEDIATION), they were encouraged to listen and express some ways they can work together better (ACTIVE LISTENING). Our Syndeo team was right there, helping to navigate the conversation in action. We are pleased to report the manager, and the employee have been getting along famously since then!

In the complex landscape of workplace interactions, mastering these skills equips you to confidently navigate tough conversations. Conflict becomes an opportunity for growth, and the path to resolution becomes more apparent. As you continue to hone these skills, remember that you don't have to do it alone – Syndeo is here to partner with you in handling conflict and fostering a more harmonious and productive workplace.

What skill has helped you successfully handle conflict resolution? Don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe to our newsletter for more thought-provoking HR content from Syndeo. If you want to learn more about how outsourced HR services can get you back to business, contact Syndeo today!





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