Want to know six steps recommended from medical science for resolving conflict in the workplace?

top view of man with hands on head at a workstation feeling frustrated

Having read this article from the Chief Medical Officer, Kierstin Kennedy, MD, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I wanted to share with you what I learned from her article and add some additional comments based on experience to help you with resolving conflict in the workplace. How conflict is managed is up to individual leadership.  At UAB Kennedy and her colleagues share their six steps to work towards successful conflict resolution as:

  1. Check your vitals. Kennedy says that, when conflict arises, people tend to frame the interaction as a battle of opposing viewpoints
  2. Understand the issue
  3. Be vulnerable
  4. Create alignment
  5. Define the new path forward
  6. Have an exit strategy

Let’s take a look at each of these six steps.


Check your vitals


When there is conflict, your defensive mechanisms may be alerted and you may be in a fight, flight, freeze, or assimilate mind set. Your defensive mechanisms can stem from your entire nervous system. You only have six to ten seconds to counteract this rush. When you know this happening, recognize this. Coach yourself to stay calm and focused. Talk to yourself in the first person. Use your name. In my case I might say, “Mike, stay focused.” “Mike don’t let anger take over.” “Mike stay calm.” “Mike take a deep breath and stay focused on the problem.” “Mike don’t blame anyone.” “Mike, don’t be judgmental.”

Understand your emotions and why they are leading you in a given direction.

Focus on what you can change. Take courage to address those items that you can change. Reflect and let go of those items that you cannot change.

Assess the other party. What is their emotional state? Why?  What can you learn? What questions can you and should you be asking and how should you be asking those questions to not be judgmental?  Do not make this threatening or judgmental statements or questions. Focus on your words,  tone, body language, and facial expressions. Adopt a mindset that demonstrates that you care, and you really want to understand and help.


Understand the issue


To understand the issue, focus on being compassionate by remaining calm, confident, and competent.

See if you can help meet the unmet need of the other party.

Realize that you and the other party both have the need to address this situation. What do they have to gain?  What do you have to gain? What can you learn from the other side that will allow you to possibly look at this situation differently?  Keep an open mind and be there to learn rather than judge.


Be vulnerable


Admit that you do not have the answers.

Admit that we are in this together and we are both trying to find a way out of the situation.

What can we do together to address these issues? This may allow you to see the issue from the perspective of the other side. Rather than this being a conflict, it may be possible to help both parties see how they can work collaboratively to address this situation. By being humble and vulnerable it may be possible for you to be heard by the other side. When you can convey your own humanity, this can go a long way towards the other party being open to you and your ideas. This may lead to trust and the opportunity to have a workable solution towards closure.


Create alignment


Dr. Kennedy calls this step critical. Why? This is the point that both parties begin to see ways to work with each other. The term is collaboration. What is that? Unlike communication which involves an interaction with information between parties,

collaboration is when both parties share a common goal. They can both see the need to work with each other to complete closure.

 At this point they are working together to problem solve the situation. When this happens both sides have “the potential for positive rewards.”

By listening and identifying interests as indicated above it is possible to find ways to work together given mutual interests. Avoid judgment. Avoid offering your ideas initially. Let the other person speak first.  This is an opportunity. Listen for ways to find areas of agreement. This will allow you to find a way to work together.


Define the new path forward


Dr. Kennedy states, “You can collectively brainstorm on how to resolve the issue at hand and prevent a recurrence, which may involve process changes or increased awareness of shared commitments.” Think about this.

Once you identify ways to begin to work together you can truly begin to brainstorm with each other on what you might do going forward.

Many cut this process short. Be sure to carry out all of the steps for an effective brainstorming session. All ideas are accepted whether on point or not and no one criticizes another person or their ideas during the process.


Have an exit strategy


Sun Tzu in the book, The Art of War, a book that is used at all five military academies and in many MBA programs, offers that you should “build your opponent a golden bridge of retreat.” Why?

With complex conflict there are many reasons things may not go well.

 You could end with a negative result. When this happens, you need an exit strategy for yourself and the other party. What should you do?

Go back over what you have agreed to already. Go over what you have collectively determined. See if you have everything interpreted properly from each party’s perspective. If in the end you cannot find a way to reach an agreement know what your Best Alternative is To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) is and be prepared to exit. However, even with this exit strategy, leave open the possibility of discussions later.

Since unresolved conflict may lead to negative results in the future, this may be a time to bring on board a true neutral mediator that works with both parties as an impartial party to help bring the parties together. In mediation the mediator is impartial, the process is confidential, and the parties make all of the decisions. If mediation is not successful by the party’s arbitration by a third party may be necessary to help resolve the situation.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]