Now we've got problems. And I don't think we can solve 'em

Is there bad blood in your workplace? Nothing can upset the carefully crafted dynamic of an office like a sprinkling of interpersonal conflict. 

Yes, when two parties disagree, it can make the environment a tad awkward. Whether that's managers bickering about the best way to push a project forward or co-workers having an animated debate over who used the last of the milk, these disagreements have a serious impact on a business. 

So, what should you do about it? Learning about the different types of interpersonal conflict is a good place to start. In the following guide, we'll take a look at just that and then delve into some of the approaches that you can use to manage the situation like a pro.

What is interpersonal conflict?

First up, let's start with a question: what is the best definition of interpersonal conflict? This term is used when two - or more - people disagree on something. 

It is not to be confused with the similar term “intrapersonal conflict,” which means your internal disagreements and strife. Frankly, that's an entirely different subject and one that we won't be covering in the following guide. 

Now, it's natural for people to be at odds from time to time. In a perfect world, co-workers would always agree on everything and projects would run like clockwork. But we don't live in a perfect world. No, there will be times when people don't quite see eye to eye on matters.

The truth of the matter is that some types of interpersonal conflict in the workplace can be healthy. When people are bringing conflicting ideas to the table, for example, it may help the team to reach the most effective outcome. However, in other cases, these disagreements lead to interpersonal difficulties in the long term. It's important to spot the difference here. 

If your interpersonal conflict falls into the latter bracket, you need to take action. Leave it to fester and it could make your working life hell. Figuring out what the next steps are - and looking at the approaches we'll outline - will help you to overcome this issue. 

What are the main types of interpersonal conflict?

Not all types of interpersonal conflict are the same. When you fall out with someone at work, it comes in all different shapes and forms. Before you can decide what the best course of action is, you may want to know what each type of interpersonal conflict looks like. While some disagreements may blur the lines, here are the core definitions you need:

1. Pseudo conflict 

Are you sure the two of you are disagreeing? Before you start bickering like you're on the playground, you might want to make sure that you know what the disagreement is about. 

A pseudo conflict can arise when you think you're speaking at odds. but you really want the same thing. For example, you may have the impression that your coworker thinks you're doing a bad job, when they are merely pointing out that there's a quicker solution. 

This type of interpersonal conflict is common when people lack vital communication skills. If you get your wires crossed, you may end up arguing with your coworker for no good reason. With that in mind, it's always wise to take a step back and assess the situation. 

2. Ego conflict 

Do you find it hard to accept it when you're wrong? Are you worried about what other people will think of you if you mess up? These ingredients are a recipe for an ego conflict. At times, people struggle to separate their actions from themselves. For instance, they may believe that if they miss a deadline, it makes them an inherently late person. 

Having this outlook can quickly lead to interpersonal problems in the workplace. The moment that another coworker points out the problem, the person with this perspective will start to desperately defend themselves. They may lie or try to gaslight the other person.

Of course, this isn't the only example of ego-based conflict. A person may have a hard time backing down in a disagreement - when they've been proved wrong - as they fear it makes them look stupid. Whatever the basis for this interpersonal conflict, it can be hard to overcome unless the person separates the situation from their sense of self.

3. Meta conflict

Are you arguing about arguing about arguing? That's meta.

Meta conflict is when you have disagreements about the way you're disagreeing. It hardly takes Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this approach can be wildly unhealthy. When two coworkers are arguing about a topic and then the bickering moves on to the way they are communicating, it can quickly become toxic. 

For instance, one person may accuse the other of not listening to them when they're sharing their criticism. They might say that the other person is being dismissive of the problem or even rude. When the argument gets to this level, it can be hard to pull it back.

However, it's important to focus on the problem at hand, rather than needless bickering.

4. Policy conflict 

When two people disagree on the best solution to a problem, this is known as a policy conflict. Picture the scene: two managers are looking for a way to ease the pressure for their team. One manager thinks that implementing a workflow management system will do the trick. However, the other manager is adamant that the team needs a restructure. If neither person backs down and keeps driving their point home, you have a real conflict. 

Often enough, a policy conflict comes from a desire to find the best pathway. Each person may believe that their way is the right way, so they will have a hard time letting it go. While it can be difficult to manage this type of interpersonal conflict, it can be done. The two people in question need to weigh up both sides of the story and come to a solution. 

5. Fact conflict 

Facts are static - opinions are not. If one person thinks Beyoncé is 41 and the other says she's 43, you might end up with a fact conflict. This is the simplest type of disagreement. It's where two people hold conflicting ideas about reality and, sadly, only one can be right. 

Now, fact conflicts only really turn into a problem when someone lets their ego run riot. The most straightforward way to manage this type of argument is by looking at the evidence and using some logic. What's the right answer here? To quickly deal with the problem, the two people may look up the facts (hello, Google!) and decide what is true. Of course, if one person is unwilling to back down whatever happens, that's a problem.

How do you manage interpersonal conflict?

Now that you have an overview of what interpersonal conflict is, let's talk about what you can do about it. You might be at loggerheads with your coworker, but you can't go on that way. To get the right results, both you and the other person need to work side by side to reach a compromise. Sure, that may be tough if you're mad. However, you can use the following approaches to help get things off the ground: 

Approach 1: Use your listening skills

Much of the time, an interpersonal conflict is based on a communication problem. When you're struggling to get your message across, you may become quickly frustrated with the other person. That frustration can bubble into anger in your stomach and come up through your mouth. But ask yourself a question: are you actually listening to the other person?

If you're solely focused on getting your own point across, you may be missing theirs entirely. For that reason, it's important to use reflective listening and show them that you understand what they are saying. This move can quickly create some common ground between the two of you and also gives you pause so that you can absorb what they are saying. 

Approach 2: Be clear in your communication 

Once you've made it clear that you're respecting the other person's point, focus on how you're sharing yours. Are you clear in what you mean here? Or, on the other hand, is your message convoluted and loaded with too much emotion? Whatever the type of interpersonal conflict, you need to ensure that your communication style is straightforward. 

When you're in the heat of the moment, it can be all too tempting to start speaking before you think. Don't make that mistake. Consider what it is that you want to share with the other person - the main point that you want them to take away - and stick to just that. 

Approach 3: Show the other person some empathy

Empathy is one of the best skills any worker can have. When you cultivate this talent, you'll have the ability to see things from your coworkers' perspective. So, should some nasty interpersonal conflict crop up, you'll know how to understand the other person. 

Try to put yourself in their shoes. What are they feeling? What's causing their upset? When you've considered these two things, let them know that you're there with them. You could say something like “I'm sorry that X upset you,” or “I can see how that would be frustrating.” Kicking things off with these statements may ease the disagreement. 

Approach 4: Focus on finding a solution together  

It's a cliché for a reason. When it comes to conflicts, it's not you against the other person, it's the two of you against the problem. You can use this simple mantra in all areas of your life when disagreements arise. If you take the focus off the other person, overcoming the interpersonal conflict will become much easier than it would otherwise be. 

The aim of the game is to find a solution together. That may be a happy compromise, if you're in a policy conflict, for example. Then again, if you're in a fact conflict, it may mean one party backing down and admitting that they're wrong. In any case, know that it's okay to make mistakes. It's how you resolve the matter that counts in these conflicts. 

A little honesty will go a long way. For instance, you may say “I really want to work together on this and I'm trying to understand your point of view” or “I think if we both change our approach here, we can come to a compromise that works for everyone.”

Approach 5: Ask for a mediator to get involved

Let's say your blood is boiling and, whenever you try to resolve the conflict, an argument ensues. There will be times when two people clash and find it hard to avoid a full-blown argument. If that sounds familiar, you can ask a third party to get involved. You can either have someone from HR sit in with you or ask a neutral coworker to help settle the conflict.

Mistakes to avoid if there's interpersonal conflict

To err is human, and it's easy to make mistakes when your emotions are running high. When you're in the midst of the conflict, you may find it hard to see the wood from the trees. There's one major problem, though. If you misstep, you could end up making things worse. Let's take a quick look at some of the biggest mistakes you can make here:

Withdrawing completely from the conflict 

Are you a flighty person? When interpersonal problems arise, you may feel like running away. It happens to the best of us. However, if you withdraw completely, the problem will never go away. You'll leave it to fester over time and things could get a whole lot worse. Try to look at healthy ways to approach the issue, so you can resolve it professionally. 

Being derogatory or rude to the other person 

Anger is a hard emotion to manage. If your words shoot to kill when you're mad, you'll end up with a lot of regrets about that. When you feel as though you're about to say something you may regret, take a break. Removing yourself from the conflict situation for a moment will allow you to get a hold of your emotions. When you've collected yourself, you can return to the conversation and speak without the fear of being rude. 

Bringing up past problems that aren't relevant 

Are you bringing up things that simply aren't relevant? If you're addressing why your coworker was late to a meeting, there's no need to comment on the fact that they also missed your birthday last week. While those two things may have upset you, they have very little to do with one another. Avoid bringing up past problems and stick to the point.

The takeaway

Interpersonal conflict at work can hinder your professional progress. So, when you find yourself in this tricky situation, you need to tread carefully. Following the above advice will help you to manage the dispute without things getting out of hand. If in doubt, remember that you can always speak to HR about the problem and get the support that you need. 

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