How to Handle Conflict With a Coworker

Workplace conflict can reduce productivity and lead to a hostile work environment.
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Conflict at work is a fact of life that many people face at one point or another. In fact, a 2009 study published in Psychometrics reported that 99 percent of human resource professionals have dealt with workplace conflict. How you handle conflict may impact your reputation in the workplace and may even result in a formal disciplinary action such as reduced hours or termination. Communication with your coworker and supervisor is vital during conflict resolution. Strong communication skills can help diffuse the conflict, define what led to the problem and establish groundwork to prevent the conflict from recurring.

1 Take a Breather

While it is tempting to bring your conflict immediately to a supervisor or human resources, doing so while you are angry is a bad idea, according to Forbes Magazine. It may result in you acting erratically or saying something that cannot be unsaid. Try writing about the conflict to release any pent up feelings. In addition to providing a cathartic outlet, your supervisor may ask you to provide a written account of the incident if you pursue a formal hearing.

2 Take Ownership

Even if you feel wronged, you may have played a significant role in the conflict. Reflect on the conflict, putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Employees should take responsibility for their actions, suggests David Ballard, a psychologist and head of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. Take ownership of your role in the conflict in order to open communication between you and your coworker. Avoid use of negative or accusatory language and focus on positive language. A "You" statement places blame on someone else: "You are rude and inconsiderate of others around you." An "I" statement is more positive: "I know that I can come off as overly sensitive and I hope to come to an agreement." This allows you to take responsibility while maintaining a positive outlook.

3 Focus on Behavior

When discussing workplace conflicts, seek to separate the person from their behavior to avoid sounding confrontational, according to the Department of Human Resources at the University of California San Diego. Instead of saying, "When you come in late it puts more work on everyone else," focus on the event. For example: "Timeliness is an essential part of this job, being late puts undue stress on your coworkers."

4 Approach Your Coworker

You may discuss the problem with your coworker before approaching your supervisor. Many conflicts arise from misunderstandings, miscommunication and differences in cultural norms. Try to understand your part in the conflict while defining what constitutes acceptable behavior. For example, some people are uncomfortable when others violate their personal space. But in other cultures, standing in close proximity is socially acceptable. Bring up these issues privately to resolve conflict and prevent future incidents.

5 Alert a Supervisor

If you have already attempted to work things out, or if you believe the conflict has violated your rights in the form of workplace or sexual harassment, bring your concerns to your supervisor or human resources representative. Many companies have formal policies to address such conflicts. When addressing a conflict with your supervisor, you may be asked to document the problem in writing, identifying specifics and, if possible, proof of the encounter.

6 Know When to Let Go

Workplace conflict is sometimes the result of two or more individuals displaying differing values, opinions or personality clashes, suggests the Human Resources department of the University of Colorado Boulder. Keep in mind that approaching your supervisor may also call your actions into question. If your actions have led to a conflict, you may wish to let the situation go to avoid unwanted attention from your supervisor or human resources representative.

Anthony Oster is a licensed professional counselor who earned his Master of Science in counseling psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has served as a writer and lead video editor for a small, South Louisiana-based video production company since 2007. Oster is the co-owner of a professional photography business and advises the owner on hardware and software acquisitions for the company.