Dealing with Conflict Under Stress — Keep It Simple

Much of my work over the years has been in helping address workplace conflicts. When we are all now trying to do our part to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on our society, we also must adjust to new ways of working under stress. Different businesses are experiencing different stress factors: Some are working from home, balancing work and family responsibilities in a new light. Others are in warehouses, hospitals, grocery stores, and factories, working side-by-side with others to deliver essential goods and services while knowing their own risks are greater because they do so. And then there are many who are laid off, or whose work has been otherwise cancelled, so even their definitions of “workplace” are in flux.

The reality for many of us these days is that we are even more highly stressed than usual, fearful of the health and financial effects of this pandemic. And if you are working in certain environments, you are also increasingly exhausted. These factors combine to test our abilities to deal effectively with one another, so it only makes sense that conflicts will arise. Here are some basic steps you can take to address them, whether over the phone or across a “physically appropriate” distance: 

  1. Prepare Yourself to Engage in the Conversation: Paradoxically, this may be an opportunity offered by lack of proximity. 
    • Take a deep breath and get centered before you attempt to speak with the other person. Prepare yourself to listen fully
    • Notice 1 or 2 “most important things” you want the other person to understand. It won’t help to overwhelm them, and we may not have energy for long discussions. 
    • You might also remind yourself what might happen if an agreement isn’t negotiated. Sometimes we stay ‘at the table’ to talk because the alternatives don’t work well.
  1. Seek to Fully Understand and to be Understood: This is all about having a conversation, where we really try to understand one another’s concerns, perspectives, and experiences with the issues at hand.
    • Patiently demonstrate to the other person that you are ready to listen, and ask for that same commitment in return (establishing “Ground rules” can be helpful, as well, such as “one person will speak at a time, without interruption”). 
    • Take time to Clarify, Restate, and Summarize what you each hear from one another – it takes a little longer at first, but establishes a good rhythm for listening and talking. If you take the lead, the other person will likely follow – minimally, you may ask for it in return.
  1. Identify the Core Issues – What is Really Needed?: A key to negotiating effective agreements is to focus on the key underlying needs, interests and concerns of those involved.
    • What did the previous discussion reveal? What are a couple of core issues that should be addressed today?
    • If all involved can agree on mutual concerns, as well as something that may also matter to one person more than the other, an Agenda can be established that reflects what is really needed. 
  1. Patiently Discuss Each Issue, Generating Options and Possible Solutions: Use your skills here to “work the problem.” 
    • Start with an issue you both agree is important. If discussing a few issues, start with one more likely to be addressed quickly.
    • Take turns offering possible solutions without judgment, and then review the list and see what might work. Taking each issue in turn, build an agreement. 
    • If you get stuck, either return to Step 3 or move on for now.
  1. Review the Agreement, Agree to “Check in” Again: Review the Agreement that is emerging, and clarify ‘action steps’ now needed to implement it. 
    • Be clear regarding who is responsible for various actions, including any communication with others not part of this conversation. 
    • Clarify expectations regarding the time required to take these steps, as well. Be realistic, given the way we are now living and working.
    • Finally, identify a time to “check in” together to see how things are going. 

Sorry I don’t have a cool acronym to remember, but I think these steps are pretty clear. With some practice, you can follow them and coach others on your staff to do the same. If you are facilitating a conversation involving two staff members or an upset team, just follow these same steps with them. 

We can do this! We don’t need to put off dealing with those workplace and community conflicts that were boiling over before we shifted into life during COVID-19, but we can simplify our approaches given social distancing and virtual communication realities. We may not be able to get all of the visual and physical cues that are present in a face-to-face conversation where we are at the same table together, but by being really intentional about our approaches, we can have some meaningful and worthwhile conversations that make this new workplace reality a bit more tolerable. 

How is work going for you in these new circumstances? What other suggestions do you have that work well for such conversations over the phone or over video conference? How are conversations at work happening among co-workers who are maintaining ‘social distance’ to get the work done safely… and what is happening when people feel that just isn’t possible? 

Stay well,


Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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