Conflict at work? What a great opportunity!

What do you do in the event of a conflict in the workplace? Do you run away, or do you confront? And how well does your approach work? It’s time to become ‘conflict-ready’. In this article I share a number of useful tips and the different phases from which a conflict is built.

Why become conflict-prone?

Conflicts are part of life and therefore also part of your work life. Don’t try to avoid conflict at work. Rather learn to deal with it well and thus become ‘conflict-ready’.

That is the core message of the book Conflict skills at work: gain trust with conflict management and mediation (affiliate) of mediators Jan Plevier and Frank Emmelot. They share many tools in their book, some of which I share in this article.

Conflicts in the workplace have a major impact

Why conflict skills are so important? Because it can save you a lot in time, money and misery. Because the impact of conflicts at work is huge:

  • The NVAB estimates that 70-80% of absenteeism in the Netherlands is non-medical.
  • The average costs of a labor dispute are more than € 27,000 (Euwema, 2007).
  • Every year, 70,000 to 120,000 employees call in sick as a result of a conflict at work (Nauta, 2004).

So it is better to avoid this! But how do you do that? How does a conflict work and from when do you have to call in external help?

  • Is it a dispute or a conflict?
  • What is ‘under’ the conflict?
  • What stage is the conflict at?

For even more information about emotions, power, concrete sample questions and the process of mediation and the relevant legislation, I recommend that you read the book.

Is it a dispute or a conflict?

A conflict is mainly about the relationship between A and B. What plays a big role is how A and B have learned to deal with emotions, and how they express them. This is also known as the ‘undercurrent’.

Disputes are about the content. It is more businesslike and deals with provable facts. They call this the ‘upper current’.

Escalated Conflict: Upstream and Undertow

In an escalated conflict, both the ‘upper current’ and the ‘undercurrent’ often play a role. A mediator will always have to work on the undercurrent (the relationship) first, before it can go over the overflow (the content). Because as long as A and B are stuck in their negative patterns and don’t want to listen to each other, there’s no point in talking about that content.

What is ‘under’ the conflict?

An (escalated) conflict at work has 4 layers and we often see only the top one:

  1. The material and instrumental: A and B made an agreement about a pay rise.
  2. The interests: A counts on that pay increase for his livelihood and sees it as a sign of recognition.
  3. The values: for A it is important that people keep to their agreements.
  4. Identity: A tells B to keep her promises, to which B says, “Don’t whine like that.” That reaction affects A in his deepest layer, his identity, because he does not feel heard.

So keep in mind that a conflict between colleagues is never just about the top layer. But that is often the only layer we see.

What stage is the conflict at?

The 3 main stages of conflict in the workplace are:

  1. Rational phase
    1. A and B can still work it out on their own, with or without lawyers.
    2. A win-win solution is still possible.
  2. Emotional phase
    1. A and B both want to win.
    2. This often involves dirty play, with coalitions and black-and-white images of the other.
  3. Battle Phase:
    1. A and B want to inflict damage on the other, even if it causes them to sink into the abyss.
    2. In extreme cases, this also involves violence.

External help from phase 2

Is a conflict at work in phase 1? Then professional help is not necessary. From phase 2 and certainly the beginning of phase 3, it is useful to engage a mediator. A and B then have such a distorted image of each other that they can’t figure it out together. The first task of a mediator is therefore to improve the image they have of each other and to try to foster mutual understanding.

Conflicts at work will always be there

As long as you work with other people, you will experience conflict. And that’s okay. Conflicts show that something has to change, and that can lead to good things, such as clarity, new insights and creativity.

So try not to see a conflict as a fire that needs to be extinguished. Don’t shy away from confrontations. Try to learn from it, about how to deal with differences better.

You don’t always have to agree

Is the atmosphere at work safe enough? Then you can speak openly about your differences, your limits and needs. Conflict prevention does not mean that everyone always has to agree. What you do know is that you can disagree with each other and respect your colleagues, without judging or blaming.

Sounds good, right?

Source: Frankwatching by

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