Team Player: Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict can help move things forward and get people thinking in innovative ways.

By Michelle Vallet, May 15, 2012

Who hasn’t been challenged to think differently about something only to realize that doing so has provided a solution to a problem? Most everyone, too, has been approached about hurtful behavior and recognized that perhaps they could have done something differently or used a different tone of voice.

The point: you aren’t always going to agree with everyone—and that’s okay. It’s how you deal with conflict that’s really important.

Why Conflicts Arise

According to Eric Stephenson, director of education for imassage Inc., massage therapists in a larger setting, like a spa, interact with a lot of people in a day, up to 50 or more between clients, receptionists, management and fellow massage therapists. Even in smaller working environments, massage therapists will work with many different people with a variety of personalities.

That’s a lot of opportunity for miscommunication.

“Personality differences, jealousy and favoritism are just a few examples of why conflicts might arise between colleagues in a large offi ce,” Stephenson explains. “For example, in a spa setting that pays incentives to therapists with repeat clients, competition for clients can be intense. If a client chooses to change therapists after a long-time professional relationship, jealousy and hurt feelings sometimes result.” Gossip, too, can wear on the trust and safety of a spa setting, Stephenson adds.

Additionally, Nathan Nordstrom, education provider for Educated Touch, identifies three common causesof conflict. First, you have what Nordstrom calls unexplained expectations. Let’s say for example you have two therapists sharing a treatment room. One person believes each therapist should be responsible for changing the table height to their own needs, while the other believes each therapist should be sure to leave the table at the height preferred by the other therapist at the end of a session. “Neither one says anything to the other,” Nordstrom explains. “However, they are both frustrated that the other doesn’t help out.”

Another common cause of conflict, according to Nordstrom, is unexpressed concerns. For example, a massage therapist works in a doctor’s office and begins to notice she’s being asked to stay late and work on patients much more frequently than when she first started. “Here, the massage therapist might be hesitant to approach their employer,” Nordstrom says, “but also doesn’t want to feel they are being taken advantage of.”

Lastly, Nordstrom believes a great many conflicts begin with unclarified communication. These types of conflict arise when you aren’t clear about either your own expectations or what others can expect of you. Clients who misunderstand what benefits they might expect to receive from a massage session, for example.

Effectively Dealing With Conflict

Conflict, for any number of the reasons mentioned (and perhaps some not mentioned), will arise at some point in your professional career. “Human interactions will inevitably contain some sort of conflict,” says Stephenson. “A great leader will encourage their team to ‘go direct’ whenever possible, meaning people go directly to the people they’re experiencing conflict with.”

And don’t discount your responsibility in the professional relationships you have with clients and other therapists in the work environment, not to mention the policies and procedures of the workplace. “Whether it’s starting or ending a session on time, cleaning up after oneself or keeping gossip and negativity out of the environment, it all begins with you,” Stephenson says.

Remember, too, that someone being angry with you doesn’t mean you have to be angry. “Conflict is not bad,” says Nordstrom. “Try to keep a smile on your face and see if you can recognize the other person’s concern.”

And there’s the key to dealing with conflict in a positive way: remaining respectful and communicating clearly, whether you’re expressing your own concerns or responding to someone else’s issues. “If at anytime you feel you cannot stay focused and calm, you need to step away and explain why you need to step away,” encourages Nordstrom. “You might say, ‘I do understand we have a concern. However, I would like to take some time to see how we can make the best possible decision moving forward.’”

Nordstrom also suggests never making the issue only about one person, even if you don’t entirely understand their concerns. “Think about addressing all concerns as ‘we’ issues instead of ‘you’ issues,” Nordstrom says. “For clarity, restate the concern so you know you’re both on the same page.” People rarely try to say things that are purposefully inflammatory or rude, so give them the benefit of the doubt when possible and remember that what they’re saying isn’t about you but rather their perceptions of a situation or behavior.

An Ounce of Prevention

Particularly when considering how to keep a working environment relatively free of conflict, the age-old idiom about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure rings true. For Nordstrom, being up front about expectations is important. “It’s always best to have an informal contract to refer back to,” he explains. “This contract can and should change over time, with all parties having input regarding any changes.”

In this document, you can speak to specific expectations you have, for example, as well as how to deal with issues and concerns. “It’s helpful, too, if you have regular meetings where expectations are revisited and any concerns and issues are addressed,” Nordstrom says.

Stephenson also believes massage therapists need to hold themselves accountable, and keep up their end of the bargain, so to speak. “When a therapist is hired by a spa, they are agreeing to the policies and procedures, as well as a job description set forth by the spa,” he explains. “If they agree to these, they are responsible for upholding their end of the agreement. They cannot operate with a different agenda from the one established.”

Quick Tips for Conflict Resolution

Identify the problem. You can’t begin to resolve an issue if all involved parties don’t fully understand what the issue is, so taking the time to clearly communicate the problem is important. Don’t talk over the other person, giving them the time they need to accurately explain their feelings.

It’s easy to let emotions take over, particularly if you feel you’re being put on the defense, so do your best to remain calm so you can truly understand (or accurately relate) the problem. And, don’t try to rush to a solution until all involved parties feel they understand the concern.

Open ears. Sounds obvious, but really listening to what the person is saying is key to resolving conflicts. Whether it’s a client unhappy with a massage session or a fellow therapist who has a problem with something you’ve done, listening to what they are saying without getting defensive is imperative. When you can, try to restate the problem so you’re sure you understand the issue. For example, you might say, “What I hear you saying is that you feel …”

Ideal end result. When the issue is well understood, try to think of what the ideal outcome would be in terms of resolution. Perhaps even have everyone write down how they’d like the problem resolved and then have an uninvolved party read them aloud without identifying the author. This exercise can really help you get to the heart of the problem. Or, may reveal people aren’t that far from agreement, suggesting resolution may be quick.

Find compromise. Finding a resolution that is satisfactory to everyone is probably going to involve compromise, and that isn’t a bad thing. Many disagreements are more about smaller issues rather than large, philosophical differences—meaning most, if not all, people are trying to reach the same goal but may have different ways of getting there. So, try to think if there’s any part of the issue you agree on and work from there. If that’s not possible, look at the larger-picture goals you share.