Dealing With Conflict: When Relationships Go Wrong


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Coffee cup and conflict management doodle

Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools.... Read more about Helen Woodley

How can we deal with conflict in the workplace?

There are times when we all fall out with colleagues at work, even the ones we count as friends. It is important for us to understand what causes conflict, yet we also need to know how can we cope with it.

I can’t believe they always do that…

There are many reasons for workplace conflict and it arises when our interests, identity, security, or sense of inclusion are threatened (LeBlanc, Gilin Oore, and Axelrod, 2014). Workplaces are full of emotions and the individuals within them respond to stress and conflict in a variety of different ways. This may be as brief as a sarcastic comment, or more prolonged periods of open hostility. Schools can be toxic places to work in.

Schools are very dynamic places where situations can change rapidly. For example, the response you might get from a colleague one moment might have been totally different 15 minutes before. This is no surprise as schools pull us in so many directions at once. Managing our own emotional needs and happiness seems to come after those of pupils and parents.

At times, something has to ‘give’ and often it’s how we treat a colleague. This is especially true when staff are desperately trying to not let work stress overspill into their home life.

The role of emotion

Daniel Goleman  has written about the impact of emotional intelligence for many years and has a lot to say on dealing with conflict.

Three of his suggestions are particularly useful:

  • Self-awareness – when we are in conflict, we experience stress. This is a biological reaction to threat and Goleman brings our awareness right back down to that level of acceptance: we are animals with instinctive reactions. Many of us are aware that the amygdala triggers a Flight, Fight, Freeze, or Faint response in our pupils. We can forget that it does the same to us as adults as well. The simple act of acknowledging that we are responding in a biological way can begin the process of helping us to calm down.
  • Self-management – try and find an opportunity to step away from the conflict. This isn’t always easy at work but it is possible. Having a toilet break, the ‘call’ you just have to make, or the lesson you have to prepare for, can help. Stepping away from conflict is beneficial for both partners. It can give the person who has temporarily lost control of their amygdala a chance to rein it in.
  • Social-awarenessthe heart of this is empathy. Take notice of how and why the conflict arose. Reflect on how others deal with conflict with the same person. Trying to understand why someone reacts to you in a negative way is not about taking a passive stance. Instead it is trying to take action even if that is initially through your own self-reflection.

How to resolve conflicts at work

These are a few ways that you can try to resolve conflict in the work place.

1. Talk to the person

If you are able, talk to them about how you feel. By being honest and open with each other, you may be able to understand where you are each coming from. Sometimes conflict has nothing to do with the person we end up arguing with, and has everything to do with other pressures. You might find yourself in a situation where you are able to resolve the conflict by listening and being a supportive colleague.

2. Talk to trusted friends

It is important not to turn conflict into gossip, so choose wisely. However, getting an honest opinion is good, especially if you are finding it hard to accept your own part in the conflict. A good friend will listen to you and support you. A good friend will also be critical of you if needed.

3. Use pupil support strategies

Although they will be used differently, restorative practices can work with colleagues too. They are based upon giving space for each of you to have your say and to actively listen to each other. Maybe ask a trusted colleague to informally support you both and ensure the conversation remains focused.

4. Communicate in public or by email

This safeguards you from conflict turning personal. If you have a negative work based conversation with a colleague in private, you have two options. Firstly, you can suggest talking about it at another point. This gives you a chance for the conversation to be more public. Alternatively, you can politely email them to clarify what was said as well as making a positive suggestion for how to resolve the issue.

For example, a colleague steps into your classroom and is critical of how you organised sports day. You can suggest talking about it during the lunch break when there are other staff around. If this is not possible then you can email them later in the day and say, ‘After our discussion about sports day, I think setting up a working party would be a good idea for next near’.

5. Learn to accept the way things are

Sometimes, in spite of all our actions, we cannot get on with some colleagues. Accept that this is totally fine as we just naturally get on with some people better than others. Whilst you might not get on at a personal level, maintain your professional relationships and avoid being abusive.

Suggested reading
  • LeBlanc, D., Gilin Oore, D., & Axelrod, L. (2014, July). Workplace conflict: Meaning and measurement. Poster presentation at the annual conference of the International Association for Conflict Management, Leiden, Netherlands.
  • Goleman, D ( 2011).  The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
  • Goleman, D (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

Reflection on conflict is crucial, as well as a degree of honesty about your own actions. Conflict is not something that others just do to us. In other words, we can instigate it and cause others to suffer. What is important is acknowledging our role, and others, and finding ways to improve relationships.


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