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How to defuse an office conflict, in 60 seconds or less

For many workers, the hardest part of their jobs is getting along with their coworkers. Here's how to resolve a conflict with them quickly.

© Gleb Leonov/Strelka Institute/Attribution License/Flickr

By Chelsea Greenwood, Business Insider

  • The average US employee spends nearly three hours a week involved in conflict, according to Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, a conflict resolution consulting firm. That's $359 billion in paid hours lost.
  • To quickly de-escalate a sudden conflict, founder Jeremy Pollack recommends the LEAF strategy. That stands for listen, empathize, apologize, and fix.
  • Here's how you can resolve a sudden conflict in 60 seconds or less using the LEAF strategy, although it may not work for deeper, longstanding conflicts.

For many people in the working world today, the hardest part of their jobs may not be the professional tasks at hand, but rather getting along with their coworkers and bosses. Office politics, high stress levels, and clashing personalities create a perfect storm for interpersonal conflict in the workplace.

Such conflict can damage office morale and hinder productivity. In fact, employees at US companies spend about 2.8 hours a week involved in conflict, according to Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, a conflict resolution consulting firm in San Francisco. That translates to $359 billion in paid hours that aren't going toward actual work.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Jeremy Pollack, founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, recommends applying the "LEAF" process for conflict resolution. The acronym stands for listen, empathize, apologize, and fix.

"If you follow these quick and simple steps, you should be able to de-escalate the situation and resolve the matter fairly quickly," he told Business Insider. "Memorize LEAF, and practice it, and you'll be able to implement the process in less than 60 seconds." 

He notes that this approach is for sudden, acute conflicts, which usually result from a misinterpretation, misperception, or miscommunication.

"If there are deeper, longer-standing conflicts, such as clashes in personality or communication styles, they will likely take more than a few minutes to resolve," he said.

This is how to use the approach.


Listen deeply to the other person

This may be difficult for some, but the first step in conflict resolution is to simply stop talking and listen to the other person.

"Let the individual say whatever he or she needs to say to you, and do your best not to defend, avoid, ignore, or discount their perspective," Pollack said.

And don't just listen so that you can formulate a snappy comeback. Try to really hear what the other person is saying, and let them talk until they're finished.


Empathize with how the person is feeling and why they're upset

The next step is to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Empathize, and try to understand where they are coming from and why they feels a certain way.

"If your goal is conflict resolution or de-escalation, as opposed to defending your position or insisting why you were right, then you'll need to learn to empathize," Pollack said. "This requires some capacity to rise above your own position, your own ego, for just a moment and be there for that person."

Aim to create a safe space for people where they feel free to express themselves and their concerns. Strive to tap into what they're feeling.

"This does not mean you agree with them but rather that you hear them and understand them as best you can," he said.


Apologizefor what you've done that might have caused a problem

Then, apologize for what you may have done that was apparently perceived in a hurtful way. Own your role, Pollack said.

"Again, you do not have to agree with them; you do not have to accept that you were wrong and they were right. You simply have to acknowledge that they are in pain and that you did something, perhaps inadvertently, that they perceived as hurtful."

Don't apologize for how the other person feels. Saying, "I'm sorry you feel that way," can be condescending and avoids accountability for your actions.


Fix the problem by taking action

Finally, let the other person know how you're going to remedy what you did, and assure them it won't happen again - if that's something you're willing and able to do.

If you're not sure how to fix the problem or what exactly there is to fix, then ask, Pollack said.

"If, on the other hand, you are clear on what needs to be fixed, let him or her know [what you intend to do] right away, and ask if that suffices."


Now put the whole LEAF approach in action

To understand the LEAF approach in action, consider this scenario. Bob and Mary are coworkers, and Mary is upset because Bob told a joke she found offensive.

If Bob wanted to fix this situation, he'd approach Mary, ask her what's wrong, and listen to her answer. Then, instead of defending himself, he'd strive to empathize and understand how she felt about the joke. Next, he'd apologize for telling the joke and making her feel the way she did. Finally, Bob would offer to fix the problem, which might sound something like this, Pollack said.

"Wow, Mary, I'm sorry I came off that way. I certainly didn't intend for that, but, yes, I can totally see why you'd feel that way after what I said. I will not make that comment again, and I will create a new policy in our employee handbook to make sure that does not happen again. Is that sufficient or is there anything else you think I should do?"

Hopefully, if both sides truly want to resolve the problem, this approach will squash the conflict and help prevent future ones.

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Career Magazine: How to defuse an office conflict, in 60 seconds or less
How to defuse an office conflict, in 60 seconds or less
For many workers, the hardest part of their jobs is getting along with their coworkers. Here's how to resolve a conflict with them quickly.
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