When one of your employees comes to you about a conflict with a co-worker, you can either fan the flames or help damp them down. And the specific words you use will tell the story.

Imagine that an employee approaches you after having been told by a colleague to “sit down and shut up.” One way you could react is to put yourself in the employee’s position, and imagine how you would feel if you were told that. Then you might say something like, “That’s unacceptable! She should know she can’t talk that way.”

What have you just done? You’ve supported and validated the employee’s outrage, and in all likelihood deepened and prolonged the conflict. Yes, it may be very true that the co-worker’s behavior was unacceptable, and she should have known better, but you don’t need to say that at this juncture.

Choosing your words
Suppose now that you respond to the same situation with different words. Depending on the circumstances and your knowledge of the people involved, you could say, “Wow! I wonder if she’s having a bad day. That’s not like her.” Or you could say, “Tell me the story from the beginning. But remember, sometimes when people step on each other’s toes they don’t mean any harm.”

See what you’ve done here? You’ve avoided endorsing the complainant’s worst-case interpretation of what happened, and given the person a chance to start looking at the experience in another way.

And you can go further in helping the person reframe their thinking about the conflict. You can ask questions like:

  • What do you think you’re going to do about this?
  • What are some additional ways of understanding what happened?
  • How can I help you think this through?

It may well be that, as the manager, you’re going to have to take some personnel action after you learn all the circumstances. If a company rule or an employment law has been broken, you can’t merely give advice. But you can help minimize the conflict and reduce the chances of something similar happening again.

Source: Tammy Lenski

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