Resolving Workplace Conflict

By David Friedman

Unfortunately, conflict between human beings is about as old as life itself. Is there any doubt that early cave dwellers likely got in disagreements about whose turn it was to go snag another wooly mammoth or who got to sleep closest to the fire? They may have lacked the sophisticated language we’ve been clever enough to invent but the conflict was there, nonetheless.

No matter the era, the reality is that if you put two or more people in close quarters, eventually, you’ll have a conflict. And so it goes in today’s modern office. But only worse is that in the workplace, negative internal relationships can severely affect how well your organization operates – and ultimately, how well your external customers are treated. We all know that it’s difficult for people to concentrate on providing high levels of external service, when there’s conflict, unhappiness, or lack of respect within an organization.

While it’s not possible to avoid all employee conflicts, there are ways to better manage most situations. When a major conflict erupts between coworkers, it’s usually necessary to involve a manager to help resolve it. However, there’s a process to help resolve internal relationship issues and possibly prevent the need for management involvement. Used properly, this three-step process will help maintain a positive, healthy workplace atmosphere. We call it the B.I.F. Approach.

Example of an Internal Conflict Situation: Let’s imagine there are two coworkers named Cynthia and Joe. They sit near each other in open cubicles. During his breaks, Joe enjoys listening to his favorite heavy metal band. Although he uses headphones, Cynthia can still hear the load music at her station. Even more annoying is Joe’s drumming out the beat on his work surface. This really disturbs Cynthia and she has trouble concentrating while talking with customers.

Existing Method for Handling Conflict: Cynthia walks up to Joe and yells, “Hey Joe, do you have any clue how irritating that is? Knock it off, now!”

Joe will likely give an angry stare and either ignore her request or become more of an irritant! Obviously, simply ordering Joe to change his behavior isn’t likely to be an effective tactic.

The B.I.F. Approach: Here’s a better way. Let’s examine the B.I.F. Approach letter by letter:

  • B – Behavior – First, describe the behavior. Use specific facts or an objective description. It’s important to keep from asking questions that will put him or her on the defensive and possibly start an argument all before we even get to the point.
  • I – Impact – Next, tell the effects that the behavior is having on you. How is it affecting your job or your performance?
  • F – Feelings – Lastly, relate how the behavior and impact cause you to feel.

After that, you stop and let the other person absorb what you said. Often, that silent period will result in the other person apologizing or suggesting a solution.

Handling Conflict Using the B.I.F. Approach: Cynthia: “Excuse me, Joe, your music and tapping is really distracting. It’s making it difficult for me to hear my callers and concentrate. It’s embarrassing for me because I’ve just had to ask my caller to repeat herself a number of times.”

Sentence by sentence, that was:

  • B – Behavior “Your music and tapping is really distracting.”
  • I – Impact “It’s making it difficult for me to hear and concentrate.”
  • F – Feelings “It’s embarrassing for me because I’ve had to ask my customer to repeat herself a number of times.”

Then, Cynthia stops to let Joe absorb what was said. Cynthia’s tone of voice is also very important. It needs to be even-tempered because a calm delivery sets the tone of the conversation. If Cynthia’s tone is angry or attacking, it’s likely Joe will mirror that tone and respond in the same angry way.

Obviously, The B.I.F. approach won’t work in every case. But in many situations, it can help diffuse minor workplace conflicts and reduce the need for management involvement. Plus, you’ll know you handled the situation professionally.

Try the B.I.F. approach the next time you encounter a workplace conflict situation.

David Friedman is VP and General Manager of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. Telephone Doctor helps companies communicate better with their customers.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2004]

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