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When conflict isn’t bullying but a difference of opinion

Successful people have learned how to handle conflict in the workplace. They deal with it like any other situation, calmly and judiciously. They see it as an opportunity to learn more about the other person and figure out how they can use the experience to progress the situation and meet their goals. Many people, however; find it hard not to react defensively or angrily. Some people even launch a counterattack and shift the blame to the critic. That approach won’t win you any friends at work nor will it help you to get ahead. 


Conflict is a part of work life whether you like it or not. According to recent research by Gallup, employees are more stressed, less tolerant and more demanding of others at work. Their research shows 43% of workers are stressed each day and one in four workers experience anger by another at work daily. All this making it increasingly likely that conflict is unavoidable in the workplace. In fact, conflict in the workplace has been steadily increasing and according to ABS 2022, there was a 73% increase in disputes in the last quarter which shows a reduction in tolerance of other sin the workplace. others. 


So, conflict at work is unfortunately here to stay, and the sooner you learn to deal it positively, the better you can use that experience for your own success. 


5 ways to handle conflict like a pro


1. Before you react – PAUSE!

You will most likely feel the reaction in your body before you can get the words out. And that is where you must pause. Don’t do anything, just breathe and take a moment to calm your defences. Chances are, the other person won’t notice a thing, and it will give you time to compose yourself and organise your thoughts. 

2. Remind yourself that this situation says more about them than you 

Your composure time gives you a chance to remember that this conflict is an opportunity to learn something about the other person, possibly something valuable. Say to yourself, “This is not personal,” and repeat it as often as you need to in your head until your initial reaction has passed. 

3. Practice your active listening

Conflict is not a time to talk, it’s a time to listen and ask questions. Try to understand what the other person is saying. They’re giving you clues about what they need to have happen. Maybe it’s an aspect of your project that could be improved if you worked on a solution together. What feels like conflicting perspectives may offer you valuable insight. 

To show that you’re interested in their perspective you can repeat back what you heard and seek clarification if you need to. This is not a time to push back, it’s a time to understand a differing perspective. 

4. Appreciate the input 

Even if it makes you cringe inside, recognise the perspective of the other person. You don’t have to agree with what they’ve said to be sincerely appreciative of their input. After all, they took the time to share how they felt and were willing to be vulnerable with it even if it’s you're not your brand of vulnerability. 

5. Process the discussion

You may need some time to do this, or you might be able to do it on the spot. If emotions are running high, it’s probably better for both of you to take a break and come back to deal with the conflict when you are both calmer. Otherwise, it’s fine to discuss the point of contention, and perhaps seek their suggestions on how to move the conversation forward. 


Learning to deal constructively with conflict is an important skill, conflict competence, and one you will be so glad you learned sooner rather than later as unresolved conflict can fester which can make it harder to resolve. 


Is conflict the same as bullying? 


Bullying is not the same as conflict. The intention with conflict is to get to a better outcome or solution. Bullying is a distinctive pattern of behaviour with the intent of harming and humiliating others. Often a bully at work selects a person who is more vulnerable than themselves, usually it is someone who is less powerful, weaker or younger. 


How do you know if the conflict you are experiencing is bulling? 


I made the mistake of allowing a bully to bully me. She let me think it was to make me a better employee. It was only when a good friend took me aside and suggested that I was being bullied that I even considered that was what was happening. Prior to that I couldn’t imagine someone would want to be mean to someone in their own team. However, I have since learnt that workplace bullying comes in all shapes and sizes. 


10 Signs you’re being bullied at work


1. Constant criticism - Your boss takes delight in pointing out your mistakes or where you have not meet their expectations, no matter how good your work is. 

2. Unfair treatment - You and your colleagues are held to obviously different standards. Sometimes team members who have been in the team for longer, get away with more. 

3. Impossible workload - Setting too much work is classic office bully behaviour, however making last-minute changes to the work schedule and setting inconsistent expectations are also examples of bullying behaviour.

4. Social alienation - Not invited to lunch, after work drinks or meetings where work colleagues have been invited. Of course, this can be an oversite however deliberately ignoring or excluding someone is bullying behaviour. 

5. Verbal abuse - Shouting at work is unprofessional and it creates a hostile environment, especially if directed at particular people. It immediately erodes psychological safety. 

6. Micromanagement - Excessive supervision and extreme micromanagement are unnecessary and intimidating. The only time micromanagement can be explained is when a new starter is learning their job for the first time. 

Over time however, the micromanagement should decrease as the new starter becomes more competent in their new role or organisation. 

7. Minimising - Trivializing, discounting or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns, or making excuses for continually behaving badly.

8. Removing responsibility and blocking promotion - Access to training and promotions can be blocked, while job responsibilities are removed or changed without justification. 

9. Withholding information - Inexplicable refusal to reveal information – or worse giving misinformation – that is necessary to performing your role.

10. Gossip - Making one person the butt of all jokes and spreading lies and malicious gossip is a form of covert bullying.


Bullying can leave you feeling scared, stressed, anxious and low in confidence, all of which can have a physical effect on your health, from stomach aches to headaches, panic attacks and exhaustion.


First and foremost, if you find yourself being bullied at work review your workplace policies and see if you have a process to register and mediate the situation. In my own experience and working with clients who have experienced bullying, it is usually in smaller organisations or family businesses where they lack policies and procedures that bullying is hard to mediate. 


Bullies tend to back down when they realise you are going to stand up for yourself and push back. By asserting yourself and holding them accountable for their behaviour you take away their power, and maybe... just maybe... you’ll show them that they don’t have to be that way. 


If you are struggling with workplace conflict or suspect you are being bullied, book in a confidential call with me and we can explore your situation and discuss potential strategies to better manager it and minimise its impact. 


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