January 4, 2016

Starting Fresh in the New Year

The New Year is a time for resolutions.   We have a chance to reflect on what we want to change in the coming months. Many people make commitments to more positive ways of interacting with others in the workplace.  

 The Staff Ombuds Office (SOO) meets with UCB employees who have work-related concerns. Handling conflicts in destructive ways can have a negative impact on work climate, productivity, and functioning of a team. In individualized appointments the Staff Ombuds Office is often able to help employees identify ways to handle conflicts while providing options for different approaches when destructive conflict patterns have developed. 

 Each conflict is unique and behavior that would be considered destructive is contextual. However, if you are feeling strain in your relationship with a colleague there are ways to change it. Here are some ways to approach turning destructive conflicts into constructive opportunities from the Center for Conflict Dynamics:

1.    Reflective Thinking

Reflective thinking means thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of an approach, considering the other person’s perspective, and deciding the best strategy to move forward.

2.    Delay responding

When emotions are heighted, people are likely to say things they regret.   Delaying responding is about allowing time to cool down so that the conflict resolution strategy you choose can be constructive.

3.    Adapting

 Adapting means being flexible and making the best out of a situation. Sometimes adapting is a temporary strategy while you wait until the time is right to address something, and other times it’s letting something go, changing your perspective, or even accepting that conflict is natural in the workplace. 

You could also choose a constructive active approach that involves the other person in the conflict, including:

1.    Reaching out

Reaching out means contacting a person when communication has broken down.  You may feel non-verbal tension and be unsure of how to address it.   It is common for people to communicate less when conflict arises. Someone needs to take the first step. Reaching out is a bid to the other person that creates the opportunity for discussing an issue; allowing for a constructive shift toward gaining understanding and problem solving.  Reaching out often entails asking the other person for a time to discuss what happened and using this time to gain understanding of the other person; possibly coming to mutually agreeable solutions.

2.    Perspective taking

When you take someone else’s perspective you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about what they might be thinking and/or feeling.  This can be very hard to do if you feel wronged or are hurt or upset. 

In conflict often people see the other person through a negative lens.  People often give themselves the benefit of the doubt and explain their own destructive behavior because of situational factors.  For example, “I was late because the train was delayed.”  This is a situational attribution.  However, when you are in conflict with someone it is easy to make a dispositional attribution and consider the person’s behavior as coming from internal characteristics. You might assume the other person is late because they are lazy or disorganized.    What if, instead, you gave the other person the benefit of the doubt and considered situational reasons for their behavior?  Considering your assumptions in order to gain more perspective is a key to constructive conflict resolution.  If you choose to have a conversation with the person about a concern, create a dialogue rather than a debate.  In dialogues both parties share their perspectives while suspending reactions.  You will gain insight into how the other person sees the issue.  If you are thinking about what to say next while they are talking you may miss their perspective.

3.    Expressing emotions

Telling the other person in an appropriate way the way you feel about a situation can be constructive. Expressing emotions will prevent them from festering or leaking out.  Expressing emotions is different than acting out emotions, which includes slamming doors, yelling, or stomping around.  Expressing your emotions can be as simple as saying you are frustrated by something.  When people appropriately express emotions it can make a dialogue more constructive and foster more understanding.  Understanding can be a key to starting fresh. 

4.    Creating solutions

After gaining a better understanding of a concern, you can jointly brainstorm ways to address the concern.   When you create solutions together you are approaching the problem collaboratively; from the same side of the fence which increases the chances of finding solutions that work for everyone.

If you choose an active approach and initiate a conversation with someone you are in conflict with, remember to listen well. Preparing to listen well can be very helpful in creating conducive environment for dialogue. Summarize what the person says (even if you don’t agree) and check in with to see if they think you are hearing them.  Remember, listening takes practice and patience.

 Conflict can be constructive and foster opportunities for healthier, more inclusive work environments. This requires some planning, the right attitude and some creativity in your approach.  Think of the New Year as a chance to press the reset button on an aspect of your work environment.  You can choose to have a positive impact on the climate of your workplace. This ultimately leads to lower stress levels and increased productivity. 

If you’d like confidential assistance in developing a constructive plan to handle a concern, please to contact the Staff Ombuds Office at 642-7823.  We are a free resource to help you generate options for success in the approach you choose.   Additionally, check out our class schedule at: http://staffombuds.berkeley.edu/services/training.


Davis, M.H., Kraus L.A., and Capobianco, S., Conflict Dynamic Profile Individual Version:  Development Guide, Eckerd College. (2011).

Runde, C.E. and Flanagan, T.A., Building Conflict Competent Teams, San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, Inc. (2008).