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Psychologically Safe Conflict Resolution

A journey of respect and compassion.

Key points

  • If managed properly, workplace conflict can have positive effects and actually lead to better decision making and understanding.
  • Practicing psychological flexibility allows people to see options they may not have noticed before.
  • Creating a shared purpose by focusing on what is important and matters most can move people from “I centric” to “we centric” conversations.

This post was co-authored with Ronald E. Pizzo.

We are social beings. Our nervous system is a social structure that finds balance and stability in relationship with others. To connect and collaborate at work, we need psychological safety. People need to feel appreciated, included, and respected, especially at work, to be productive, collaborative, and resilient in the face of daily challenges at work.

Workplace conflict can feel unsafe and threatening. It can evoke many feelings and thoughts of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty for the future. Will I have a job tomorrow? What did I do wrong? If what I did was a problem, why didn’t they tell me before? This is not fair. This is not my fault. It’s their fault! Can I speak up to defend myself or will I make things worse? I don’t trust these people anymore. Our thinking becomes stuck — stuck in blame and judgement, stuck in what the conflict means for our security. There is little room left for thinking about what we need to do to move forward.

If you have ever had an annual performance review that identified “opportunities for growth”, did you feel like you were receiving a report card on how you failed, or didn’t quite measure up? Have you ever had to give a performance review and despite your very best effort at being accurate and thoughtful, you notice that the person you are reviewing disagrees and they feel unfairly measured? Do you feel safe and connected with the other person? Do you notice the rush of adrenaline along with feelings like being hurt, upset, or angered? Do you feel the need to prove your point, to show that you are doing your very best or that you are being treated unfairly? Do you notice yourself judging the other person?

Photo by krakenimages / Unsplash
Photo by krakenimages / Unsplash

Workplace conflict doesn’t always have to end badly. Workplace conflict can have positive effects, if it is managed properly. It can lead to better decisions and understanding. So how do we manage workplace conflict?

Managing conflict properly is a shared responsibility of everyone involved, especially team leaders. When we are in a state of fear or threat, our conversations are shaped by the neurochemistry of fear (fight/flight), and we can only think about protecting ourselves. We need to get unstuck and shift from 'I centric' to 'we centric' conversations.

These are the steps for creating a safe space where ‘we centric’ conversations can happen:

Step 1. Psychological Flexibility – Getting Unstuck

Psychological flexibility is the capacity to be present and engage in the current moment, regardless of whether the situation is challenging or unpleasant, and to pursue what is important, without being overly influenced by one’s thoughts and feelings. Psychological flexibility helps people move from stuck to unstuck.

Psychological flexibility is about slowing things down and noticing, taking charge of the adrenaline rush by becoming aware of it, pausing, and breathing. And then connecting, connecting with what is truly important and what truly matters in this moment in this very situation. We notice with compassion for ourselves because the difficult emotions we experience in conflict are not bad; they hold important information about what truly matters to us.

When we slow down and notice we see that we have choice. We begin to see options we did not see when we were stuck, and we notice that we can choose actions that move us toward what is important to us. When we are noticing, we are also empowered to choose to listen, to consider and to think creatively. Choice is fundamental to our mental well-being at work and it promotes resilience. When we are making a choice, we are flexible (i.e., unstuck).

Step 2. Shared Purpose – The Foundation ‘We Centric’

Our shared purpose is the foundation for ‘we centric’ conversations and is critical to getting beyond the conflict. When we are in a negative conflict cycle, the focus is on the problem between us: e.g., you are not fair, I can’t trust you, I’m right you are wrong. Shared purpose refocuses our attention on what matters and what is important to us, the team, or the organization.

Dr. Kevin Polk, a clinical psychologist and developer of the ACT Matrix, a process for promoting psychological flexibility, was invited to meet with a group of 20 people in Washington D.C., to discuss gun control. The group was evenly split for and against gun control. Rather than having a conversation about the merits of the opposing positions, he asked the participants what was important to them about their stances on guns. It turned out that they all felt that safety was most important. They now had a shared purpose of safety. The discussion then shifted to an exploration of what steps ought to be taken to make society objectively safer concerning guns. Both sides were able to find agreement on steps to do this.

Step 3. Psychological Safety – The Safe Space for 'We Centric' Conversations

A psychologically safe work environment is one in which people feel comfortable expressing themselves, making mistakes, and asking for help. We know we are in a psychologically safe space when:

  1. People are committed to open and transparent communication, where they are free to express their thoughts and feelings.
  2. People are encouraged to speak up without fear of retribution, being ridiculed, embarrassed, or shamed.
  3. People feel confident that their opinions and ideas will be valued and heard.

If we cannot talk to each other, if we cannot listen, if we cannot consider, and if we have no vision of our shared purpose, we cannot resolve conflict at work. We cannot move from defensive 'I centric' to shared purpose 'we centric' conversations. We all have a shared responsibility to create the conditions to manage conflict to create “united differences based on respect.” To do that we need psychological flexibility, a shared purpose, and a psychologically safe environment in which to hold our conversations.

Ronald E. Pizzo is a labour and employment lawyer, certified facilitator, mediator, and coach. His work includes human rights law, workplace harassment investigations, and occupational health and safety law.

References

Dana, D. (2021). Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Sounds True.

Glaser, J. E. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results.Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315230443

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