Advice from Spill's therapists
Talk less, listen moreA formula to practice assertivenessBe honest about what you want and needRelated resources
Supercharge your employees' and managers' emotional intelligence by giving them access to Spill therapists.

Moving past a recurring pattern of conflict with a colleague

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees navigating workplace relationships.

My colleague and I keep falling into the same patterns of conflict when we discuss the future of the business. As a result I have been feeling unsupported and it feels like we're never on the same page anymore. We handle conflict very differently: I'm more likely to want to talk things through but can get heated more quickly, whereas she avoids things and shuts down. How can we move past this?

Our first therapist suggests...

Talk less, listen more

It sounds as if the first thing you need to do is address the different ways in which you approach your emotions when in conflict.

The way we deal with conflict tends to have its roots in the way we experience it as we grow up. If we see conflict as something that is scary and leads to an unresolved atmosphere, or worse, we bring those memories with us and try to avoid it as adults. On the other hand, if we see a sudden explosion as the way things get sorted we might inherit that approach.

The  most important realisation is that conflict is inevitable and often leads to progress. If you can both at least agree that it will be a step forward.

There are different ways in which we respond to conflict. You, for example, sound as if you might “counter-attack” when things get heated, whereas your colleague sounds as if they might prefer to be “avoidant.” Your high emotion will make them more avoidant and their avoidance will make you more agitated.

Start by agreeing that you will both try and moderate your typical style in an effort to help the other engage more easily.

If you can establish that try and get all the points of difference out on the table so you both at least know what they are. You don’t have to deal with them all in one go but you do need to agree an overarching objective, ie that you want the best for the business and that means you having to discuss things that affect it, or something similar.

Make sure you use your mouths and ears according to the  ratios in which they exist. Talk less and listen more to one another without constantly adopting a contrary position or being impatient to make your point. A great deal of progress and understanding can be gained by hearing what the other person says instead of being impatient for your turn to talk.

If you can establish some of these basic ground rules of communication and conflict resolution you might find your conversations flow more easily and constructively.

Make sure your teams are having healthy conflict by improving their emotional intelligence with therapy by Spill.
Learn more about therapy with Spill
Our second therapist suggests...

A formula to practice assertiveness

Communication styles can have such a huge impact on how we connect and interact with others. You’ve brilliantly recognised how different your styles are, however, this conflict is creating a “roadblock” and stopping you from expressing your future needs to each other. You report feeling “unsupported and a bit cut off”.

When we are in conflict with another, our body senses a threat and we disconnect from others. This is our autonomic nervous system doing what it does naturally. Our body can take us into these states of threat and disconnection at many times during the day. In this state, we don't generally communicate helpfully or feel heard, so we need to purposefully do things to create safety and reconnection, leading to more effective communication. Some gentle ways to calm your nervous system could be a few deep breaths in the bathroom at work, a walk, listening to nice music/a podcast, some creative time, exercise, a stretch? Or just go and talk to the other person about something non-threatening for a while to rebuild the connection.

‘Assertiveness’ can be a really helpful skill for navigating tricky discussions; the art of getting your needs heard whilst also hearing the other person’s, then discussing next steps in a calm manner. It is neither aggressive (my needs are most important) nor passive (my needs are not important). A simple formula you can use is:

  • Their needs (we hear and repeat the person’s needs back to them) …HOWEVER… My needs (we tell the other/s what we want to happen)….SO…..How shall we move forwards?

eg I understand that you want X for the future of the company…however…I am struggling to see how it would work/I feel passionate about Y…. SO…..Help me understand/where shall we go from here?

This little formula means that the other person feels heard which, in turn, calms their responses allowing a more successful conversation to happen. It’s important to understand the other’s needs first so this may need checking out. Trying to get our needs met (aggression) can create frustration if others can't make this happen for us, and sometimes our needs aren’t the only ones to consider.

Spill helps you survey the mood of your team to spot mental health risk early.
See how Spill works
Our third therapist suggests...

Be honest about what you want and need

What I am hearing is that you and your colleague have no agreements between you about how to manage conflict. You would like to move past this current sense of feeling stuck in your relationship.

A good place to start is to acknowledge the sense of being stuck and that you would like to talk about how to move forward. Everyone needs to know how to manage conflict in the workplace. Don’t be too hard on yourself or your colleague as most people have at least some difficulties in this area. It might help to acknowledge this (that it is normal) and that you want to improve the relationship with your colleague so you can both be happier with the relationship and your work. Let your colleague know that if you agree to talk, your aim is to listen to their needs and you would like them to listen to yours too.

Encourage that you both focus on what you feel and need rather than making judgments about each other. For example, you might say something like ‘I would really appreciate more support with X’, or ‘I would value it if we could check in weekly about X’.

Try to focus on one thing at a time rather than all issues at one. It might help to create an agenda before meeting so there are no big surprises. It sounds like communication will be one topic.

When you do meet, ensure that you listen to each other and do not interrupt each other. Ensure both parties get enough time to speak. When people feel disrespected they shut down. People tend to feel disrespected when they are criticised, called names, judged, given the silent treatment, ignored or shouted at. Do not engage in passive aggressive gestures or comments either. Aim to make an agreement that you will avoid such behaviours when you meet.

If someone needs a break, allow this but agree when you will come back to the conversation. You might want to discuss how this will be handled before the conversation starts and make an agreement on it.

Once talking, don't agree to things you don’t really agree with or make compromises that will harm you professionally or otherwise just for the sake of keeping the peace. It’s best to be honest about what you want and need.

Submit document logo

Download our psychological safety questionnaire

Ask the right questions to get an accurate read on how psychologically safe your culture is, and to diagnose what needs improving.