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Easy ways to resolve small conflicts

How can address simple yet common workplace conflicts?

5 min read




Many interactions create some sort of conflict. The inner conflict we all face is whether or not to address the issue. For example, if you are inconvenienced by a stranger, do you bring it up or let it go?  When it’s a colleague behaving rudely, do you ignore it, fight fire with fire or initiate a difficult conversation? When do you initiate a difficult conversation? When do you speak up? When do you just let it go?

This post is about the small conflicts we all face regularly and three simple tools to address the situations with the least amount of drama.

Small inconveniences

In today’s world, many people are self-absorbed and unaware of how their unconscious habits inconvenience others around them. Whether it’s having to listen to someone loudly talk on their cell phone while you eat dinner or a person butts in line when you were there first, there are all kinds of small irritations and inconveniences we all experience.

It’s often not worth the potential fight to bring it up, but there is a fun alternative that can be effective.

What to do: Use humor. If the situation is impersonal and nonthreatening, you can use humor to bring forth some awareness.  For example, when I travel I seem to attract people carrying backpacks who seem oblivious that their backpack has entered my personal space. When standing in line at airports or train stations, I have been pelted by more backpacks than I care to count. I used to get angry, but now I just use humor.

How to do it: While waiting in line for a cruise ship, a man’s backpack kept hitting me on the shoulder, and he kept backing up nonetheless. I tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, then said, “Hey, I think your backpack wants to make friends with me.”  His wife cracked up, and he removed the backpack. His choice to remove the backpack indicated to me that he wasn’t intending to be rude — he was simply unaware.

Rude behavior

A stranger butts in line at the grocery store or movie theatre. Rude. Did he do it on purpose? It doesn’t matter. All you really want is to keep your place in line.

What to do: Confirm understanding. When you confirm understanding you are simply asking the other person if they were aware of the “rules” or the standards. For example, you don’t talk on a cell phone at the movies, and you don’t butt in line at a restaurant.

How to do it: Say to the fellow who butted in line, “Did you realize there’s a line?” Then pause. It will be uncomfortable, but don’t rush to the rescue with a giggle or another phrase. Simply let him respond. Most of the time he will say, “No, I’m sorry.” (He will most likely say he’s sorry even if he did it on purpose.) Either way, your mission is accomplished: sending him to the back of the line.

Discounting behavior

There are dozens of discounting behaviors — metamessages that communicate some level of disrespect. For example, a colleague rolls his eyes when you speak up in a meeting. The metamessage with eye-rolling and sarcasm is to one-up the other person in some form, whether it be status, intelligence or relevance. 

What to do: You don’t need to be intimidated, nor do you need to become aggressive. What you do need is a way to bring the elephant into the room gently. Simply check perceptions.

How to do it: To check the perception, you have to first identify the observable behavior. Next, you share how you perceived their behavior. It goes something like this: “Kim, I noticed you rolled your eyes when I said that. That makes me think you either disagree with me or you think what I said is irrelevant.” 

Allow a long pregnant pause for Kim to respond.

If Kim is aware, you’ll hear something like, “Yes. I disagree. Thanks for opening it up for discussion.” You’ll more likely hear something like, “Oh, you are just being sensitive,” or “It’s just your imagination.”

No worries. The real intention is not to get Kim to admit to being dismissive. The intention is to get Kim to stop eye-rolling and discounting. Shining the light on Kim’s behavior resolves the issue at least 80% of the time.

Communication tool box

Conflict is inevitable both in your personal and professional life. When human interaction seems difficult, we generally resort to predictable patterns. The go-to for most of us is avoidance. The problem is that avoidance often leads to unspoken resentments, and unspoken resentments are a blow-up waiting for the right moment.  Having a set of easy-to-use tools in the communication tool box equips us to resolve the conflict without a lot of drama.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversation Drives Results” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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