Spend any time working with people, and interpersonal conflict will eventually arise. Each of us has our own unique expectations, shortcomings, and perspectives. Put us in a room together for long enough, and we’re bound to encounter views or actions that make us bristle.
Add to that the fast pace, high stakes, and undeniable stress that come with working in health care, and the opportunities for coworker friction quickly escalate.
Although few people enjoy conflict (those who do likely fall into the bully category, which is another issue altogether), consider the bright side of the occasional clash. All emotion aside, conflict presents an opportunity for those involved to come together and iron out a situation — and ideally create change that allows for a smoother environment going forward.
The key is getting there. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you navigate workplace conflict.
Recognize that in the heat of the moment, emotions will not serve you well. When a colleague fires off a combative response to your request, an angry “What’s your problem?” challenge isn’t likely to reveal an introspective, constructive response.
Nine times out of 10, your best bet is to wait a day or so before addressing the conflict.
When emotions have cooled some and you do bring up the matter (face-to-face is best), focus on the problem and not the person, advised nurse educator, customer-service expert, and blogger Damion Jenkins, RN, MSN, CEO.
“More times than not, workplace conflicts arise due to ill feelings caused by the inconsiderate actions of others. No matter what the cause of the issue, be sure to acknowledge the actual problem at hand, rather than the person,” Jenkins wrote on his The Nurse Speak blog. “This will allow you to objectively assess the situation and make decisions regarding the next steps to take in resolving the issue.”
Even if the conflict took you down a notch (“How dare he speak to me like that?”), leave that out of the discussion. Instead, focus on the complication that arose.
“My patient, who witnessed our interaction, was left with a less-than-professional impression of the care here. To avoid that in the future, what can we do?”
More self-restraint may be necessary at this point, depending on your colleague’s reply. Better yet, consider this a time to satisfy your curiosity on the unspoken-but-sincere thought, “How dare he speak to me like that?”
The only way to truly gain perspective is to actively listen to what your colleague has to say. Don’t argue. Don’t rebut. Instead, aim to learn.
“It is important that you use open-ended questions to make sure each side understands what the other person thinks and how he/she feels,” coached researcher and project director Nuananong Seal, PhD, RN, in a conflict resolution post on the Minority Nurse blog. “This invites people to delve deeper into the problem and find the root cause for the conflict.”
By addressing the conflict professionally and respectfully, you tip the odds toward a favorable resolution. You also promote civility within the nursing profession, a current emphasis of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), American Nurses Association (ANA), and American Organization of Nurse Executives’ (AONE) Tri-Council for Nursing.
Just a few months ago, the organization issued a resolution calling for “all nurses to recognize nursing civility and take steps to systematically eliminate all acts of incivility in their professional practice, workplace environments, and in our communities.” The tri-council recognizes incivility as a threat to both the patient experience as well as quality, team-based care.
Civility amid workplace conflict is attainable. Just do yourself a favor and don’t expect perfection.
“A healthy workplace environment does not require perfection; it requires a shared sense of respect where everyone feels valued and able to express their concerns and work together to reach a solution,” Jenkins wrote. “With this in mind, you will become less distraught or frazzled when conflicts arise, and instead be eager to find creative solutions that benefit all parties involved.”