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Soft skills: how different perceptions impact workplace conflict

12th Apr 2019
Learning Executive Insights
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conflict at work
iStock/skynesher

Workplace conflicts are often about differences in perception. Getting around this is about figuring out how to reconcile the two perspectives. 

Interpersonal conflict at work is surprisingly common and yet this can be a difficult fact to swallow, for employees and managers alike. Where is the conflict coming from? What is fueling it? What can diminish it?

Although the effects of conflict can be rife with complexities, its root can be mapped back to one simple truth: we all see the world differently.

Have you ever heard two people tell the same story with completely different accounts of what occurred? Everyone sees the world through their own personal filter.

Welcome to the perception paradigm.

The good news is that there are strategies we can use in the workplace to stave off conflict and more easily navigate conflict when it occurs, by leveraging an understanding of how perceptions impact conflict.

Here are three things that can be helpful to keep in mind when trying to navigate conflict:

1. Acknowledge your reality is not everyone else’s

How many times have you had this experience? You meet a colleague in the corridor and you start talking about a new manager that has just started.

“They’re amazing” your colleague gushes. “They’re so supportive and enthusiastic. They have great energy in meetings and are always keen to hear our ideas and support new projects.”

Perception is a two-way street. You perceive others and others perceive you. What’s more, different perceptions result in different responses.

You nod to show you agree but what you’re really thinking is, 'they can’t be talking about the same person I’ve just had a meeting with. The person who sat staring into space while I discussed a new project, yawned during my project plan presentation and shot down every idea I proposed. Why do they think this person is so amazing?'

Taking steps to avoid and resolve conflict doesn’t mean that one person has to gloss over what they think is important and accept another person’s view. Instead, it requires that the individuals involved acknowledge that their perception of reality is not the only one at play.

2. Ask yourself if you’re making 'the most respectful interpretation'

Perception is a two-way street. You perceive others and others perceive you. What’s more, different perceptions result in different responses.

While someone’s reaction may seem wildly inappropriate to you, it could feel completely justified to them. In fact, attribution bias proposes that, 'we are consistently more favourable in interpreting our own behaviour than that of other people.'

Unexpected behavior in the workplace can create obstacles to performance, productivity and communication. Appreciating that others' perceptions guide how they behave can help you understand why they act differently from you.

Whether isolated or ongoing, workplace conflict not only impacts an employee’s level of engagement and job satisfaction, but it also effects organisational productivity and effectiveness. 

It’s important to remember that because we don’t all see things the same way, we don’t all respond the same way. Recognising that differences arise in the interpretation process makes it easier to identify and isolate where conflict arises.

As hard as it can be to remember in the moment, when conflict arises rarely is it because one or both parties are trying to be difficult. When you push yourself to make the most respectful interpretation of the person that is opposing you, the opposition is able to dissipate much more quickly.

3. Consider communication adjustments to bridge the gap in contentious relationships

Entrepreneur and author Tony Robbins said: “To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

We’ve all known people who were professionally brilliant, but whose personal style and people skills hindered their ability to be effective. Considering what adjustments you can make to your communication style in relation to how others prefer to be communicated with can bring together a person’s intentions with the results they want to achieve.

I recommend completing two simple reflection exercises that can help bridge the gap in contentious relationships and improve your interactions with someone you’ve had historical conflict with.  

For the first exercise, create two columns titled 'like me' and 'not like me' and in each column identify aspects of the other person’s behaviour that are similar and different to your own. This will help illuminate qualities you share with the other person that you could call on to better connect with them.

For the second exercise, create two columns titled 'do more of' and 'do less of' and in each column write down what behaviours and communication styles you should do more or less of in order to better connect with your intended recipient based on the thinking you developed from your first list.

Whether isolated or ongoing, workplace conflict not only impacts an employee’s level of engagement and job satisfaction, but it also effects organisational productivity and effectiveness. 

When we increase our understanding of how differing perceptions impact conflict, we take the conflict away from the intricacies of the parties involved and allow for the underlying causes of what spurred the conflict to arise. From here, understanding between two people can grow and flourish.

Interested in this topic? Read Office conflicts: when to address the passive aggressive post its.

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