Tips On How to Manage Workplace Conflict in Healthcare

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC - 03/14/19

Workplace conflict is a normal and expected occurrence, especially in high-stress and demanding environments like healthcare, medicine, and nursing.

Every healthcare professional should be familiar with at least several strategies and techniques for managing workplace conflict, and prudent employers should provide comprehensive training for such a crucial aspect of staff development, morale, and workplace culture.

Conflict is inevitable: Conflict is inevitable, so being prepared and educated about facing such occurrences is crucial for team cohesion and personal career management. Human nature often leads us to disagree with others, thus the importance of understanding how humans tick can be extremely helpful in regards to conflict.

Develop emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence (EI) is a popular concept representing an individual’s ability to identify and manage their own emotions, as well as identify and empathize with the emotions of others. The emotional quotient (EQ) is the measure of one’s emotional intelligence.

One method for learning how to manage workplace conflict is to study the central tenets of emotional intelligence and consciously activate them in your daily life. According to Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who introduced the world to EI, the hallmarks are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

The potential for positive outcomes from being willing to develop these characteristics and implement them in workplace relationships cannot be overstated since the emotionally intelligent person can more readily deescalate a conflictual interaction through the use of empathy, self-regulation, and sharp social and communication skills.

Relational Intelligence: Relational intelligence builds upon emotional intelligence in terms of an individual’s ability to engage in calm, mature, nonjudgmental, empathic, non-reactive interactions with others by utilizing the skills of emotional intelligence in relationship.

The relationally intelligent healthcare provider not only has the discipline to approach patients and their families with relational and emotional intelligence, but also colleagues, administrators, and managers as well.

Communication skills: Skillful communication is a significant key to successful teamwork and seamless communication between colleagues, and it relates directly to emotional and relational intelligence.

Our technologically-oriented culture causes us to increasingly rely on communication through texting, messaging, and email rather than face-to-face conversation -- this can lead to certain individuals being less adept at engaging in thoughtful conversation and courageous attempts at conflict resolution.

Communication is a skill that can be sharpened with use and weakened with disuse. Atrophy of the “muscles” of communication will do the earnest nurse or medical professional no good if he or she truly desires to be a better communicator, especially in moments of conflict.

One of the hallmarks of communication is listening. The saying goes that we have two ears and one mouth so that we’ll listen twice as much as we talk – being able to listen with empathy even when you disagree with someone is crucial to finding common ground and mutual understanding.

Further Concepts to Consider

Conflict management can be multifaceted and complex in the context of workplace relationships. Understanding the inevitability of conflict is key. Communication, emotional intelligence, and relational intelligence are central skills to develop in the interest of mastering workplace conflict resolution, and there are also other concepts to add to one’s toolbox.

The active avoidance of conflict is almost never a viable strategy, unless the avoidance is related to escaping the clutches of a workplace bully who has you in their crosshairs.

Since we understand that conflict is generally inevitable, being prepared to engage in conflict resolution is the preferred course of action in most circumstances.

De-escalation is always the right course of action to pursue, as is activation of your skills as a communicator. This involves the following:

  1. Choose to not react when first confronted with an emotionally triggering or conflictual situation.
  2. Utilize excellent listening skills in order to fully hear what the other individual is saying
  3. Paraphrase what you’ve heard so that the other person knows that they’ve been heard correctly
  4. Avoid reacting in a defensive manner. If you need time to process your emotions so that you can respond without the taint of anger or hurt, ask for a few minutes or hours to cool off and consider your options.
  5. Consider whether some aspects of the complaint or conflict are accurate and demand something of you (e.g.: a change in behavior, apology, etc)
  6. If you feel that you and the other party cannot resolve the situation amicably, request the assistance of an impartial mediator.
  7. Be certain to document all aspects of the conflict, including details of conversations, witnesses, and other details worthy of documentation.

Workplace conflict resolution is not always easy and is not for the faint of heart. Unresolved conflict will fester like an infected wound without antibiotics and proper drainage – the inherent toxicity will eventually touch those connected to the situation.

Avoidance may be a short-term fix, but learning to proactively address conflict is a sign of maturity and a desire for equanimity and civility in the workplace. Dedication to high-level communication skills will always pay many dividends to those willing to make the commitment.