How to avoid conflict at work

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Stylist Team
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The latest episode of The Apprentice saw Zoe Beresford and Melody Hossaini come face-to-face in a supermarket shouting match over how best to pitch their biscuit line Bix Mix.

If only they'd read our step-by-step guide on how to avoid workplace altercations...

The latest round of squabbling and backstabbing on The Apprentice was the stuff of reality TV gold - but in real-life, office arguments are no laughing matter.

Whether it's a petty dispute or a full-blown row, workplace fallouts can be disruptive and unpleasant, and run the risk of putting the entire office under strain and compromising workflow for all those concerned.

With that in mind, Stylist spoke to Helen Reynolds, managing director of recruitment outfit HB RIda, and business partner of Dragons’ Den judge and entrepreneur James Caan. She gave us the following tips on avoiding workplace conflict:

Address the issue immediately

An off-hand remark or niggling annoyance can quickly snowball into full-blown rows, especially in a high-pressure office environment with countless opportunities for "water-cooler moments" where news of fallouts spread like wildfire. Therefore, as soon as you have an issue with someone or something - or as a manager, you spot a point of tension - address it immediately. By allowing a dispute, however minor, to roll on you give it an outlet to grow and involve more and more of the office. This can be wholly distracting with regard to the work that needs to be done and also lend for a horrible atmosphere. Nip it in the bud and sort the problem straight out, in a face-to-face meeting with the person in question.

Listen before you speak

It sounds obvious, but it's crucial to take time out and really think about what you're going to say before airing your opinions in the context of a dispute. Instead of cutting across and jumping in with your opinion, listen to what the other person has to say first. Being empathetic is easier said than done - especially when you feel passionately about something - but try to see the issue from the other person's point of view. If nothing else, hearing their side of the argument will buy you time to consider what you want to say and essentially, it avoids escalating the argument by being provocative. There is always an appropriate time and place to say what you have to say, and a diplomatic way of saying it. Make sure you consider that before launching into a rant, however frustrated you feel.

Work out your differences in a neutral environment

Whatever you do, don't air your problems in front of the rest of the office. This adds unnecessary pressure and encourages the whole business to get involved, reinforcing workplace cliques. Instead suggest grabbing a sandwich with the person/people you are at odds with, or go for a walk outside to discuss your differences. Choosing a neutral setting to hash it out will immediately lower the tension and make everyone involved feel less defensive.

Create a forum for open communication

Workplace disputes often evolve out of the fact that people don't feel like they are being listened to - or are annoyed by little things that they have been worrying over for some time. So as a manager, it's a good idea to arrange regular meetings or get-togethers where employees can air their concerns or issues. Again, it's a good idea to do this in a neutral environment away from the office - so in a pub or over lunch. You can suggest that a different person in the company leads the discussion each week, so everyone has a chance to bring their particular bugbears to the table - be it tea bags in the sink or lack of support from colleagues. The onus is then on the group to sort the problem; rather than it being narrowed down to two people. Document exactly what has been said at these discussions, so it's clear who is responsible for sorting out what as you go forward.

Do not overreact

The worst thing you can do in a situation of dispute is go overboard with how you deal with it. Ask yourself, is the issue really worth it? We were taught as children to play well with others - and exactly the same applies to the workplace. Pick and choose the issues you want to become embroiled in. Sometimes, it's easier to compromise on an issue rather than let it grow into a huge, all-out confrontation that takes up everyone's time and energy. And in worse case scenario, you risk being fired if you really lose your temper - so be very clear, calm and directed in the way you choose which arguments to tackle head-on.