Social & Interpersonal Skills

How to Handle Conflict with a Coworker in a Professional Way

How do you evaluate your ability to handle conflict with a coworker? According to, that is the most common question during job interviews.

The best response has nothing to do with avoiding disagreement because of your sparkling personality. You cannot convince anyone that you’ve never had a disagreement or were never involved in a conflict on the job. Disagreements and personality conflicts arise whenever people interact. Issues of power, competition for resources, as well as downright disagreeable people populate our daily lives.

Your best answer to that crucial interview question is to be honest and show that you:

  • realize disagreements are a natural outcome when people work together
  • know that disagreements, when handled constructively, don’t have to deteriorate to conflict
  • approach conflicts away from the heat of emotion through objective communication and empathy with the other person’s point of view
  • are aware that how to handle conflict with a coworker caused by discrimination or harassment must be immediately escalated to HR for investigation and resolution.
  • know how to appropriately escalate conflict resolution that cannot be resolved at your level

Disagreement has a constructive role in a professional setting

World War II Army General George S. Patton once told his staff officers, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”  Patton encouraged disagreements, but demanded thoughtful reasons for disagreeing with him.

In a professional setting fleshing out disagreements is one of the best benefits of—in fact, the main reason behind—holding meetings. If you don’t express your opinion, why go to a meeting. If you withhold your opinion because you fear it might offend someone, you are not contributing to the discussion at hand.

There are many books and guides on how to disagree amicably and professionally. One Amazon book by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D loads everything into her pithy title: “How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Getting Your Point Across with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.”  Along with other advice, Dr. Elgin shows how language can reduce tension and create rapport without having to be an expert and know how to handle conflict with a coworker. In other words, good communication can prevent conflict before it becomes toxic.

Related Article: 3 Reasons you’re Wondering “Why Can’t I Articulate My Thoughts Clearly?”, and What to Do About It

When disagreements deteriorate to conflict

Conflict in the workplace is essentially a clash of ideas or interests. In any aspect of life, it can cause tension, hurt feelings, and power struggles. In the workplace where everyone should be pursuing a common goal, conflict when not channeled constructively can cause serious problems. Conflict between coworkers can cause serious problems in morale, a poisonous company culture, and, most importantly, crippled productivity. It can result in a toxic undercurrent of tension and a passive-aggressive environment and high employee turnover.

How to handle conflict with a coworker

Recognize the typical causes of workplace conflicts and ways to handle the conflict

According to a piece published by Harvard Law School, there are three types of conflict in the workplace:

1. Conflicts over task assignment.  These involve disputes about how to divide up resources on the job. Conflicts arise over differences of opinion on how to do the work or who should do it. You might work in an organization that has no written work procedures. At times one or more of your coworkers is slow in providing the information you need to do your job.

2. Conflicts in relationships and personality. You have coworkers who come from different backgrounds with resulting differences in personality, style, tastes—and even different ways to handle disagreement.

3. Conflicts in value. These conflicts arise out of fundamental differences in political, religious, ethical, or other deeply held beliefs. Even if discussion of politics and religion is discouraged in most organizations, those differences can bring out conflicts in the context of work decisions and policies.

Apply proven strategies in learning how to handle conflict with a coworker

Whatever the cause of the conflict, the key to handling conflict in the workplace is based on professionalism that rises above emotion. Writing for Invincible Career, Larry Cornett, Ph.D. acknowledges that although everyone would like to have a conflict-free workplace. Dr. Cornett acknowledges that “conflict is a very real part of life and it will occur in your workplace, sooner or later.” 

In his article “Three Proven Strategies for Coworker Conflict Resolution” he focuses on how to handle conflict with a coworker who is note the boss, but a colleague. His strategies are intuitive and not based on any deep psychology. His approaches are based on positive expectations and the idea that most of the people you work with are good, rational, and want what you want: that your organization will succeed.

In rare cases, the following strategies don’t always work. You have met or have dealt with someone who is not a good person. Those are the Machiavellian types, toxic and negative disruptive workers, and even the scary psychopaths you have read about, and hopefully will never meet.

Strategy #1: Always Challenge Your Assumptions

When you are focused on accomplishing a career-enhancing project and a coworker stands in your way, you can harbor some negative feelings about that coworker. Maybe the conflict is long-standing and intermittent. If the conflict persists you can begin a cycle of negative assumption and always think the worst of the other person. If you are going to get past the conflict, you are going to have to get into the communication mode and leave your assumptions at the door.

So, the key is to get to the bottom of the conflict and drop the assumption that the person you are dealing with is bad. Most people are rational and intelligent and have good intentions, Conflicts often arise because of lack of clarity, communication, and misunderstanding.

Don’t assume that your coworker’s behavior is irrational, because most people are rational. They behave in ways that make perfect sense to themselves. If you accept that, then you have taken an important first step in understanding the cause of the conflict.

You should make a list of what could be prompting the worker’s behavior. It could be the key to uncovering what pressures, fears, and concerns your coworker is experiencing. If you factor in the assumption that you essentially share the same goals with your coworker, it could be a case of mismatched or unclear priorities.

Strategy #2: Work on ways to interact less critically

You can be honest and say what you think, but still care about the person you are talking to. The example the author uses is that once he said to a coworker, “I know that you don’t like me, and that’s ok. Really. I don’t need you to like me, and you don’t have to like me. But, let’s work out a solution together that lets us both be successful and gets the project back on track.”

While the coworker was a bit shocked over the candor, by not making it personal both were able to improve their working relationship dramatically after the encounter.

Not making it personal means you don’t make it about “you” or “them.” You make it about the success of the organization and the team. The key ingredient is “to identify commonality in your desired goals.”

Once you get to the shared goals stage, it is time to move up from the lower-level goals—the personal goals of our team and ourselves. The author describes a goal pyramid with company goals at the apex and your vs. their personal goals at the base. Between that apex and the personal goals are higher-level project and organizational goals.

It’s not always about “win-win,” when you don’t take the time to really understand what the other person is trying to accomplish. With that understanding, you can work through conflict and agree on a set of shared goals and agree that accomplishing those goals can be a real “win-win” prospect for the organization.

Related Article: How To Be Less Abrasive At Work

Strategy #3: Know when to escalate the conflict

Sometimes conflicts expose, as they say in divorce court, irreconcilable differences. But you don’t have the option of divorce, and it’s time for a third party to mediate or rule on the conflict.

It’s called escalation, and escalation channels exist in an organization for a reason. Healthy escalation is the best way to move stalled work and projects forward more quickly, but if escalation is constantly happening, it can be abused.

Abuses occur when someone doesn’t follow the chain of authority or goes to the wrong decision maker. Escalating without the other party or making negative attacks on the other person can compound conflict and breed dysfunction.

Again, what is important is the project and organizational goals. Resolving conflicts doesn’t have to be personal. If you feel the need to escalate, go to the person empowered to make the call and present your case on objective facts and agreed-upon goals.

Finally, conflict is never all bad. It often comes disguised as energy just waiting to be leveraged into positive breakthroughs. You can harness that positive power through openness, resourcefulness and a willingness to honestly seek better solutions.

Above all, always start with openness and conflict will quickly become the solution.

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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