8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 1100
Silver Spring, MD 20910

How to Contain a Conflict Before It Escalates

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

When conflict arises in your organization, your main concern is to stay calm and de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible. The quicker you contain an argument, the less likely it will escalate into a damaging and costly problem.

Harmful or negative conflict requires taking action to keep it from corroding the team dynamic and having lasting effects. Carole Townsend utilizes M. Nelson’s five approaches for addressing negative team conflict to describe methods for de-escalating tension, including Direct Approach, Bargaining, De-emphasis, Retreat, and Enforcement.

A direct approach is about getting the problem out in the open, confronting your team with it, and though it can be difficult it is often an advisable choice. By stepping into your role as the leader and addressing the team, you can also take the opportunity to force a conflict which may have become damaging and personal back into language that is task-oriented and draws attention back to what is important in the workplace. You may be able to reset the tone and implicitly help change how your employees see it, too, potentially creating the space for an appropriate level of resolution.

Bargaining can help to usher in a compromise between diverging viewpoints, and involves facilitating a back and forth to help the parties identify what they can each cede in order to resolve the tension.

De-emphasis involves searching out areas of agreement and making those the focal point as a way of moving past conflict, but with this one you must beware of burying toxic unresolved elements that will come back and bite you all later.

Retreat should be used when there isn’t really a problem to be solved. Sometimes people have bad days and it comes out in the workplace – having everyone take a little distance until it blows over is sometimes better than stirring up feelings and letting them create a new issue.

Enforcement, simply laying down rules and declaring the situation moot, should be used as a last resort, though as leaders with formal authority it sometimes seems like the easiest option. It can leave hard feelings that last and disrupt the sense of unity and trust on a team in the long term.

One of the best ways to address conflict is simply to get ahead of it. So think ahead about what might come up, and be prepared to channel it into productivity or close off roads you already know you don’t want to go down. By putting conflict on your strategic map of priorities as a leader, you’re already getting ahead on cultivating the productive rewards of teams in the workplace.

And for those conflicts that are too tough for you to manage, there’s always a mediator. Learn more about how mediation with team conflicts can reduce pesky friction and help your workplace run smoothly and efficiently.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.


Author: Ellen Kandell

Leave a Reply