Q: My coworkers and I have noticed a pattern. Two employees will get mad at each other, the boss finally hears about it and "fixes" it. Things calm down for a few weeks, but then it resurfaces as bad as ever. Why can’t the two people just get over it?

A: There are two keys to understanding conflict. First, conflict is emotional, not logical. If it were logical, the individuals would make their arguments in logical terms, reach an agreement based on the facts, and find an agreeable conclusion.

Second, conflict goes in cycles if it’s not fully reconciled. If there’s not complete agreement that all of the issues creating the conflict have been resolved, the issue will return.

Nearly all conflict starts with a minor uncertainty or misunderstanding. For example, someone says something that seems inappropriate or is misinterpreted. One person criticizes another in a somewhat personal way. An employee starts a bit of gossip that seems innocent but within a few days spirals out of hand. There is a difference of opinion as to how a particular task should be done — and it soon escalates into a fight for influence. 

Those are a few examples of how something minor can trigger conflict. Not all disagreements lead to all-out war, and understanding a few aspects will help end it before it gets worse.

The conflict cycle starts this way: If the person who feels slighted immediately takes offense without trying to reconcile the misunderstanding, he begins to collect “ammunition” to justify his feelings. He talks to other employees to get similar examples of the behavior or comment that hurt his feelings.  This process also helps the offended person find out who is on his side.

There are minor confrontations with the offending person, which helps determine what ammo (comments or criticisms) tends to work and what does not. The other side starts to arm himself. So, both parties are now preparing for the upcoming skirmishes or even war.  

The outcome? The cycle repeats itself and everyone loses. There is negativity and loss of teamwork; positive and motivated people are diminished or quit; and often a frigid, apathetic workplace is left behind.

The solution? Encourage people to reconcile their differences immediately. When there is a misunderstanding or question about what was said or meant by a comment, go to the person for clarification immediately. If a coworker comes to you and is trying to “collect ammo” for his war, tell him that you will not get involved. Rather, he needs to talk to the person that offended him and find out what was really meant by the action or comment. 

For the manager who has to resolve a conflict, remember again that conflict is rooted in emotion.   Don’t tell the people involved to “just go do your jobs,” or put them in a room and tell them “don’t come out till you have this thing fixed.” That does not deal with the emotion and rarely produces a solution. 

First, get both sides of the story by talking to the individuals one-on-one. Let each one vent about the problem and how he feels about the other person. Next, determine what seems to be the root of the problem, and identify some possible solutions. Finally, bring the two people into a room together and moderate a discussion, highlighting only the key differences and focusing on a resolution. Don’t leave without a solution that both can agree to and honor.

By talking to the individuals and giving each a chance to vent, you release a lot of the emotional steam from their arguments, and they can be more reasonable in the meeting. You also will learn more about the entire situation than either of them, so you are in a better position to outline solutions. Quite often, the people realize the error of their behavior during these initial conversations, and the joint meeting is simply to finalize a solution.

Once they agree to a solution and “make up,” have them tell their armies that a truce is called. No soldier will quit fighting until his general says it’s over.

For more information on practical conflict resolution, e-mail me at don@dontyler.com.