7 Steps to Set Limits and Avoid Conflict at Work​

Some days, you love your job. And other days? Well, let’s just say that you would rather be literally anywhere else but at work. For many people, work is a chronic source of stress. One major reason that work can be stressful is that workplace environments create the potential for conflict - including those interpersonal conflicts with coworkers or bosses that keep us awake at night.

The occasional conflict in the workplace might be inevitable, but there are ways to limit how often conflict occurs and prevent work stress from affecting your overall wellbeing. Here are seven therapist-recommended steps to set limits and avoid conflict at work.

1. Communicate with respect & empathy

When conflict arises, it’s important to communicate with your coworker with respect and empathy. Communication comes in many forms in the workplace: face-to-face, over email, in an instant message, and more. The conflict might play out when you’re alone and working from home. Your conflict might also happen in the middle of a high-stakes meeting or when you’re in a room  with other people. No matter the setting or the medium, maintaining respect and empathy in your words ensures that the conflict doesn’t grow larger than it already is.

If you find yourself becoming upset with a coworker, try to hold off on replying until you’re calm. When you’re calm - perhaps after you’ve let your initial emotional reaction pass - you’re more likely to respond in a respectful manner that is professional and also sets you up for more comfortable future interactions with this person.

Many strengths-based therapists believe in a concept called “unconditional positive regard.” This concept encourages therapists to view all human behaviors as stemming from a good place, a place that means no harm. When your coworker does something that brings up conflict, try to view their actions as coming from a place of no disrespect - instead, ask yourself if the conflict is a matter of miscommunication, misunderstanding, varying expectations, or a simple mistake. This empathetic approach to understanding the situation may alter your emotional reaction, and perhaps even de-escalate the conflict.

2. Practice neutrality

When there’s conflict in the office, try to remain neutral, even if you are friends with the people involved. One of the joys of being in a working environment is the collaboration and camaraderie that often naturally happens between coworkers. You might have a “work bestie” or several coworkers with whom you feel close. These relationships may bring joy into your workday or help you feel motivated to complete your work. But what happens when you witness a conflict in the workplace between other people?

Getting involved increases the risk that you find yourself upset about the situation. It might also lead to trouble down the road, if the conflict gets escalated to management or HR. By avoiding the conflict altogether, you’re setting limits and prioritizing your mental health.

Don’t want to get involved? Here are a few ways to respectfully decline getting swept up in the conflict:

Remaining neutral helps you establish boundaries with your coworkers, which could mean less conflict in the future. It also means that you can focus on what’s important to you – which might not be office politics.

3. Recognize emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation might be a behavior enacted by your coworker unconsciously as a way to handle pressure, stress, or their own uncomfortable emotions. Sometimes, an unknown personal context can be the main culprit of a conflict. An example of this is when something you say accidentally makes your coworker upset because it reminds them of something else.

In order to avoid emotional manipulation, you must be able to recognize it. Some examples of emotional manipulation might include:

These situations might leave you feeling exhausted, confused, obligated to work harder or stay later, or like you just want to cry. Most significantly, they make you feel like you don’t have worth or value – which is an incredibly distressing feeling and not one that’s easily forgotten.

Instead of enduring emotional manipulation in your workplace, try to remove yourself from the situation. If you aren’t able to completely opt out of the conflict, see if you can wait to engage with the coworker. If the emotional manipulation is born out of their own personal reactions, giving some space to calm down might help them behave more respectfully. Abusive behavior, whether verbal or emotional, is never ok.

4. Don’t make mountains out of mole hills​

When you’re passionate about what you do, it can be difficult to not take things personally. Sometimes, it can be very tempting to make a mountain out of a molehill – finding issues with the smallest comments, facial reactions, or even messages from your coworkers.

Small squabbles can become major conflicts, transforming miscommunications into broken relationships and resentment. When you carry around these hard feelings, it can impact your job satisfaction and even bleed into your personal life. When someone makes an honest mistake, it might not be in your best interest to become upset over it.

To avoid growing a conflict into something larger than it needs to be, ask yourself these questions:

By reflecting on the origins and implications of the conflict, you might be better able to identify which mountains you’re ready to address.

5. Embrace positivity

By incorporating joy and happiness into your work life, you can boost your comfort, even in the face of challenges.

For some people, positivity comes to them quite naturally. For those who roll their eyes at smiley faces or get annoyed when they read corny adages, there are other ways to embrace positivity. Instead of thinking of tangible objects that can bring joy, consider the intangible aspects of your happiness. If feeling connected to others makes you feel good, figure out how you can converse with more people throughout your workday. If you feel most happy after a good workout, see if you can take a lunchtime walk each day. Whatever it takes to feel brighter each day will go a long way to avoid getting bogged down with conflict.

As humans, we’re incredibly perceptive to the emotions around us. Just like negativity’s contagious nature, positivity can also be infectious. By embracing positivity, you can avoid becoming mad at yourself, at your work, or at your coworkers.

6. Suggest compromise

When you do find yourself locked into a conflict, suggest a compromise. What is it that you want out of the situation? What does your coworker want? Is there a middle ground where there’s sacrifice on both sides – but also benefits on both sides?

Instead of arguing about what’s happening, see if you can turn the conversation towards problem solving or options for resolution. It can be hard to steer the conversation away from the blame game, but coming up with next steps gives you both something to work towards together.

Some respectful ways to handle the conversation might be:

It may feel like a mammoth task to stop the argument when you feel like you’re in the right, but coming up with ways so that you both get what you want means that you can move ahead with what you’re working on – and process through the emotions without the heat of the moment.

7. Choose your fights​

Lastly, you likely don’t have the energy to fight every fight that comes your way. Work can be really challenging, and not even solely because of the interpersonal component! Projects fall behind schedule, technologies break and lead to frustration, budgets don’t balance themselves out perfectly all the time. When you feel overwhelmed by the content of your work, it might not be the best time to also engage in a conflict with a coworker.

For that reason, choosing your fights can be a way to ensure sustainability in your energy, mood, and job satisfaction. When a conflict arises, make sure that it’s something you really want to fight for before you engage with your coworker.
Ask yourself why this specific conflict matters to you. If you bring up this issue with a coworker, will it lead to a result that is comfortable right now? Or, will it drain you even further than you’re already drained?

It’s okay to let some issues slide and instead prioritize your mental health. And it’s not always easy to avoid conflict, especially when you’re dedicated to your work and motivated to do a good job.

If you find it difficult to change your behavior or to keep your cool, you might benefit from working with a therapist. Many therapists specialize in helping with workplace conflicts, teaching you how to approach conflict in the nuanced environment of the workplace. Therapists that specialize in workplace conflict will offer you new perspectives, new tools, and new ideas for handling the stress of the workplace.

If you’re ready to develop these skills, search Zencare’s therapist directory and filter by Speciality, where you’ll find Work Stress as an option. By watching the therapist introductory video or scheduling a consultation call with a therapist, you’ll be able to pick a therapist that is perfect for you.