6 Steps for Managing Conflict in Your Office

November 14, 2016
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

What you can do to help make conflict resolution in your practice a simpler process.

We get it--you hate dealing with conflict. You already have so much to deal with in the day-to-day of working as a dentist, and there’s just no way you want to have to devote additional energy to figuring out why your dental hygienist is angry with your front desk staffer. It’s understandable, but conflict management isn’t something you can escape--you might even be in the middle of a conflict with an angry patient yourself!

Unfortunately, conflict is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives and work. Now more than ever, it seems like people are clashing with each other over a range of issues, both personal and professional. Regardless of the source of the conflict, it’s important to keep in mind that, as a dentist, conflict in your practice affects more than just the two people involved in the argument. Conflict can affect your other employees and your patients. You have to be willing to take steps to resolve the conflict and protect your practice if necessary.

You might have an office manager that’s adept at handling intra-office conflict, or you might have to address it head-on yourself. Whatever the situation is, there are several things you can do that help make conflict resolution in your practice a simpler process.

1. Clearly define the issue, but don’t be judgmental. If you’ve been made aware of conflict in your practice, you first need to figure out exactly what the issue is. Using non-judgmental language, try to gain a deeper understanding of the root cause of the conflict. This will help you to better analyze the underlying issue itself. Often, bad behavior is only the symptom of a larger issue.

2. Get ready to listen. Regardless of whether or not you’re personally involved in the conflict, you have to be ready to listen to each opposing side of the argument. It goes back to truly understanding the issue at hand. Active listening--where you show a sincere desire to understand what the other person is saying through your own body language and behavior--goes a long way toward making a person feel like you care about their side of the issue, even if you don’t agree with it. Good listening will often help start you down the path to conflict resolution.

3. Gain an understanding of each person’s perspective. Again, active listening will help you achieve this goal in managing conflict. The trick here is being able to see each side’s perspective without agreeing with either. Empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes to try to experience their own feelings or thoughts, is crucial for being able to gain the perspective of the people involved in the conflict. A good way to make sure you understand where each side is coming from is through the use of the LEAPS model, which acts as a guide for conflict resolution. The steps in this model, which will help you see each party’s perspective, are:

· Listen — active listening will show respect and that you care about the issue.

· Empathize — put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Can you see why they might be upset?

· Ask — if you need more information to understand the issue, ask for it. This shows you’re taking the conflict seriously.

· Paraphrase — reflect on what you’ve been told, and restate it in words that all involved parties will understand.

· Summarize — clearly and concisely, sum up everything you’ve heard to show that you really understand the conflict.

4. Help each party identify their interests. Once you’ve listened to each side of the argument and have made an earnest attempt at understanding the root causes of the conflict, it’s time to help each person involved identify what they need in the resolution of the conflict — in other words, what their interests are. For example, if you have two staff members that are unable to work professionally with each other because their conflict has gotten totally out of control, you can help them identify their interest in getting along with something along the lines of “if you want to keep your job here, you’re going to have to learn how to work together”. It’s extreme, but it identifies the ultimate consequence or outcome that could occur as a result of conflict resolution … or a lack thereof.

5. Find the win-win goal. Often, finding a solution to the conflict that benefits both parties involves also finding a common, shared interest. It isn’t necessarily the solution to the conflict, but it is a common goal--i.e., both people get to keep their jobs in your practice. Once the people in the conflict agree to work toward this shared goal, work toward solving the actual problem can begin.

6. Figure out the action plan. Once you’ve gone through the rest of the process, it’s time to find solutions. Ask each person involved in the conflict for suggestions for the resolution of the problem. Can they identify how they can work toward their own goals while also addressing the other person’s needs? You might have to ask each party to make a small list of possible solutions, and then ask the other person which solution would work best for them. Once you’ve gotten the best options nailed down, you can start to develop an action plan which will spell out what is expected of each person in the conflict--responsibilities, time frames, etc. You will probably need to be ready to check back in with each person, perhaps frequently, to ensure that the conflict resolution plan is progressing as intended.

It's not pleasant, but dealing with conflict is something you’ll have to do at some point in your career. By taking these steps, you help make the process as simple as possible, which helps to ensure that your practice continues to run smoothly.