Three Tactics to De-escalate Conflict in the Workplace

Open to All
5 min readMay 30, 2023

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In the past year, 55% of retail workers report witnessing verbal violence, and 49% have seen physical assaults occur while on the job. It’s vital that employees are provided with the proper training and resources to de-escalate conflict. When retail workers are educated on how to approach conflict with patience and preparedness, businesses can expect an increase in employee morale, customer satisfaction, and overall productivity.

Employers have the responsibility to protect workers from harassment, discrimination, and violence. Open to All’s Inclusive Retail Toolkit includes sample policies to address discrimination and hate speech. Training to manage conflict so it doesn’t escalate is an important aspect of this work.

Workplace conflict is inevitable when employees are interacting with their co-workers and customers throughout the day. Conflict can be presented in many ways. While healthy disagreement can drive us to be better team members, conflict tends to be associated with something far more hostile.

The average full-time employee in the United States devotes over four hours a week, or five and a half weeks per year, to managing workplace conflict. Whether it’s conflict amongst co-workers or with customers, dealing with disagreements squanders employees’ valuable time and energy.

Luckily, there are tactics we can employ to defuse tensions and de-escalate conflict before it transforms into something uncontrollable, or potentially dangerous. Open to All Nonprofit Advisory Council member Right To Be works to build a world that’s free of harassment and filled with humanity. The organization employs a global team of educators, motivators, and facilitators who train people on how to respond to, intervene with, and heal from harassment.

Right To Be has delivered conflict de-escalation training since 2020, in response to the rapid way in which conflict has been escalating into violence following the COVID-19 pandemic. Right To Be recently joined forces with Open to All to host an interactive discussion for our corporate partners on de-escalating conflict in retail settings. To do so, employees must focus on identifying their conflict style, cultivating self-awareness, utilizing self-soothing techniques, and applying Right To Be’s “Observe, Breathe, Connect” methodology.

Observe: Determine Your Conflict Style

Conflict, when handled correctly, can lead to better ideas, stronger relationships, and improved empathy. Conflict managed poorly, however, might result in inappropriate reactions. The key difference between positive and negative conflict lies in how one approaches conflict.

There are five widely used conflict styles based on the Thomas Killman assessment tool: competing, collaborating, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. No style is “better” than any other style, and conflict mastery is about being fluent in all the conflict styles. You need to know when, and how, to use them.

When you’re assertive and relatively uncooperative, you’re competing, which is most often used if the outcome is highly important to you, or when you have the most information about a given topic. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative; in this case, you’re aiming for a “win, win” scenario. Collaboration is time-consuming; however, it works best with high-priority and high-complexity problems. Avoiding, on the other hand, is neither assertive nor cooperative. In this mode, you’re attempting to avoid confrontation without identifying heightened tensions or addressing anyone’s concerns. While this can be an effective tactic for unimportant issues, or if you need a moment to reflect before you enter deeper into conflict, conflict can also fester into something much more problematic if left without resolution.

When you’re accommodating, you choose to keep the peace by favoring whatever outcome the other person prefers. This is useful when you’re not committed to an outcome, but overuse can lead to people becoming burned out. Compromising operates as a nice middle ground; it’s both assertive and cooperative. While compromising offers an acceptable solution, it only partially addresses both individuals’ concerns.

According to Aristotle, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Most of us naturally resort to the conflict style that was modeled for us as children. Workplace culture, group dynamics, and external stakeholders can also influence one’s choice of conflict style. With that being said, one might find that the best way to de-escalate conflict is to integrate multiple conflict styles into their approach.

Breathe: Establish Self-Awareness and Self-Soothing Techniques

While you’re contemplating your choice of conflict style, you should also concentrate on strengthening your self-awareness. Notice how your body naturally reacts to confrontation. Do you appear visibly agitated? Do you experience discomfort in your body? Do you twitch, clench your jaw, or raise your voice? These visceral reactions are all signs that you might need to de-escalate yourself before approaching conflict. If your brain believes it can handle a situation, but your body reacts adversely, then it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate. That is why, in these situations, connecting with your body and its needs is critical.

It’s also important to be aware of any compounding risk factors that might jeopardize your safety. Consider the following questions: Do your identities put you at increased risk of retaliation? Is it safe to proceed? Are your biases influencing your perception of the situation? Do you have an exit plan? Is there someone you can turn to if something goes awry? Are you the right person to deal with this problem? All these factors must be considered since your safety, and the safety of other staff members or shoppers, should always remain the top priority.

When in conflict, you must know how to shift your nervous system away from “fight or flight” mode. Self-soothing, or re-grounding yourself, is what’s going to stop us from defaulting to “flight.” Different strategies work for different people, but naming your emotions and using simple breathwork are two popular tactics that can be helpful to everyone.

Connect: De-escalate the person through conversation

Empathy is intimately tied to the final phase, Connect. It is not necessary to agree with or placate the other person, but it is important to be sensitive to and respectful of their sentiments. When working to de-escalate someone, you should be deeply attentive, especially in situations you’re worried could escalate into something more serious, or violent. Asking open-ended questions and allowing for silence are additional ways to further connect with the other party. Once a connection is established, it’s much easier to transition an escalated situation into a calm and collected conversation.

These tactics are broadly applicable to many instances of conflict. However, if you’re looking for training tailored to your organization’s specific culture, Right To Be offers customized trainings that dive deeper into specific clientele and employee experiences. You can reach out to partnerships@righttobe.org for more information on how to get started or go here to see a full menu of options.

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Open to All

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