Conflict and challenging interactions are a part life. In the workplace, they can be caused by various factors including differing ideas and personality types and opposing communication styles.

2020 was an unprecedented time for Australian workers, with the effects and uncertainty of COVID-19 still impacting many individuals and workplaces. While some have had to deal with redundancies or new working arrangements, others have seen an increase in work pressures, particularly frontline workers in health care, transport, and retail.

Most of us feel overwhelmed, upset, and anxious when faced with change and uncertainty. And with so much change within a short span of time, instances of hostility and anger entering some of the conversations we had with others was natural. Who could forget last year’s toilet paper saga, with reports of customer’s aggression during panic buying traumatising supermarket staff members?

Conflict itself is not necessarily negative. Diverse viewpoints and differing approaches can often result in new ideas and solutions. However when interpersonal conflict is not approached effectively, it can end up having a detrimental effect on your physical and psychological health.

Managing challenging interactions is both an art and science and many of us find difficult encounters and conversations hard to deal with at times.

Fortunately, challenging interactions can be made easier if we understand our own and other’s reactions to workplace conflict triggers and learn different techniques to apply when we are faced with these situations.

When dealing with challenging interactions and interpersonal conflicts, our body’s natural response is to go into defence mode – fight, flight, or freeze. This isn’t a conscious decision - it’s an automatic reaction.

Think about the way your body reacts when you feel anxious, stressed or worried. You might feel tightness in the chest, muscle tension, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, a feeling of impending doom and even sleeplessness.

The first steps of dealing with the fight-or-flight response are to recognise what is happening, be aware of our individual triggers and learn how to respond in a productive way.

Here are some tips from our Managing Challenging Interactions for All Staff course to help you respond to stressful situations.

Recognise your triggers and responses

Although you can’t control the response, you can learn what your triggers are and implement self-management techniques to help counteract the stress response and keep you calm. Keeping calm will help you process what the other person is saying and assist you in resolving the situation.

Empathise with the other person

Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion. We tend to resort to anger to protect ourselves from, or cover up, other vulnerable feelings such as fear, disrespect, shame, helplessness, frustration, or insecurity.

By listening, asking questions and processing what the person is saying, you’ll get a greater understanding of what sits behind the angry words and be able to empathise with the other person better.

Understand the problem

To understand the problem, ask open questions and paraphrase what you have heard. Use “I” statements, for example: “I want to make sure that I really understand what you’re telling me” or “I’m hearing that…” to clarify that you completely understand what the issue is.

Seek resolution

Once you understand their desired outcome, where possible, offer the person some choices and options.

Let go of the idea that you need to fix absolutely everything. When managing conflict, the best approach is to listen, understand, and discern next steps - not to immediately produce a solution.

Don’t forget that challenging interactions can have an impact your mental health and wellbeing, so it’s important to know where to seek support if needed.

Internal support resources

  • Manager / supervisor
  • Friends, family and trusted colleagues
  • Your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider
  • HR / WHS contact

External support resources

  • Your GP / Doctor
  • Lifeline / 13 11 14 /
  • Beyond Blue / 1300 22 4636 /
  • Head to Health /
  • Find a psychologist:

Empower your staff and give them the strategies to manage difficult conversations in the workplace with our Managing Challenging Interactions for All Staff course. This course is entirely online and can be completed at any time, giving your staff the flexibility to complete it when it suits them best. Enquire today.