Conflict is bound to happen even in the most collaborative workplace. Learn how to mitigate, manage and resolve conflict using email.

Working together as a team can elevate your business, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter occasional bumps and bruises along the way. Even in the most harmonious of working environments, conflicts can and will arise from time to time. If you are managing larger teams, issues might crop up fairly regularly, and as remote working is a growing necessity, resolving these disagreements face-to-face is not always possible. 

Conflicts prohibit positive collaboration, and knowing how to manage disagreements online is no longer a ‘what-if’ but a necessity. Thankfully, with the right approach, it is entirely possible for you to help your team navigate conflict without meeting face to face. Here’s how to resolve them when they surface in email.

1. Open with empathy

Effective conflict resolution is one of the key parts of employee development in the workplace, and demonstrating empathy as early as possible in an email is a good starting point.

This is easier if the issue at hand is multifaceted, allowing you to select a particular aspect that you either agree with or can express an understanding of. This will show the intended recipient that you are not going on the attack from the word go, but are rather eager to see things from their perspective and aiming to work towards a mutually beneficial conclusion.

2. Avoid negativity

Even if you believe that your position is valid and that another party is in the wrong, it is important to steer clear of any unambiguously hurtful or overly emotive language when writing an email. This applies even if the same courtesy is not afforded to you by the correspondent; rising above outright negativity and not reflecting it back will be better in the long run.

Of course, everyone is fuelled by their own emotions and feelings, so sometimes it is best to take a step back and hold off on writing a reply in the heat of the moment. This will give you the opportunity to get your emotions under control, rather than allowing them to spill out into your word choice in the message and potentially push things further down the wrong path as a result.

If you do decide to press pause on your reply rather than emailing back in the heat of the moment, it is still worth responding briefly to acknowledge receipt and confirm that your full reply will arrive in due course. This is another step in email diplomacy that many miss out on, but which could mean the difference between keeping things civil and allowing them to boil over.

3. Seek clarity & offer it in return

An important part of empathizing with a colleague with a conflict occurs is getting their side of the story, so it makes sense to ask relevant questions in your email, rather than just assuming that they will automatically add the insights you need without being prompted.

This should help to clear up any burning questions about their motivations and state of mind. In return, you should also aim to be clear and concise about your own position, rather than trying to obfuscate or prevaricate.

Even if you still cannot agree once everything is out in the open, you will at least know precisely what sticking points exist and this can be used as the jumping-off point for the eventual resolution.

4. Read between the lines

While you might be able to ask questions of another employee to gauge their feelings on a conflict, it is not always possible for them to express themselves in writing in a way that allows you to get to the nub of the issue. This is where reading between the lines and assessing the type of language and the tone they are using, not just the meanings of the words themselves, will be helpful.

For example, if a person writes in a way that clearly expresses anger or upset, without coming out and saying “I am angry”, you can push through and acknowledge their feelings in your response. And remember, just because you tell them that you can see how they are feeling, it does not mean that you are also agreeing that their position or emotions are valid.

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5. Set objectives

There is no point getting into a disagreement unless you have an idea of what outcome you are hoping to work towards. Otherwise, you will just be arguing for argument’s sake.

As well as being able to communicate the objectives in your messages, setting these out as soon as possible will also give you a framework on which to hang your next steps. It will also allow you to show clearly what you want from the interaction, which is useful.

6. Accept that not all conflicts can be resolved

If two or more people have a difference of opinion on a given matter in the workplace, you might think that an email discussion that has the aim of communicating the issue clearly should ultimately result in a satisfactory resolution for all parties.

While this is an admirable goal and is often straightforward to achieve if the matter is minor or the individuals involved are generally on the same wavelength in other areas, it is unhelpful to expect this as the outcome. This will only leave you feeling frustrated if it turns out that you cannot get the change in opinion or behavior from the other party that you are looking for.

7. Appreciate the limits of the medium

Email may be your preferred means of communicating with colleagues and team members, but it is not always the ideal medium for expressing yourself, because the written word is always open to interpretations you did not intend, and which would come across more clearly if spoken aloud either in person or via a phone call or virtual meeting.

This works in both directions, so in some cases, you will need to prepare for the likelihood of the conflict resolution progress going beyond email.

Of course, the challenge here is ensuring that you give correspondents the option to move from email to a different form of communication. 

You can achieve this in a partially passive way, by making sure your email signature includes your contact details, such as your Skype username or extension number. 

You can also be direct; ask them when it would be convenient to schedule a call or arrange a face-to-face meet-up. 

The suitability for either approach will be determined by the nature of your relationship with them, and the circumstances surrounding the issue at hand.

8. Be willing to take the first step

You may worry that if you are the one to raise the issue via email first, you will be in a weaker position than the recipient.

In reality, the opposite is true; it is always better to be proactive and nip conflicts in the bud sooner rather than later. This will prevent them from festering and growing in size until they are much harder to overcome when they finally come to the surface later on.

9. Consider all the angles

Finally, you should consider what other factors are at play in determining the course that the conflict has taken so far. Perhaps singling out previously unnoticed reasons and motivations that are responsible for exacerbating the situation.

Getting back to a healthy working relationship means tapping into the power of teamwork and collaboration. You need to embrace a holistic approach to conflict resolution and use email with empathy and understanding to hopefully leave all parties satisfied.

AvatarRichard Fendler

Goal-oriented manager with proven leadership abilities. Expert in increasing productivity and growth marketing through content. Committed to streamlining procedures while optimizing employee talent. Most importantly, dog lover.