• Dealing with conflict

    Conflict in the workplace can have a significant negative impact on your professional and personal lives.

    It may be that you are not getting on with your supervisor. You may be having difficulty dealing with a colleague or a subordinate. You may be having trouble managing a particular patient or supplier.

    Regardless of the cause of the conflict, it can make it difficult to concentrate at work and inevitably results in you bringing your anxieties about work home with you. This can lead to sleepless nights and increasing anxiety, and can have a significant impact on patient care and your personal relationships. It can lead to feeling sick and not wanting to go to work.

    Most of us find it confronting and difficult to raise issues of conflict with others. You may be concerned that the conflict will escalate, that you will not be “liked” or that the other person may make a complaint (e.g. a bullying complaint) about you.

    There are three basic options for dealing with workplace conflict: put up with it, leave your organisation or try to resolve the conflict. It is always best to try to resolve the conflict in the first instance.

    Ways of dealing with conflict

    There are various ways that people try to deal with conflict. Many of them are counter-productive, and can make the conflict worse:

    • Avoidance is a temporary strategy that rarely works because it does not make the conflict go away and it may make it worse
    • Accommodation leads to giving in without any resolution to the problem
    • Domination usually involves a power struggle and domination over another party. It can have the benefit of resolving conflict quickly and may be effective when the parties accept the power relationship
    • Negotiation is a compromising strategy that involves moderate levels of cooperation and assertiveness. Both parties state their positions and try to reach a compromise. The aim is to minimise losses and maximise gains
    • Collaboration requires open communication and identification of the goals and objectives of each of the parties. It often requires assertiveness and creative problem solving.

    What can I do to resolve things?

    Before reacting to any conflict situation, try to understand the cause of the conflict. Mentally remove yourself from the situation before you respond and attempt to objectively assess the situation. Consider what role you may have played in the conflict situation.

    Collaboration is the preferred strategy to resolve conflict and facilitate change. This requires you to speak with the person on the “other side” of the conflict with the aim of resolving the conflict. You should consider the following matters as part of this strategy:

    • Timing – Choose an appropriate time where the other party is more amenable to listening and there are no time pressures
    • Choose a neutral location for the discussion
    • Begin the discussion on a broader level by asking open questions. Assume there are things about the situation that you don’t understand. In areas where you are confident that you do understand, listen for information that undermines rather than supports your beliefs, which allows for the possibility that you could be wrong or only partially right
    • Focus on the issues not the personalities
    • Use ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ statements that present the situation as your view and are not inviting argument
    • Do not lay blame or personalise
    • Demonstrate your understanding of the other parties feelings and listen respectfully to their viewpoint
    • Respect on both sides is likely to improve the chance of a positive outcome
    • Acknowledge, emphasise, and record any areas of agreement. Focus on shared viewpoints as a way of building common ground. This is the basis of your final agreement.

    If you are unable to resolve a conflict situation by speaking with the other party, you may need to escalate the matter to a more senior person in your organisation for advice, support and assistance. Most organisations have written procedures for dealing with workplace disputes. You may be able to use those procedures to assist with resolving the issues.


    Tools and Resources

    There are many places where you can seek help when facing conflict at work:

    Your employer’s Employee Assistance Program

    Key support services

    Avant Medico-legal Advisory Service

    Doctors' Health Advisory Services around the country

    The AMA in your state or territory

    Your Union

    Your organisation’s human resources department

    Cautionary Tale

    Case Study


    Micro managed

    Dr Jones feels that he is being “micro managed” by the nurse unit manager (NUM) in his hospital department. She seems to always be hovering nearby when he speaks with patients; she always checks his written records and makes him add things that she believes should be in the record. She recently spoke with the consultant on duty when she disagreed with one of his diagnoses. The consultant seemed to believe her and would not listen when Dr Jones tried to explain the situation. Her behaviour is becoming intolerable for Dr Jones and he is concerned that she may find something to make a formal complaint about in the near future. Dr Jones is considering other employment options to get away from the NUM.

    Dr Jones decides to talk with the NUM about her behaviour. He asks to speak with her after the end of a mutual shift in her office. Dr Jones tells the NUM about his concerns. The NUM explains that the Director of the Department has asked her to closely supervise first year interns and to assist them to “learn the ropes”. She had no idea that her way of doing so was having such an impact on Dr Jones. They were able to work out a way that they could work together in future so that the NUM could provide appropriate support and assistance, and Dr Jones did not feel “micro managed”.

    Cautionary Tale



    Tips for dealing with conflict

    • Do not let conflict situations fester: do something about the situation.
    • Do not react without thinking the situation through.
    • Maintain respect throughout. Do not personalise the dispute.
    • Be aware of the sorts of issues that can turn into conflict.
    • Aim to negotiate a ‘win-win solution'.


    1. Miller, K. Organizational communication. Approaches and processes (5th ed). Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.
    2. Saltman DC, O’Dea NA, Kidd, MR. Conflict management: a primer for doctors in training Postgrad Med J 2006; 82:9–12.
    3. RACGP. Employee guide. 3rd ed. Melbourne: The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners; 2012.