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Arguments happen when we discover that our way of looking at the world is different from others. Argument at work becomes negative for individuals when it is divisive and disempowering, and it becomes a behavioural risk for organisations when it begins to affect working relationships and output. Dignity and fairness issues are often raised in workplace arguments which, if not handled well, can lead to discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

There is little guidance or support in most organisations when arguments begin to surface. How they are handled becomes a lottery, and many interventions from third parties may settle the issue, but not resolve the conflict.

Argument is not going to go away

Most arguments at work should be settled by dialogue, but many are not.  Staff surveys, Health and Safety Stress indicators and the media continue to highlight bullying, harassment and bad working relationships as major causes of dissatisfaction and stress.

Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933), “We have thought of peace as passive, and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is kind of rest cure compared to the task of reconciling our differences… from war to peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life.”

Many organisations are experiencing an increased use of grievance procedures. According to a number of surveys organisations dealing with the general public are experiencing increasing levels of ‘retail rage’, customer aggression and verbal attacks on staff in a range of workplaces.

Argument flourishes in environments characterised by rapid change, stretched resources, shifting work patterns and roles. This describes the 20-teens in the UK perfectly.

Externally-driven change particularly, exerted by economic conditions and political drivers, are destabilising and cause mistrust. There is still a strong sense of ‘them and us’ in many workplaces, with low levels of trust between managers and employees, staff and unions.  In these circumstances individuals and groups in our more mobile, diverse working communities can feel un-linked, and isolated.  Isolation increases fear – and fear brings conflict.

Technology has linked people electronically but has not delivered the co-operative teams we hoped for.  Instead electronic argument is increasing, and people who sit side by side are now not talking, but having email dialogues.

So how do we move from negative conflict, to positive conflict?

Dialogue is achievable at work, between individuals, teams, and with suppliers and customers.  Dialogue builds understanding, it explores the reality of other people from a position of curiosity not blame, and it builds people’s ability to trust, listen and feel empathy.

Dialogue is what brings your organisational values to life.

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