Workplace conflicts can arise from various sources. Colleagues might have differing approaches to project tasks, vie for limited resources, recognition, or promotions. They may also hold contrasting political, philosophical, or religious beliefs, carry past grievances that taint their view of current situations, or even operate based on different sets of information. These diverse triggers can be distilled into two primary causes of conflict: unmet expectations and values violations.

Think about the last time you were frustrated or irritated. It’s likely to have been because someone didn’t meet our unspoken expectations or did something unexpected. That person didn’t do something we expected them to do or did something we did not expect them to. We can get upset or angry, even when we never explicitly communicated our expectations. We might have assumed that these expectations were simply “common sense”, “common courtesy”, or “the way things are done”, believing that others “should have known better”.

Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of actions or outcomes. As such, values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be (source: Wikipedia). They develop over time and are influenced by factors like family, education, religious upbringing, civic engagement, media exposure, and work experiences. However, the challenge lies in the fact that, while many people claim to value respect, the way they demonstrate it in the workplace or at home can vary significantly. For instance, some team members might feel disrespected if they’re not involved in decisions that affect them, while others might perceive it as disrespectful to question their supervisor. This discrepancy means that our intentions to show respect can sometimes lead to conflict due to unintended consequences.

As our workforce and communities become more diverse, the potential for conflicts increases. This, combined with the fast pace of change, often leads to hasty judgments and shortcuts in understanding others’ perspectives. The next time you find yourself in conflict with someone or a group, consider whether your frustration stems from unmet expectations or a violation of your core values. Reflect on whether the other party was aware of these expectations and whether they had the necessary tools and resources to meet them. If your values were violated, think about whether they could have reasonably known that.

If you believe you’ve been clear about your expectations, you’re in a good position to seek accountability by calmly restating your understanding. For example, you could say, “I thought we agreed that I would get credit for the work I contributed to that report. However, during the meeting, I noticed only your name was on the slides and the cover sheet. Did I misunderstand?” This approach addresses the issue with a sense of humility and gives the other person a chance to share their perspective along with any obstacles they may have faced in meeting your expectation.

If you realize that the other person likely couldn’t have known how their actions would affect you because you hadn’t communicated your expectations or values, it’s time to express the impact their behavior had on you, assuming positive intent and preserving their dignity. This might sound like, “I’m sure this wasn’t your intent, but I felt invisible during the presentation even though I had made a significant contribution. Would you be okay with you if I review the materials at least a couple hours before we present it so I can add that information, if necessary?”

Believe it or not, your coworkers probably don’t wake up every day with the intention of irritating or upsetting you, just as you aren’t actively seeking to frustrate or anger them. Most people are simply trying to navigate their day with minimal conflict. The next time you find yourself in a conflict, resist the urge to turn it into a competition. Most interactions aren’t easily categorized as right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, or winners and losers. Make understanding your primary goal. Commit to curiosity and collaboration. Share your perspective in a way that invites others to do the same. Listen attentively and challenge your own assumptions along the way. By acknowledging that we all have much to learn, you’ll strengthen your relationships, both at work and at home.

Dana Pratt is the Principal of DCP Training & Talent Development and is one of our Certified Delivery Experts.

Read more about Dana here.