"Maybe we should have talked to a mediator first."

Unless your company is an army of one (you), there’s a chance of workplace conflict. Any company with two or more people working together can become a place of disagreements, misunderstandings and outright arguments – no matter how well you usually get along. AOL Jobs notes, “Managers report spending 24 to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes.” That’s a lot of really unproductive time! Conflicts can drag down your company’s productivity and cause professional and legal headaches, all of which you can definitely do without. So how can you prevent workplace conflict from happening, and how can you deal with it if it DOES happen?

Arbitrator and attorney Steven Menack has a list of suggestions on the AOL Jobs page for both avoiding and dealing with workplace conflict. Here’s a quick summary of how to try to prevent conflict before it starts:

  • Skip the topics that tend to bring out passionate arguments, like politics, religion or ethnic issues. Seriously, who thinks those topics have any place at work? If someone tries to bring up an incendiary topic, change the subject to keep the peace.
  • Avoid office romance – This seems like a no-brainer, but office relationships (and breakups) happen so often that it bears mentioning.
  • Keep your personal life at home, and your professional life at the office. It’s almost impossible to have your life completely compartmentalized, but the less drama you bring to the office from home (or ask your co-workers about in their own lives), the better.
  • Stay out of office gossip. When your workplace has more than a handful of people, rumors can start to fly. Nip gossip in the bud and don’t participate in it if you want to keep things tranquil and keep yourself (and your reputation) above the muck.
  • Set boundaries. Everyone in your office is a unique person, and each one has their own needs, limits and requirements. If you set and keep reasonable boundaries for things like personal privacy, workload and time spent on work, and if you respect other people’s boundaries, you’ll be more likely to get along swimmingly with your fellows.
  • Be nice. Some people seem to think that the only way to get to the top is by stepping on those underneath you, but the truth is quite the opposite. Use kindness, compassion and respect in your dealings with those around you, and they’ll remember you for that.

If conflict hits, what can you do to deal with it as smoothly and quickly as possible? Here are Menack’s tips:

  • Stay calm. If you’re mad, wait until you cool off before you address the problem, otherwise you might say or do something you’ll regret.
  • Pick your battles carefully. I had a coworker once who made every interaction into a tooth-and-nail fight, but in reality, not all fights are worth the trouble. Decide what’s really worth the conflict – one-time confusions or screw-ups can sometimes slide, while chronic issues might merit a battle.
  • Find a neutral location. If you must confront someone, find a space that isn’t one of your offices. Consider a conference room, a coffee shop or even a stroll outdoors together to talk about the problem where neither of you will feel threatened.
  • Go in with a plan. Don’t simply tell someone, “I have a problem with you,” and then expect the conversation to unwind pleasantly. Plan out how you want to approach the issue and what you really want to say. Determine what matters to you and how you’d like things to turn out, and be ready with suggestions and ideas for changing the status quo so that you can offer positive solutions instead of simply pointing fingers.
  • Don’t attack the other person. Keep your focus on the problem and not the individual. Actions and consequences are what matter; targeting the other person’s personality or character does not help and will only cause the progress to grind to a halt.
  • Watch how you speak. Neutral words can keep emotions from escalating, so stay neutral and steer clear of hyperbole, generalizations and judgments. Keep sarcasm out of it, and maintain respect for your coworker. For example, instead of saying, “You never show up to my meetings on time,” try saying, “It is difficult and frustrating for me when my meetings can’t start on time because everyone isn’t present.”
  • Listen. This bears repeating: LISTEN. You can’t have a constructive dialogue if you ignore what the other person is saying and instead use that time to formulate your next comment. Listen and understand what they’re telling you, ask questions if you don’t fully comprehend their point, and restate what they’ve said to make sure that you get it (and to show them you were paying attention). Then formulate your responses thoughtfully and in light of what they’ve said to you.

Not all workplace conflict can be avoided or defused easily, but with these tips, most of your office interactions can be smooth sailing.