Navigating Conflict in the Workplace


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen Photography

I’ve written before that firefighters are people of action, “doers” who like to size up a situation, make quick decisions about what to do — and then do it! But there’s an area where we don’t always take such an action-oriented approach: interpersonal conflicts. While some firefighters seem to pick fights, many more of us shy away from addressing the conflicts that inevitably arise in any workplace — and as employees who also live together part of each month, we probably face more than our fair share of workplace conflicts.

I am a big Harvey Mackay fan, and recently one of his articles made me look at conflict in a different light. “Conflicts in the workplace can get out of hand when people stop listening to each other and instead concentrate on defending their positions,” Mackay says. “Serious office feuds can really hurt productivity. It’s hard to use a computer when you’re wearing boxing gloves.”

It’s equally difficult to throw a ladder, drive an engine or operate a pump! But although he sees conflict as dangerous, Mackay notes smart supervisors and employees can learn to navigate it, keeping emotions under control and working toward greater understanding. Following are a few of the strategies he recommends:

  • Let the other person be heard. I think firefighters aren’t always the best listeners. This is in part because people depend on us to act quickly and talk later. But firehouse conflict requires a different approach. Understanding the problem requires you to give the other person a chance to explain what he or she feels is wrong. “Much of the time, an employee simply wants to be heard,” Mackay notes. “Sit back and let the person speak. Employees will be more willing to listen to other points of view once they’ve had a chance to express their feelings.”
  • Practice mindfulness. Sometimes we have difficulty just being present — and it gets even more difficult when we’re facing conflict. Mindfulness is closely related to listening. Try to focus your body and your mind on being open and receptive. Try to stop your thoughts from jumping ahead of the conversation. Are you planning what you’re response is going to be before the other person finishes? What do your facial expressions and body language reveal about how you feel? Adopting a neutral facial expression, uncrossing your arms and dropping your shoulders away from your ears not only says you’re more receptive — it can make you more receptive!
  • Dig deeper. “Try to discern whether the other person wants something from you that he or she isn’t asking for,” Mackay says, noting that often, workplace conflicts arise about small issues that mask bigger problems. The next time a fight breaks out over fridge space or whether A shift did their dishes, stop to ask yourself whether there’s something bigger going on. This is especially important for company officers. Try to remain above the fray and not get pulled into the details or manipulated into taking sides. Your role is to manage the problem and facilitate a solution, not to help one side win.
  • Make firefighters part of the solution. Again, this is more for company officers, but it’s something individuals can use, too. Sometimes those who are arguing are so wrapped up in their disagreement they don’t see a solution even if it’s obvious. Mackay notes it’s important to give people time to feel heard and to be a part of the solution. “Solving the problem in five minutes won’t create a real sense of resolution,” he writes. “If possible, take some time to discuss options and think things over before offering advice or imposing a solution.”
  • Don’t settle for avoidance. Remember, most of us would rather avoid a conflict than address it head-on. For this reason, when you try to confront someone about an issue, they may say, “It’s OK, I don’t want to argue.” While you certainly don’t want to provoke them into arguing, it’s important to be politely persistent. Explain that you understand they were hurt/unhappy/disappointed/angry and that you aren’t okay with them feeling like that, and you want to talk it over. Push to keep the lines of communication open.

Conflicts are dangerous in any workplace, but in the fire service they can have life-threatening consequences. We need to trust one another when the tones go off and we run for the rigs. We will never agree on everything, and minor conflicts will always be a part of life at the station. But we must learn to confront them openly, respectfully and with a commitment to resolving them.

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. In addition, he is a regular contributor to NBC News 4 Los Angeles.  Sam also serves as Executive Vice President of Fire Operations at CORDICO INC.