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Tackle Conflict at Work, Mindfully

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Whether you’re working from home or easing back into the office, overflowing inboxes, tight deadlines and competition for work continue to contribute to the rise of conflict in the workplace.

In the current socially-distanced work climate, the search is on-going for new ways of managing people and their problems. Aside from grievance procedures, investigations and mediation, how else can conflict be managed in the workplace? In times of crisis, an increasing number of companies are turning to mindfulness. So what is it and how could it help to restore relations and calm tensions?

The Concept of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose. It involves dropping into our present moment experience and being aware of what we’re doing, while we’re doing it, with a non-judgemental attitude. It sounds easy, but increasingly it’s hard to find time to pause and take stock. Mindfulness invites us to experience the ‘here and now’, rather than hankering after how we would like life to be. It encourages us to witness the essence of the moment, just as it is, so we don’t miss out on what’s going on, right now. The benefits are significant. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation improves concentration, decision-making and working memory. It reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, alleviates insomnia and reduces anxiety and depression. 

Mindfulness is simple and can be practised anywhere. One way is to learn mindfulness meditation by using a point of focus, such as the passage of the breath. When your mind gets distracted and wanders off into thinking, worrying or planning, simply notice where it has wandered to and gently guide it back to following the physical sensation of the in-breath and out-breath. Do this every time the mind wanders – with kindness to yourself. With practice, you start to recognise that thoughts are not facts and will come and go of their own accord, if you allow them to do so.

Another way is to use ‘daily mindfulness practices’. These are instances during the day where you pause, breathe and bring moment-to-moment awareness to something as simple as the brewing of your tea or the arrival at your desk. By pausing and staying present with the moment, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the comfort of the seat beneath you, taking in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as the focus shifts to simply getting through the day.

Managing Conflict

Conflict is an innate part of life. Even so, it can be hard to tackle it in a way that transforms relationships for the better. When things go sideways, mindfulness invites you to approach the situation non-judgementally - which is easier said than done. Rather than lashing out, or reacting habitually, it invites you to pause, take a moment and breathe slowly. This helps you assess how to respond rather than knee-jerk react. Among colleagues, this could mean the difference between an angry row and a robust exchange of words. 

Mindfulness grows your self-awareness and helps you refrain from leaping to assumptions about others you might otherwise make. This ‘one step removed’ approach helps to de-escalate conflict and leaves room for the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to attribute motive to another’s actions, but if you’re able to leave judgement aside for just a few moments, you have a chance of seeing the situation for what it really is, rather than what you think it’s about. It also helps you take disputes less personally.

One of the great benefits of mindfulness is its ability to repair the consequences of conflict. This can be vital where people work side-by-side everyday. It doesn’t necessarily mean they argue less, but rather they engage with greater awareness and empathy for the other’s point of view. People become more willing to accept that everyone falls prey to strong emotions, such as anger, pride or jealousy. They become less attached to the emotions themselves and more able to work on the heart of a disagreement. The teaching of mindfulness within the workplace helps to grow self-awareness, compassion and resilience. The breathing space it affords is often just enough to provide the pause necessary to avert or de-escalate an argument - or even a fight.

Gillian Higgins

For Workculturati

Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

Over forty workplace research studies have linked mindfulness to improved relationships, better collaboration and greater employee resilience. So how could mindfulness help you to deal with difficult colleagues at work?

When someone acts unpleasantly, it’s often hard to feel any compassion towards them. You may feel resentful or angry and withdraw, or choose to confront. Practising mindfulness helps you to pause, recognise and label strong feelings as they arise. By doing so, you buy yourself a moment to soften your response and create a possibility for greater connection, rather than a knee-jerk reaction. At the very least you become more able to let go of feelings of anger or resentment.

The Practice: The next time you feel challenged by the difficult behaviour of a colleague, see if you can notice any strong feelings that arise. Pause, breather and allow them to pass before considering how to handle the situation with kindness to yourself. See whether this makes a difference to how you feel and how your colleague responds. A similar approach is known as the S.T.O.P practice: S - STOP whatever you are doing. T - TAKE three deep breaths, O - OBSERVE how your body feels and P - PROCEED with kindness and compassion to yourself.

Extract taken from Mindfulness at Work and Home by Gillian Higgins


Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister at 9 Bedford Row. She is also the founder of Practical Meditation and the author of Mindfulness at Work and Home.

Image credit @amandajayne_art

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