Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

4 Keys To Successfully Resolving Conflicts in the Workplace

Grocery cashier with customers

If there’s one chore I could do without, it’s having to shop at the grocery store. I’m not sure if it’s because I always feel like a mouse in a maze trying to find the items on the grocery list (the logic of grocery store layouts still alludes me) or because standing in line waiting to pay for your groceries seems to take longer than any other check-out line. Regardless of the reason, a recent trip to one of our nearby grocery stores resulted in an unexpected – and pleasant – surprise in how it provided both an excellent example and inspiration on how to effectively resolve conflicts in the workplace.

After working through the various grocery aisles and finding most of the items on my grocery list (it always seems that there’s one item I can never find in the store but which my wife could find with her eyes closed), I headed toward the front of the store and stood in one of the check-out lines to pay for my groceries. As I waited in line, the cashier began scanning the various items the woman in front of me had placed on the conveyor belt. All of the sudden, she was stopped by this customer who pointed out that one item had registered at a higher price than what she saw on the shelf.

Following the typical response to such situations, the cashier called one of the nearby stock boys to go and verify the price that was written on the shelf for this item while she continued to process the woman’s purchases. Within a minute or two, the stock boy returned confirming that the price listed on the monitor was the same as what was written on the shelf.

Now, no matter how many times you’ve shopped at the grocery store, this is no doubt a scenario that you’ve witnessed or had to endure at one point or another. In fact, judging from the pained looks on the faces of those standing behind me, all of us had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen next.

Sure enough, the woman began to let out a tirade, blaming the cashier’s employer for trying to ‘steal money from their customers, advertising one thing and charging another’. As the woman went on and on, I awaited the cashier’s curt response spoken in a tone of how she’s not paid enough to have to listen to such negativity and blame for something that’s not of her doing.

And yet, as my glance shifted from this enraged woman in front of me to the cashier, I saw something unexpected – the cashier wasn’t tuning the woman out. Instead, she was clearly listening quite intently to every word that was being spoken.

Then, when the woman paused in her rant, either because she ran out of things to say or maybe just to catch her breath, this was how the cashier responded:

‘Ma’am, I’m sorry to hear that you’re having this problem. Unfortunately, as I told you, both the computer and the pricing on the shelf state that this is the price for this item. Now I understand if you don’t want to buy this because it’s not at the price you thought it was. If I recall, there is another brand which I think is somewhat cheaper than this. If you’d like, I can ask the stock boy to get that item to replace these ones. I wish I could give you these items for the price you thought, but this is the only offer that’s within my responsibility to give. Would you like me to do that?’

I think everyone within earshot was stunned and amazed by this cashier’s response to this woman’s confrontational stance, including the woman herself as her posture and demeanour seemed to deflate slightly upon hearing the cashier’s suggestion. In the end, the woman simply muttered that she was going to pass, paid for her groceries and left.

As I stepped forward to prepare for my purchase, the cashier without skipping a beat gave me a friendly greeting and began scanning my items as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t help but be impressed with both with her professionalism and ease with which she handled the situation, a point I made sure to tell this young woman. The cashier looked at me and shrugged her shoulders, telling me how her job is not only ‘helping customers get their grocery purchases completed quickly, but to make sure they get the items they came here to get’. I think there can be little doubt that this young woman has a bright future ahead of her.

While this cashier certainly displayed all the characteristics of providing exceptional customer service, thanks to her seeing a deeper meaning and purpose to her role within her organization, her handling of this disgruntled customer provides four key points on how to successfully manage those situations where we unexpectedly find ourselves in conflict with someone else in the workplace.

1. Never assume you know for certain what the other person is objecting to
When we rely on assumptions about the other party, we’re more likely to escalate the situation because whatever ‘solutions’ we offer are only going to make the other party feel unheard or worse, that what they’re really upset about is not as important as what we think is required here.

When this woman began her rant about being overcharged for this item, I’m sure many people began making assumptions about what she was after or what emotional baggage she brought into the store that day with her. The cashier, though, clearly made no assumptions about what was behind the woman’s emotional outburst. As such, she was more present and able to actually hear what the woman was complaining about and consequently, was able to offer her customer an alternative that might help address her problem instead of simply passing it off to someone else to handle.

2. Don’t forget what your role within the team is
Whenever a conflict arises between two people or groups of individuals, one common outcome is for both parties to begin drawing lines in the sand, marking off what they perceive as being rightfully theirs.

This response inevitably leads to turf wars and people obsessing over details or actions that have little impact or bearing on what’s their responsibility to manage or oversee. Not only does this approach make us unreceptive to hearing the concerns/issues the other party might have, but it also limits us from recognizing what’s within our sphere of responsibility to address as a member of our organization.

In the case of the cashier, she understood that the price items are sold at in the grocery store is outside of her responsibility and as such, she didn’t get into an arguing match with this woman about it. At the same time, she knew that it was within her abilities to find an alternate product that she could offer this customer in place of the item in question.

Having a similar focus about what’s within your role or responsibilities to address will not only help you understand what your part might be in any given conflict, but also what you can offer or suggest to help resolve the situation.

3. Resolving conflicts doesn’t have to mean a win/lose outcome
One of the reasons most of us avoid conflicts is not simply because of how unpleasant they can be, but also because of the fear that being involved in such confrontations requires us to fight for what’s ours or otherwise we run the risk of losing it.

Of course, going in with the attitude that one of you will win and the other will lose is not only counter-productive, but it also runs the risk of escalating the confrontation as it encourages both parties to dig their heels into the ground instead of trying to gain some common understanding of each party’s perception of the situation.

This is why the cashier was so effective in handling this difficult customer – she didn’t see the situation as a win/lose proposition. Instead, she simply saw a customer who had an issue with one of their products and as such, was trying to help come up with a solution to address this woman’s problem.

4. Once the conflict is resolved, put it past you and get back to what needs to be done
When it comes to the end of a conflict, it’s only natural for us to want to retreat to a safe corner and regroup so that we can reflect and review on what’s transpired and what we can do to ensure the same problem doesn’t flare up again. Where we run into problems, though, is when we start to sulk and obsess negatively over what happened and who said what.

The problem with this is that it not only colours our perception of how we’ll view future interactions with the individual(s) we had the conflict with, but it can also seep into how we interact and communicate with others as well.

Going back to the cashier, I don’t think any of us waiting in line would have been surprised to be on the receiving end of some curt and dour responses from this cashier after the tongue-lashing she got from the previous customer. And yet, not only had she resolved the conflict, she had clearly moved on understanding that she had other customers she needed to serve for the remainder of her shift.

I’m sure the ease with which she both dealt with and moved past this conflict had a big impact not only on how she approached her job for the rest of her work shift, but also on how she interacted with the other customers and store employees.

In the end, the simple truth is that all of us will find ourselves once again in the midst of a confrontation, brought on by the actions/words spoken by another, or by our own desire or needs to address a wrong we see happening around us. When those moments happen, we need to remind ourselves that they needn’t be negative or damaging to the relationships we have with others.

Instead, as this cashier at the grocery store demonstrated, confrontations can be used as an opportunity to open the lines of communication to get a better understanding of the issues those around us face, if not also how much easier it is to overcome them by working together instead of drawing lines in the sand.

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  1. On July 26th, 2011 at 11:45 AM susanmazza said:

    It's so encouraging to hear stories like this one Tanveer. Great story, excellent lesssons. it is also a great example of someone who understands that their job is not defined only by their tasks but by the promise they make to the customer and how they go about keeping that promise in everything they do. She exemplifies someone who relates to her job as a leadership position.

  2. On July 26th, 2011 at 12:52 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Susan; I'm glad you enjoyed it and I agree it's encouraging to see people treating not just customers, but their roles within an organization with such respect and diligence. While this cashier might have been brought and educated to view her role in such a fashion, there's no question that those who run this grocery store are also encouraging within their employees to not just look at their jobs as being a series of tasks, but as something that fulfills their sense of purpose. I'm sure that's why she had such a sharp focus on the situation as she had a clear sense of what her role was within her team.

    From that vantage point, she definitely had a solid foundation on which to address conflicts like the one I witnessed that day. Thanks again Susan for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  3. On July 26th, 2011 at 1:01 PM Elliot Ross said:

    Truly encouraging – I expect that cashier to be doing larger things!

    I also like your point on assumptions, or assuming that customers 'intent' –

    We can never know their intent – assuming what it may be will usually take you down the wrong path.

    Keeping the result separate from the intent can be difficult – but is so critical

    Thank you again


  4. On July 27th, 2011 at 12:35 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Elliot,

    It's very important that we not confuse assumptions for facts when communicating or collaborating with others. I've seen first hand, both as an observer as well as being on the receiving end, of how people can get caught up in their own perception of a given situation that they fail to take a moment to ensure they have all the facts and details to truly understand what's being said before responding. There's no question it's hard, but with practice and effort it does become easier to hit that internal 'pause' button to gauge whether you've actually understood what's at the heart of this conflict or whether you're relying on what you assume to be the root cause behind the confrontation.

    As for the cashier, I agree with you that she has a bright future ahead of her. If she can approach this job with such professionalism and a clear sense of purpose, there's no question she'll thrive in whatever direction her passion takes her in.

    Thanks again Elliot to sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On July 27th, 2011 at 7:22 AM @KateNasser said:

    Hi Tanveer,
    I like your four points — especially "never assume you know". Assumptions sink success and in customer service they can inflame a situation.

    As you know I teach customer service and I must make one remark about the cashier: "I'm sorry to hear you are having this problem" may sound empathetic yet it is a killer remark. Sorry to hear, sorry you feel and other such "sorry to" always run the risk of sounding fake and patronizing instead of empathetic.

    The rest of what she did was very good in that it offered alternatives and explained what she the cashier could do.

  6. On July 27th, 2011 at 12:43 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Kate,

    That's an interesting point about how her apologizing for the situation might have made the situation worse. I do think you're right that one has to be careful about how you apologize. I know I've seen a few people apologize and it was less than convincing and subsequently effective in resolving the issue. In those cases, you could almost feel that "but" appended at the end in the vein of "I'm sorry you feel that way, but . . .". Guess this reinforces the notion that we shouldn't just say we mean it, but show we mean it through our actions, something I think this cashier did a very good job with in how she provided a clear alternative to help address the woman's problem.

    Thanks again, Kate, for sharing your insights on this. I'll definitely check out that piece you mentioned and I appreciate your adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  7. On July 28th, 2011 at 3:08 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure; glad you enjoyed this story and the ideas drawn from it.

  8. On July 28th, 2011 at 3:24 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mary Jo. I think one of the keys for why this cashier was able to avoid taking this tirade as a personal assault was because her focus wasn't inward, on just her. Rather, her focus was on what purpose she served within her organization, something that became clear from her response to my compliment. Having that focus on figuring out what was the root cause behind this conflict – instead of succumbing to that internal fear-driven response to protect herself (and consequently, dig her heels in the proverbial sand) – was critical to her being successful in resolving this confrontation quickly and respectfully.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this piece, Mary Jo. Always a delight to have you participate in discussions on my blog.

  9. On July 28th, 2011 at 6:40 PM Wez Bailey said:

    I do appreciate the professionalism of this cashier, i wish there were more people like this around. I was at the supermarket during the week and the moment I started putting my stuffs in front of the cashier she said to my face, in very rude way, counter is closed!! and there were no signs that said that she was closing or anything…

  10. On July 31st, 2011 at 11:50 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Unfortunately, being treated rudely by those whose job is to serve customers is fairly common. What this young cashier demonstrates through her actions is that having to deal with rude customers is not a reason to treat all customers poorly, but an opportunity to develop and hone how you manage such situations so you can provide the best solutions to those you're meant to serve.

  11. On August 1st, 2011 at 4:07 AM Beyond Horizons said:

    I think this story teaches all of us a lesson about conflict management. And I think one other point that I learned from this story was that it is better to remain calm and (atleast sound) levelheaded when the person in front of you is getting annoyed. Having a screaming match won’t help anyone. Instead keep calm. I loved how the cashier listened to WHAT was being said rather than to HOW it was being said. Because in a conflict situation, most of us end up taking offence to the tone in which a message was delivered rather than the actual message.
    – Sindoora

  12. On August 4th, 2011 at 12:32 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Sindoora. I think part of the reason that we sometimes fall into the trap of reacting more to how something is being said, instead of focusing on what the person is telling us, is because we perceive a threat to ourselves, either to what we see as under our authority or responsibility or even to who we are as a person. In the case of this cashier, she clearly understood internally that this woman couldn't challenge or attack her role within the store and as such, she was able to ignore the woman's abrasive tone and focus more on trying to understand what was behind her frustration and what she could do about it. If nothing else, this cashier provided a great example of how it's better to make the effort to reflect on a situation, instead of simply reacting to it.

    Thanks again, Sindoora for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  13. On August 4th, 2011 at 12:36 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Tina. It's amazing how so many of our communications or perceptions are based on assumptions we have either about the person or the situation in question. Of course, part of the reason behind this is because our minds feel the need to fill in the blanks so that we can have a fuller picture of what's going on (consider how most optical illusions work not by what they show, but by what parts they leave out and leave our minds to fill in). As such, it can be a challenge to overcome our habit of relying on assumptions, but as this cashier demonstrated, it is doable if we make the effort.

  14. On August 7th, 2011 at 10:58 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Alright Tanveer, I hate to burst your bubble, but the whole situation you witnessed was staged because the store management knew you were in line and would write about it. Just kidding! On a serious note: point #3 really resonated for me. Great advice.

  15. On August 7th, 2011 at 7:51 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hmm, guess I should have looked around for some hidden cameras . . .

    All kidding aside, what I like about this example is that it really helps to inspire anyone to re-evaluate their own interactions at work, of not simply relying on those time-honoured assumptions of why people do what they do and to instead focus on what their actions and words are really saying.

    Thanks for the sharing the link to the Marshall Goldsmith article, Jim, as well as for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  16. On August 8th, 2011 at 1:41 PM mergeradvisorsnetwork said:

    This article kind of reminds me of the old book "Getting to Yes" about negotiating. The point in that book was that you have to think hard about what other people are looking to accomplish while you are negotiating – don't assume you understand their motivations.

  17. On August 8th, 2011 at 6:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Good point, Michael about how this also applies to the art of negotiation. Thanks for pointing it out.

  18. On August 8th, 2011 at 6:27 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Regardless of whether one works in a cubicle in a corporation, an office desk at a small business, or an entrepreneur or freelancer like yourself, the reality is that you are going to have to deal with people – either clients or customers, people you bring on to collaborate with to push a project forward and so forth. Consequently, the reality is that you are going to have to deal with conflicts with other people as expectations over what will be delivered or what's required from their participation won't always be similar.

    So, I'm a bit confused as to why you find this piece hard to relate to because at the end of the day, running a business or organization requires you to interact with some form of a 'public' like this cashier did. And knowing how to manage such challenging confrontations will help you in the long run to creating a successful enterprise.

  19. On August 11th, 2011 at 2:05 PM jjtampa said:

    Tanveer, I've learned from life experience that excessive pride impedes success. The employee's humility in this situation is remarkable. My response would have been somewhat curt. Perhaps objective and honest, but I definitely wouldn't be a fan of standing in the direct path of a customer's verbal wrath. To go out of one's way to listen to a listen to what an enraged customer has to say for a cashier's salary speaks volumes about this woman's character. I've encountered several similar situations, and it's always left an impression on me as well. Professionalism is contagious.

  20. On August 12th, 2011 at 3:25 AM Reika said:

    We have a monthly employee meeting where we speak about the month's work progress. Our manager will always resolve conflicts as much as he could before starting the campaigns for next month. It's a good strategy to have this activity which is more like an open forum.

    Thanks for the tips Tanveer. It makes me aware of my attitude and work ethics 🙂

  21. On August 13th, 2011 at 1:18 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Reika. Sounds to me like your manager is also aware of the importance of keeping lines of communication open and making sure to not let misunderstandings fester and get in the way of the team's overall efforts. I'm sure there are many out there who wish their managers were also that much aware and hands-on on addressing conflicts within their teams.

  22. On August 12th, 2011 at 3:36 PM @pbwconsult said:

    Excellent article related to conflict resolution. #2 is the big key!

  23. On August 13th, 2011 at 1:20 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Peggy; glad you enjoyed this piece and thanks again for sharing it in your Twitter stream.

  24. On August 14th, 2011 at 2:56 AM Trudis said:

    Constant team building, weekly team progress reports and a very observant leader/manager – that's what my office looks like in a nutshell. We also have this daily break time when we chat with everyone in the group.

  25. On August 14th, 2011 at 5:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Sounds like you have a great working environment, Trudis. Too bad that's the exception rather than the norm. Thanks for sharing, Trudis

  26. On March 22nd, 2012 at 8:09 PM Tommie J. Jackson said:

    the most common conflict in any work place is between two members of staff who have a difference of opinion about something

    the issue is resolved by mediation if possible

    if there is an irreconcilable difference it may be necessary to consider transferring one (or both) to different departments/ sites

    in extreme cases (for example sexual harassment) it may be necessary to dismiss one of the parties

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