This summary is a reflection of the slides and discussions that took place during the evening meeting on ‘Managing Conflict’ on the 12th November 2015.  It focuses on managing conflict between colleagues and peers, rather than with patients and families, although the principles are broadly the same.


Managing conflict within the organisation you are working in is often a source of visible and unseen strain on consultants, whether newly appointed or close to retirement.

The first thing to accept is that the potential for conflict is invariably a fact of life.  Conflict often arises because of some perceived unfairness – conditions or workload are the common causes.  Remember, a fair deal does not mean the same as an equal deal.  Some people, even consultants(!), are easier to work with than others, so personality types make the mix more interesting but rarely change the fundamental issue: one party perceives a lack of fairness.  A minority of people sow conflict around them by projecting that they have a higher sense of entitlement than their peers – make sure you are not in this category! 

One underrated effect of conflict in the workplace is its potential for negative effects on staff wellbeing, productivity and quality of care.  It is virtually impossible to measure its corrosive effects, but they can be widespread and long lasting.  So, it is important to take all possible steps to mitigate the presence, or effects, of workplace conflict.

Conflict can be a passive, inhibitory force in your workplace, often present but rarely (if ever) acknowledged.  Some describe this as a cold conflict.  The hot version is portrayed as being more overt, animated and can be bruising to witness or receive.  The overall impact of either type is increasingly insular views, tribalism and the promotion of non or minimal cooperation between the affected parties.  It diverts mental energy and time from the clinical tasks that require our full attention.

I would argue that your response to hot or cold conflicts will have a major effect on your workplace wellbeing, and indirectly on the clinical and non-clinical interactions you have within your organisation.  So, it is worth approaching the people you have conflict with in a respectful manner, with the aim of improving relations.  At the very least, all adults in the workplace should be expected to be cordial, respectful and business-like.  As a worst case scenario that minimum standard should be palatable to you.  If you are finding yourself in a situation less than that, despite your efforts, that is a matter you should consider bringing up with your Clinical Director or a trusted colleague, as it is the basic level of workplace relationships that everyone is entitled to.

The key to improving relations is to acknowledge to yourself and those affected, that conflict seems to be present.  Body language – your tone, position, arrangement of seating - all play a part in making the situation as non-adversarial as possible.  The end point should be a solution that works for patients and staff – don’t forget to remind yourself and others that this is why you are having a potentially difficult conversations.  The book reference below is a light and engaging read on this challenging subject.

Practical tips

  • Stay focused on a solution that works for patients and staff.
  • Stay calm – if thing are getting heated, suggest everyone ‘takes 5’ (minutes) out.
  • Remember the importance of body language and tone in de-escalating conflict situations with colleagues.
  • Never publicly dehumanise others, however humorous it may seem (private jokes should be kept to your inner circle, outside work!).
  • Beware email – never send one in anger.  Ideally, only send positive or neutral messages through this medium and you won’t go far wrong.
  • Expect and reciprocate a cordial, respectful and business-like persona as the basic level of functioning – if you and others can offer more, the better your worklife becomes.
  • Above all, focus on fairness and a respectful and supportive workplace culture.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Bruce Patton et al, 2000

Speaker: Dr Mark Roberts, Consultant in Acute and Geriatric Medicine, Craigavon Area Hospital, Northern Ireland;

Reviewed January 2018 & August 2021