Nurse Conflict Resolution Strategies

When Charge Nurses are surveyed, it is no surprise that they state that dealing with conflict on the nursing unit is one of the most challenging aspects of being in charge. It’s unavoidable; it’s uncomfortable and problematic. But it can also be beneficial. Utilizing various conflict modes and practicing some reliable strategies in the midst of conflict will equip Charge Nurses to better fulfill their roles of safety net and team leader. Nurses with strong conflict resolution skills are better able to deal with challenges quickly and professionally, in ways that can reduce errors and untoward outcomes for patients. Conflict resolution skills are an essential element of a healthy work environment, because a breakdown in communication and collaboration can lead to increased patient errors.

If you are developing Charge Nurses or other first time nurse leaders, here are some conflict resolution strategies to share with them:

Gain trust first, before conflict arises
Past relationships between conflicting nurses will be a big factor in settling conflict in the unit. If there is little trust or respect between colleagues, chances are there will be less commitment to managing conflict when it arises.

Don’t deny that conflict exists
Nurses apply different tactics during times of conflict. Often the first thing that can happen is nurses denying the conflict exists. Denying conflict may relieve the tension initially, but the relief is usually short-lived. Ignoring conflict causes relationships to further deteriorate and more mistrust or frustration will happen. While difficult, it is much easier in the long run to deal with conflict head on. Be aware of existing conflict, and discuss with your Charge RN where there are opportunities for early interventions which could prevent a larger conflict or team dynamic stressful situation.

Separate the person from the problem
When dealing with conflict on the floor, be hard on “the problem” but soft on the people involved. Teach nurse leaders to address a problem together, rather than resorting to personal attacks or blaming others. Teach use empathetic phrases like “I don’t blame you,” or “I can see you’re upset.” Teach nurses to go back and paraphrase when needed, with tone like “let me make sure I understand correctly….”

Get the full story
Sometimes in the fast-paced environment of a nursing unit, a team leader could make a snap judgment based upon one person’s complaint. But that nurse leader may not always be getting the entire story. Teach your nurses to make it a habit to step back and gather information before dealing with a conflict, seeing the issue from all sides.

Don’t fear discomfort
Conflict will always co-exist with nursing. Nursing professionals will continue to disagree on issues fundamental to the profession and critical to patient advocacy. Resolving conflict takes a strong stomach and the willingness to be uncomfortable. Nurses can learn that differing opinions are not unusual or bad, and that dissonance fosters creativity, innovation and collaborative outcomes. Nurses should stop being afraid of conflict and start learning to use it.

Show empathy, or at least empathetic listening
Empathy goes a long way. Nurses are often times experts at showing empathy to patients, but may not continue using those skills as a Charge Nurse or team leader when facing conflict. Any time a leader can acknowledge someone’s charged feelings, they can often move forward to a resolution. Empathetic listening to a nurse who is upset, then paraphrasing the situation back, can do several positive things. It proves a Charge Nurse was listening, provides opportunity to correct any misunderstandings, builds respect, plus coworker goodwill so that a resolution can be reached sooner.

Realize that each nurse has their own conflict management tendencies
There are several different conflict-handling instruments available to self-assess how you and your nurses handle conflict. One is the Thomas-Kilmann method, which uses personality metrics from Unassertive to Assertive, or Uncooperative to Cooperative, and grades how workers fare on compromising, being accommodating, avoiding, competing or collaborating. Are your nurses too compromising? Or not compromising enough? Administer one of these conflict management assessments at your next team meeting for fun!

Understand each nurses “hot buttons”
All of us have “hot buttons” that make us act or think irrational, it is part of being human. At your next meeting with staff, ask nurses to write down their hot buttons. Does a quick eye-roll from a colleague, or a nurse blurting out “Whatever!” cause the unit to lose balance? Understanding these hot buttons and avoiding minor work annoyances can help a team succeed together.

Hire the right people for your team
When hiring employees, consider whether they have a proven history of efficiency and teamwork. Ask questions around what they would do in specific situations involving conflict, and have them describe similar occurrences they’ve dealt with in the past. Hire nurses who fit the culture of your workplace and team.

Source: These principles of this article came from the NCharge: “Nurses Learning to Lead” course, Supervisory Skills For Positive Outcomes

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