When people get together, great things can happen. They enjoy new ideas, new products, new friendships and thrilling sporting events. But, there is also potential for conflict.

In the business arena, conflicts surface that seem huge and intractable. If they are handled well, with a visionary leader and competent technical staff, differences can be hashed out and the company's best product may be created.

Conversely, conflicts arise that seem small and inconsequential, but if they are handled poorly, rifts between people begin to erode the sense of community in the office. If not checked, a misunderstanding can grow into a feud that is felt by the entire team.

Conflict may be defined as "a disagreement, clash, struggle or battle between ideas, principles or people". Yet ideas and principles do not clash by themselves. People are always involved.

When you have the skills to handle conflict well, you learn more about each other, and the clashes make room for new ideas and new possibilities.

Don't ignore it

Most people are afraid of conflict, and shy away from disagreement of any kind. They wish it would just go away, and may act as though it doesn't exist.

This denial can take many forms, such as avoiding people and places where conflict may occur. When employees are avoiding each other, communication sours and efficiency in the workplace goes downhill.

In addition to avoidance, many people will resort to gossip as a way to handle their dissatisfaction. This polarises the office, with people taking sides.

The atmosphere around the workplace becomes charged and uneasy. In addition to escalating the conflict, rising tension around the office can contribute to illness and absenteeism. Essential work isn't completed, deadlines aren't met, stress increases and the whole team suffers.

A few people seem to relish conflict. They look for it, create it and bully others in aggressive ways. These are the "difficult people" who like to dominate others on their way to "get ahead".

They often play with power and want a steady supply of attention. Rather than avoid conflict, these people try to use it to their advantage.

Managing conflict

Fortunately, there is a middle ground between avoidance and aggression. This is the ideal space in which we can work with conflict: the territory of compromise and problem solving.

In contrast to avoidance and aggression, which don't take much skill, this middle ground requires patience, intelligence, thoughtfulness, creativity and respect.

These are attributes that can be learned if they are not already present as personality traits. From top management down to the lowest-level employee, everyone can benefit from learning to use these skills, so that all members of the company are transformed into fantastic problem solvers.

One of the keys to conflict management is to train staff members in communication skills, so that they will be able to stop a conflict from escalating.

Remember, conflict will escalate unless one or more employees take the initiative to reverse the trend. Once team members are trained, they will be able to use their skills at the outset of a disagreement, to "nip the problem in the bud". They will be candid, respectful and sincere in their work toward resolution.

Communication skills consist of listening with an open mind, expressing opinions safely and respectfully, having mutual respect for all people involved, and stress reduction techniques for calming the mind and emotions.

These have to be practised with diligence, because most people have not been taught how to listen or express themselves in the best possible way. Instead, society has supported a normative culture where interruption, bullying, secrecy and jockeying for power dominate.

These things may not be obvious, but they are nonetheless potent underlying features of human interaction.

To counteract the destructive force of these outmoded patterns, company members must be sincere in their practice of new techniques, forming new communication habits and a new paradigm inside the corporate culture.

Ongoing support from management signals leadership to the entire company. Conflict can then move from being avoided or misused to being a motivating force for innovative change.

Practice these skills

* When tensions rise with a fellow staff member, lower your stress by breathing out slowly. Count to four as you inhale, then count to eight as you exhale. Repeat this "relaxing breath" as much as you need to, as you calm yourself down and clear your mind.

* Listen to others with an open heart. Give your full attention to what is being said, knowing that you don't have to agree with it.

* Pause before you respond. Be aware of the power of your words to be either constructive or destructive - and choose with care.