Ombud’s Corner: stuck in conflict – why me first?

When a long-standing conflict appears to permeate every action, and even the rest of the team seem resigned to there being no hope of a solution, there is still always a way out, even if only one of the people concerned decides to do something about it…


John and Paul have been working in the same unit for many years. For a long time, however, following a very serious conflict they had earlier in their career, they have not been talking to each other and there is no direct interaction between the two. Somehow the old disagreement is blocking them from being able to do as good a job as they would like. When asked about the unpleasant situation, John and Paul separately acknowledge that they are locked in a destructive relationship and recognise the fact that it is affecting their working lives. However, neither John nor Paul wants to make the first move. “No, it’s not my fault, why should I take that step?” they say. 

Undeniably, an ongoing conflict like this can have a very negative effect on both the work and the career of the people concerned because, in refusing to talk to each other, they put themselves (and their colleagues) in a position that may jeopardise their work and hamper their working relationships. Even if they realise that something needs to be done to change the situation, by remaining locked in their own separate realities, each blaming the other and being too proud to take the first step towards reconciliation, they will be unable to find a way out. 

The only way out of this kind of an impasse, however, is by deciding to let bygones be bygones, acknowledging the behaviours on both sides that need to change and agreeing to move forward towards a different work pattern. 

For this to happen, at least one of them needs to have the courage to step back and examine the situation, identify what they themselves can do differently so as to bring about a different reaction from the other and unblock the unhealthy situation. As long as each waits for the other person to take action, nothing will change, and all current and future projects will continue to be poisoned by the past. A step forward on the part of one, however, will inevitably bring about a change in the other and help to gradually break down the antagonism that has built up over the years. 

Changing the situation needs to become a necessity. If this is perceived to be the case, the question will no longer be “Who takes the first step?” but, rather, “What am I willing to do for this to change?”

Taking such a step is by no means easily done, however, as it implies putting aside feelings that were undoubtedly legitimate in the past, and asking oneself questions such as: “What is it that I really want today? What am I prepared to do to achieve it?” And crucially also, “What am I prepared to give up in order to get there?” It means stepping out of one’s comfort zone and inviting the other to do the same, thus creating a very different zone of comfort focused on shared interests. 

At this stage, mediation, or a discussion in the presence of a third person, such as a supervisor or the Ombud, might be an additional option to support them in their endeavour and help to unblock the situation by providing them with the framework within which to overcome their age-old differences and move forward towards the starting point of a new relationship.

Contact the Ombud Early!


All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill