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Conflict in the Helping Professions

Mediation and Business Consulting by Kathleen Kauth.

There is often an assumption that someone who works in a helping profession such as healthcare, senior living, social worker, schools etc. are kind and generous people who completely live up to the mission and values that the organization promotes.  Very often this is true — people who are kind and generous are drawn to helping professions.  But it is a mistake to assume that because of where they work and what they do they must always be kind, generous, tolerant, etc. 

It can be very surprising to co-workers to find that their peers might engage in nastiness.  Helping professions are staffed by humans — and every human emotion that comes with it!
Jealousy, anger, frustration, stress and irritation are part of all workplaces.  Each workplace needs to be able to identify when employees are having difficulty and address it with that employee.  Developing a culture of respect and professionalism is critical to a healthy workplace.

Higher expectations

One of the reasons it can be difficult to deal with conflicts in helping professions is the level of expectations one has from employees in this sort of environment.  Unmet expectations can cause a disproportionate reaction to conflicts.  

  • The assumption that a physician would be kind, respectful and a good listener might be dashed if that individual turns out to be cold, dismissive and uninterested in co-workers.  While that might not be a big deal at a financial services company — in a hospital setting, it can be discomforting.
  • If you assume that a fellow social worker will stay late to help find a placement for an indigent senior in need of long-term care after a hospital stay, and that individual clocks out at 5:00 leaving the senior in the hospital, you may be shocked and upset.  


This is a good example of the halo effect — otherwise known as “unicorns pooping rainbows”.  The assumption that everyone in a helping profession is always living up to the mission and values of that profession can color how one views workplace conflicts.

Notice that both of these examples are based on the assumptions one establishes with regard to how a person should act, based on where they work.  Assumptions about people will almost always be slightly incorrect.  An assumption about behavior is only as good as the information about the individual. 

It is important to remember that humans are by our very nature — human!  As individuals, it is incredibly difficult and often erroneous to assume behavior based on only a small bit of information such as workplace.  

Handling conflict

Handling conflict in a helping profession is a matter of evaluating your personal expectations of others to make sure you haven’t overly inflated your expectations of them because of the mission of your workplace.  This will help you make a realistic assessment of the conflict.

Once you have determined if there is a real conflict or merely an unmet expectation about someone’s behavior, you can move forward with conflict resolution strategies to work towards developing a more professional environment.


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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