There is a bucket of cleaning supplies beneath my sink. Anti-bacterial floor cleansers, window spray and furniture polish. Stain removers and scouring pads and lacquer thinner that will remove indelible marker but may also dissolve whatever is beneath. I want to choose more environmentally friendly and less toxic products.

For cleaning up a conflict at work I have found a bucket of phrases that are effective without being harsh. These phrases deal with real issues without making the work environment toxic.

Unmet expectations are the cause of all conflict. If one of your colleagues or employees is not doing what’s expected, there will be conflict. If they are doing something they could reasonably be expected not to, there will be conflict too.

Here are four phrases to help clean up conflict at work:

  1. Rumor has it…

Instead of attacking someone for something you heard, explore the issue first. If you blame an employee before listening, you may undermine your own credibility.

  1. Help me understand…

Starting a conversation with this phrase reduces shame and blame and moves the conversation from an emotional reaction to a reasonable discussion that’s more likely to produce change.

  1. That surprises me. Does it surprise you?

Tell people you expected better and often they will rise to that level. When asking if they were surprised too, you will get a read not just on their emotional response, but of their values too. You’ll see what’s important to them and what’s not. Watch for body language; hesitation, looking away, or a genuine smile all say something.

  1. How can we work together to make this better?

Unmet expectations and conflict have the potential to drive us apart. A few early words of affirmation and collaboration can make the relationship stronger and more productive than ever.

Sometimes problem solving is not a matter of commitment or good intentions. Use different words to get better interaction and results.