Working out differences of opinion is an essential part of any group activity. However, when disagreements in the workplace explode into full blown-conflicts, it can ruin relationships and make working as team difficult or impossible.

Here is a 12-step process for defusing a conflict before it gets out of hand, loosely based upon inputs provided by Piera Palazzolo, senior vice president of Dale Carnegie Training.

1. Watch for the warning signs.

Like dark clouds before a tempest, warning signs often indicate that a conflict is about to explode: a co-worker's conversational jabs, sarcasm, subtle rudeness, and passive-aggressive behavior, like "forgetting" to do tasks that are important to you. When you see this kind of behavior, move quickly to defuse the conflict before it gets out of hand.

2. Don't assume you know what's going on.

Prior to beginning a difficult conversation with a co-worker, assess the situation and acknowledge that you might not be right and that, in fact, you may not even know what's going on or why the co-worker is upset. Realizing that you might be wrong from the start makes conflict resolution simple. (You admit you're wrong and move on from there.)

3. Start a friendly conversation.

Even if you feel irritated and angry at your co-worker's behavior, you should approach him or her in a friendly manner, not aggressively. Your goal is not to "get back" at the other person but to achieve and maintain a dialogue that will solve the problem.

Ineffective: "Hey, how come you're treating me like crap?"

Effective: "Gee, I've noticed that something seems to be bothering you."

4. Listen--really listen--to what the other person is saying.

When the other person starts to explain, comment, or criticize, put all your attention on listening carefully. Don't frame what you're going to say in response. Just listen, as carefully as you can, to what is being said to you. How to do this kind of "active listening" is described in "How to Have a Meaningful Conversation."

5. Remain calm, no matter what.

Even if what the other person says makes you feel emotionally attacked, don't react in anger or frustration. Set your emotions aside (at least for a while) because injecting them into the conversation at this point will only escalate the conflict.

6. Try to see the other person's point of view.

Once you've heard your co-worker out, do your best to see the situation from his or her perspective. Even if you think that the other person has a weirdly skewed sense of reality, don't insist that he or she is "wrong." Such statements are an insult and show disrespect.

7. Echo what you've heard.

Before saying anything else, encapsulate in your own words what the other person said. Then ask if your characterization of his or her viewpoint is accurate.

Ineffective: "I get it. You're angry at me."

Effective: "Here's what I heard: You feel that I was dismissing the importance of your contribution when I didn't mention your name in the report."

8. When you are wrong, admit it.

If you've really made an effort to see the situation from the other person's viewpoint, chances are that now you can see more clearly how you've contributed to the tension and where you could have done better.

9. Characterize your viewpoint without becoming emotional.

If you still feel there are disagreements, describe the situation from your perspective. Do your best to keep your statements on a professional level. If you must express how you feel about the situation, do so without letting your statement become a personal attack.

Ineffective: "Frankly, I think you've been acting like a jerk."

Effective: "It's been hard for me to concentrate when I can sense that you're unhappy."

10. Ask the other person's advice.

Now that you've gotten both viewpoints on the table, ask your co-worker for advice on how to best resolve the conflict. Once again, you want to listen as carefully as you can to what he or she says, without becoming angry or judgmental.

11. Express your own ideas for resolving the problem.

Now that you've completely heard out the other person and gotten his or her ideas on how to resolve the problem, it's entirely appropriate for you to surface your own ideas. As far as possible, make your advice "additive" to your co-worker's ideas rather than in opposition to them.

Ineffective: "I think that your idea of getting the board of directors involved is just asking for trouble. Let's craft a memo of agreement instead."

Effective: "Bringing the issue to the board of directors could work but I'd like us to try to craft a memo of agreement before we do that so that maybe we won't need to escalate the issue."

12. Come to agreement on the next steps.

Work with the other person to come up an "action plan" to resolve the issues that created the conflict. This is by far the most important step in this process because it gets you both "on the same side"--fixing the problem rather than making things worse.

In addition to the above, discussions are more likely to go smoothly if you avoid the "8 Conversational Habits that Kill Credibility." The clearer your communications, the easier it will be to defuse the conflict.