How to resolve conflicts rationally and effectively
Listen first; Talk second: To solve a problem effectively, you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position.
Conflict in the workplace seems to be a fact of life. We’ve all seen people with different goals and needs coming into conflict, and the resulting intense personal animosity.
However, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing: As long as it is resolved effectively, it can lead to personal and professional growth. In many cases, effective conflict resolution makes the difference between positive and negative outcomes.
By resolving conflict successfully, you can resolve many of the problems it brings to the surface and get these possibly unexpected benefits:
- Increased understanding: The discussion needed to resolve conflict expands people’s awareness of the situation, giving them an insight into how they can achieve their own goals without undermining those of others.
- Increased group cohesion: When conflict is resolved effectively, team members can develop stronger mutual respect and a renewed faith in their ability to work together.
- Improved self-knowledge: Conflict pushes individuals to examine their goals in detail, helping them understand the things that are most important to them, sharpening their focus, and enhancing their effectiveness.
However, if conflict is not handled effectively, the results can be damaging. Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislike. Teamwork breaks down. Talent is wasted as people disengage from their work. And it’s easy to end up in a vicious downward spiral of negativity and recrimination. To keep your team or organization working effectively, you need to stop this downward spiral fast.
Understanding the theory: conflict styles
In the 1970s, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict, based on their degree of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style and that different styles are useful in different situations. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to identify which style people tend to use when conflict arises.
COMPETITIVE: People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, usually drawn from position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; when the decision is unpopular; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However, it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied, and resentful when used in less urgent situations.
COLLABORATIVE: People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all involved. These people can be highly assertive but, unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
COMPROMISING: People who prefer this style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone, including the compromiser, is expected to give up something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground; when equal-strength opponents are at a standstill; and when there is a deadline looming.
ACCOMMODATING: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party; when peace is more valuable than winning; or when you want to be in a position to collect on this “favour” you gave. However, people may not return favours, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.
AVOIDING: People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible; when the controversy is trivial; or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However, in many situations, this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.
Through understanding these different styles, you can consider which is the most appropriate approach (or a mixture of approaches) for the situation you’re in. You can also determine which is your own instinctive approach, and learn how you need to change this, if necessary. Ideally you can adopt an approach that meets the situation, resolves the problem, respects people’s legitimate interests, and mends damaged working relationships.
Understanding the theory: the interest-based relational approach
The interest-based relational (IBR) approach to conflict resolution respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position. Resolving conflict using this approach requires following these rules:
- Make sure that good relationships are the first priority: As far as possible, treat the other calmly and try to build mutual respect. Be courteous to each other and remain constructive under pressure.
- Keep people and problems separate: Recognize that in many cases the other person is not just being difficult; real and valid differences can lie behind conflictive positions. By separating the problem from the person, you can debate real issues without damaging working relationships.
- Pay attention to the interests being presented: By listening carefully, you’ll most likely understand why the other person is adopting their position.
- Listen first; talk second: To solve a problem effectively, you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position.
- Set out the facts: Agree and establish the objective, observable elements that will have an impact on the decision.
- Explore options together: Be open to the idea that a third position may exist and that you can get to this idea jointly. By following these rules, you can often keep contentious discussions positive and constructive. This helps to prevent the antagonism and dislike that often causes conflict to spin out of control.
Using the tool: a conflict resolution process
Based on these approaches, a starting point for dealing with conflict is to identify the overriding conflict style employed by yourself, your team, or your organization.
Over time, people’s conflict management styles tend to mesh, and a “right” way to solve conflict emerges. It’s good to recognize when this style can be used effectively; however, make sure that people understand that different styles may suit different situations. Look at the circumstances, and decide which style is appropriate, then use the process below to resolve the conflict:
Step one: set the scene
If appropriate, agree to the rules of the IBR approach (or at least consider using the approach yourself). Make sure that people understand that the conflict may be a mutual problem, which may be best resolved through discussion and negotiation rather than through raw aggression. If you are involved in the conflict, emphasize that you are presenting your perception of the problem. Use active listening skills to ensure you hear and understand the other’s positions and perceptions.
Step two: gather information
Try to get to the underlying interests, needs, and concerns. Ask for the other person’s viewpoint and confirm that you respect their opinion and need their cooperation to solve the problem.
Try to understand their motivations and goals and see how your actions may be affecting these. Try to understand the conflict in objective terms: Is it affecting work performance? Damaging the delivery to the client? Hampering decision making? Disrupting teamwork? And so on. Be sure to focus on work issues and leave personalities out of the discussion.
- Listen with empathy and see the conflict from the other person’s point of view.
- Identify issues clearly and concisely.
- Use “I” statements.
- Remain flexible.
- Clarify feelings.
Step three: agree on the problem
This sounds like an obvious step, but different needs, interests, and goals often cause people to perceive problems very differently. You’ll need to agree on the problems you are trying to solve before you can find a mutually acceptable solution. Sometimes different people will see different but interlocking problems – if you can’t reach a common perception of the problem, then at the very least, you need to understand what the other person sees as the problem.
Step four: brainstorm possible solutions
For all to feel satisfied with the resolution, it helps if everyone has had fair input into generating solutions. Brainstorm possible solutions and be open to all ideas, including ones you never considered before.
Step five: negotiate a solution
By this stage, the conflict may be resolved: Both sides may better understand the position of the other, and a mutually satisfactory solution may be clear to all.
However, you may also have uncovered real differences between your positions. This is when a technique like win–win negotiation can be useful to find a solution that, at least to some extent, satisfies everyone. Just follow these three guiding principles: Be Calm, Be Patient, Have Respect.
Conflict in the workplace can be incredibly destructive to good teamwork. Managed poorly, real and legitimate differences between people can quickly spiral out of control, resulting in situations where cooperation breaks down and the team’s mission is threatened. To calm these situations, take a positive approach to conflict resolution, in which discussion is courteous and non-confrontational, and the focus is on issues rather than on individuals. Then, as long as people listen carefully and explore facts, issues, and possible solutions properly, conflict can often be resolved effectively.
Reproduced with the permission of Mind Tools Ltd. Mind Tools Ltd, 1995–2010, all rights reserved.