Conflict resolution is a way for two or more parties to find a peaceful solution to a disagreement. The disagreement may be personal, financial, political, or emotional. When a dispute arises, often the best course of action is negotiation to resolve the disagreement.
Conflict situations are an important aspect of the workplace. A conflict is when the interests, needs, goals, or values of involved parties interfere with one another. Conflict is a common phenomenon in the workplace. Different stakeholders may have different priorities; conflicts may involve team members, departments, projects, organization and client, boss and subordinate, organization needs vs. personal needs. Often, a conflict is a result of perception.
Is conflict a bad thing? Not necessarily. As conflict presents opportunities for improvement. Therefore, it is important to understand and apply one or more of the conflict resolution techniques illuminated below.
Also known as competing. An individual firmly pursues his or her own concerns despite the resistance of the other person. This may involve pushing one viewpoint at the expense of another or maintaining firm resistance to another person’s actions.
Examples of when forcing may be appropriate.
In certain situations when all other, less forceful methods, don’t work or are ineffective.
When you need to stand up for your own rights, resist aggression and pressure.
When a quick resolution is required and using force is justified (e.g., in a life-threatening situation, to stop aggression).
As a last resort to resolve a long-lasting conflict.
Possible advantages of forcing:
May provide a quick resolution to a conflict.
Increases self-esteem and draws respect when firm resistance or actions were a response to aggression or hostility.
Some caveats of forcing:
May negatively affect your relationship with the opponent in the long run.
May cause the opponent to react in the same way, even if the opponent did not intend to be forceful originally.
Can not take advantage of the strong sides of the other side’s position.
Taking this approach may require a lot of energy and be exhausting to some individuals.
Also known as problem confronting or problem-solving. Collaboration involves an attempt to work with the other person to find a win-win solution to the problem at hand - the one that most satisfies the concerns of both parties. The win-win approach sees conflict resolution as an opportunity to come to a mutually beneficial result. It includes identifying the underlying concerns of the opponents and finding an alternative that meets each party's concerns.
Examples of when collaborating may be appropriate:
When consensus and commitment of other parties are important.
In a collaborative environment.
When it is required to address the interests of multiple stakeholders.
When a high level of trust is present.
When a long-term relationship is important.
When you need to work through hard feelings, animosity, etc.
When you don't want to have full responsibility.
Possible advantages of collaborating:
This leads to solving the actual problem.
This leads to a win-win outcome.
Reinforces mutual trust and respect.
Builds a foundation for effective collaboration in the future.
Shared responsibility for the outcome.
You earn the reputation of a good negotiator.
For parties involved, the outcome of the conflict resolution is less stressful (however, the process of finding and establishing a win-win solution may be very involved – see the caveats below).
Some caveats of collaborating:
Requires a commitment from all parties to look for a mutually acceptable solution.
It may require more effort and more time than some other methods. A win-win solution may not be evident.
For the same reason, collaborating may not be practical when the timing is crucial, and a quick solution or fast response is required.
Once one or more parties lose their trust in an opponent, the relationship falls back to other methods of conflict resolution. Therefore, all involved parties must continue collaborative efforts to maintain a collaborative relationship.
Compromising looks for an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties.
Examples of when compromise may be appropriate:
When the goals are moderately important and not worth using more assertive or more involving approaches, such as forcing or collaborating.
To reach a temporary settlement on complex issues.
To reach expedient solutions on important issues.
As a first step when the involved parties do not know each other well or haven’t yet developed a high level of mutual trust.
When collaboration or force does not work.
Possible advantages of compromise:
Faster issue resolution. Compromising may be more practical when time is a factor.
Can provide a temporary solution while still looking for a win-win solution.
Lowers the levels of tension and stress resulting from the conflict.
Some caveats of using compromise:
May result when both parties are not satisfied with the outcome (a lose-lose situation).
It does not contribute to building trust in the long run.
May require close monitoring and control to ensure the agreements are met.
Also known as avoiding. This is when a person does not pursue her/his own concerns or those of the opponent. He/she does not address the conflict, sidesteps, postpones, or withdraws.
Examples of when withdrawing may be appropriate:
When the issue is trivial and not worth the effort.
When more important issues are pressing, and you don't have time to deal with it.
In situations where postponing the response is beneficial to you, for example -
When it is not the right time or place to confront the issue.
When you need time to think and collect information before acting (e.g., if you are unprepared or taken by surprise).
When you see no chance of getting your concerns met, or you would have to put forth unreasonable efforts.
When you would have to deal with hostility.
When you cannot handle the conflict (e.g., if you are too emotionally involved or others can handle it better).
Possible advantages of withdrawing:
When the opponent is forcing / attempts aggression, you may choose to withdraw and postpone your response until you are in a more favorable circumstance for you to push back.
Withdrawing is a low-stress approach when the conflict is short.
It gives the ability/time to focus on more important or more urgent issues instead.
It gives you time to prepare better and collect information before you act.
Some caveats of withdrawing:
It May lead to weakening or losing your position; not acting may be interpreted as an agreement. Using withdrawing strategies without negatively affecting your own position requires certain skills and experience.
When multiple parties are involved, withdrawing may negatively affect your relationship with a party that expects your action.
Also known as accommodating. Smoothing is accommodating the concerns of other people first of all, rather than one's own concerns.
Examples of when smoothing may be appropriate:
When it is important to provide temporary relief from the conflict or buy time until you are in a better position to respond/push back.
When the issue is not as important to you as it is to the other person.
When you accept that you are wrong.
When you have no choice or when continued competition would be detrimental.
Possible advantages of smoothing:
In some cases, smoothing will protect more important interests while giving up on some less important ones.
Allows reassessing the situation from a different angle.
Some caveats of smoothing:
There is a risk of being abused, i.e., the opponent may constantly try to take advantage of your tendency toward smoothing/accommodating. Therefore it is important to keep the right balance, and this requires some skill.
It may negatively affect your confidence in your ability to respond to an aggressive opponent.
It makes it more difficult to transition to a win-win solution in the future.
Some of your supporters may not like your smoothing response and be turned off.
LARA Action Steps
When engaging with others, the best thing we can do is listen and affirm what is being said. Too often, when we are not speaking, we are also not listening with an intent to understand – we are simply waiting our turn to speak, then we jump to respond without affirming a single thing we heard.
Listen with an intent to understand. Listen for underlying principles, cultural values, emotions, and issues behind what is being said. Listen for commonalities. Observe body language and tone of voice, which may provide additional meaning. Listen for inherent needs and interests, not just what is said.
Affirm the principles or issues in what was said, or simply the feelings or emotions expressed (“you care strongly about this”). Affirming is not agreeing; it’s acknowledging or recognizing what is shared. The listener can do this by simply repeating or rephrasing what was said.
Respond to the issues that the speaker raised and the underlying needs behind them. Ask questions about what was said.
Add information to the conversation. After seeking to understand, seek to be understood.
Assertion Statements (also known as “I” Statements)
One way to engage conflict constructively is to communicate our desires and interests to others and share the rationales behind those interests. When we are affected by others, it can give feedback on how they impacted us. The assertion statement framework is especially effective when used in the “Add” part of the LARA method (above) but can also be used on its own.
“I feel ______ when (you) _______ because ________. What I’m hoping we might try is ________.”
The formula above is best used by adapting it to your communication style, “voice,” and culture. What’s most important is that all 4 key elements are included in your communication, regardless of the order.
Identify and share your feelingsandemotions about the situation.
Identify and articulate the cause of those feelings.
Provide lots of context and explanation for why those feelings are caused – the more, the better!
Identify and articulate what your needs and desires are – what your ideal looks like – and frame it in a way that invites others into a conversation about how we might achieve that, what their role in your vision might be, and how their own interests might be satisfied as well.