People often assume that conflict is always negative, but this is not true.

People are inherently different, and conflict simply happens when those differences come to light. Viewing conflict in this way can help us maximise the possible positive outcomes of the problem at hand.

Equipped with a conflict resolution process, people can explore and understand those differences, and use them to interact in a more positive, productive way. Let’s look at the following four statements in terms of them being true or false…

1. Conflict is always negative

As we now already know, this statement is false. Although conflict is often unpleasant, it can be a catalyst for positive changes.

2. Conflict is always violent

This statement is false. When managed properly, conflict can be peaceful and productive.

3. Conflict is inevitable

This statement is true. Conflict occurs whenever two or more people interact. In fact, it’s even possible to have an inner conflict with yourself.

4. Anyone can experience conflict

This statement is also true. Conflict happens to everyone, so it is important to be prepared.

What is conflict?

The Random House Dictionary defines conflict as: “to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash.” 

Some examples of conflict include:

  • Two sales representatives arguing over who gets the latest customer
  • A team of employees is upset with their manager over a recent scheduling change
  • A group of managers cannot decide who gets the latest project assignment

Conflict can also be healthy. Think about how conflict will increase motivation and competitiveness in these scenarios:

  • Two companies vie for the top market share of a particular product
  • Several sales teams work to get first place
  • Six hockey teams work towards winning a championship

These types of drivers can result in greater success, whether “success” means a better product, better teamwork, better processes, lower prices, trophies, or medals.

Remember, everyone experiences conflict, but how you deal with it is what matters.

What is conflict resolution?

The term “conflict resolution” simply refers to how you solve conflicts. Although there are many processes available, we have developed one process that you can adapt for any situation. You will even be able to use these tools to prevent conflict and help others work through conflict.

Some common conflict resolution terms include:

  • Mediation: a process to resolve differences, conducted by an impartial third party
  • Mediator: an impartial person who conducts a process to resolve differences
  • Dispute resolution: the name given to any process aimed at resolving differences between two parties
  • Apparent conflict: a situation where the conflict is in the open
  • Hidden conflict: a situation where the conflict is not in the open 

Understanding the conflict resolution process

Conflict can come in many forms, and our process will help you in any situation. Although we have outlined the various conflict resolution phases in a particular order and with a particular grouping, that doesn’t mean you have to use all the phases all the time. 

  • Create an effective atmosphere
    • Neutralize emotions
    • Set ground rules
    • Set the time and place
  • Create a mutual understanding
    • Identify needs for me, them, and us
  • Focus on individual and shared needs
    • Find common ground
    • Build positive energy and goodwill
    • Strengthen the partnership
  • Get to the root cause
    • Examine root causes
    • Create a fishbone diagram (for complex issues)
    • Identify opportunities for forgiveness
    • Identify the benefits of resolution
  • Generate options
    • Generate, don’t evaluate
    • Create mutual gain options and multiple option solutions
    • Dig deeper into the options
  • Build a solution
    • Create criteria
    • Create the shortlist
    • Choose a solution
    • Build a plan

Conflict resolution styles

There are five widely accepted styles of resolving conflicts. These were originally developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s. We have designed our conflict resolution process so that it can be used in conjunction with these styles.

Although we promote the collaborative style in general, there are instances where it is not appropriate (for example, it may be too time-consuming if the issue is relatively insignificant).

Understanding all five styles and knowing when to use them is an integral part of successful conflict resolution.

1. Collaborating

With the collaborating approach, the parties work together to develop a win-win solution. This approach promotes assertiveness (rather than aggressiveness or passiveness).

This style is appropriate when:

  • The situation is not urgent
  • An important decision needs to be made
  • The conflict involves a large number of people, or people across different teams
  • Previous conflict resolution attempts have failed

This style is not appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made urgently
  • The matter is trivial to all involved

2. Competing

With a competitive approach, the person in conflict takes a firm stand. They compete with the other party for power, and they typically win (unless they’re up against someone else who is competing!) This style is often seen as aggressive, and can often be the cause of other people in the conflict to feeling injured or stepped on.

This style is appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made quickly (i.e., emergencies)
  • An unpopular decision needs to be made
  • Someone is trying to take advantage of a situation 

This style is not appropriate when:

  • People are feeling sensitive about the conflict
  • The situation is not urgent

3. Compromising

With the compromising approach, each person in the conflict gives up something that contributes towards the conflict resolution.

This style is appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made sooner rather than later (meaning the situation is important but not urgent)
  • Resolving the conflict is more important than having each individual “win”
  • Power between people in the conflict is equal

This style is not appropriate when:

  • A wide variety of important needs must be met
  • The situation is extremely urgent
  • One person holds more power than another

4. Accommodating

Accommodating is one of the most passive conflict resolution styles. With this style, one of the parties in conflict gives up what they want so that the other party can have what they want. In general, this style is not very effective, but it is appropriate in certain scenarios.

This style is appropriate when:

  • Maintaining the relationship is more important than winning
  • The issue at hand is very important to the other person but is not important to you

This style is not appropriate when:

  • The issue is important to you
  • Accommodating will not permanently solve the problem

4. Avoiding

The last approach is to avoid the conflict entirely. People who use this style tend to accept decisions without question, avoid confrontation, and delegate difficult decisions and tasks. Avoiding is another passive approach that is typically not effective, but it does have its uses.

This style is appropriate when:

  • The issue is trivial
  • The conflict will soon resolve itself on its own

This style is not appropriate when:

  • The issue is important to you or those close to you (such as your team)
  • The conflict will continue or get worse without attention

Finally, let’s close with some words from the wise…

  • William Ellery Channing: “Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”
  • M. Esther Harding: “Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.”
  • Carl W. Buechner: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
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