On its own, conflict is a relatively easy term to define—usually as a disagreement or argument based on a perceived difference, incompatibility, or violation of a shared agreement. Although not all individuals will define the word using this precise terminology, the concept of conflict is generally widely accepted. However, other factors associated with conflict are much less easily understood by many.
Functional Versus Dysfunctional Conflict
For example, consider the perception of conflict as it relates to business or interpersonal relationships. Most people consider conflict as inherently negative—a force that can disrupt a working environment, prevent individuals from reaching successful outcomes and even negatively affect or destroy relationships. However, these descriptions are only true of dysfunctional conflict.
Functional conflict, by contrast, challenges the individuals who experience it. In fact, studies have shown that constructive conflict in healthy relationships is beneficial—a finding that seems to translate to the workplace. Experiencing conflict can influence people to strive harder for success, work more diligently and efficiently, and improve their individual task performance. By engaging in effective conflict resolution and negotiation, all involved can recognize differences and shared circumstances, develop better communication skills, and learn to work congruously to create an ideal solution to the conflict at hand.
What Is Conflict Resolution?
Anyone with a general idea regarding what conflict truly is could likely develop a basic understanding that conflict resolution endeavors to resolve the source of the conflict. However, this overly simplified view neglects to consider how conflict resolution takes place. Worse, this view often relies on the previously mentioned assumption that conflict is bad and places undue emphasis on avoiding conflict as a primary means of resolution.
Instead, true conflict resolution refers to the process by which two or more different parties reach a peaceful solution to a conflict. As mentioned, conflict resolution is a process, not an event, and is best approached utilizing conflict resolution and negotiation techniques. While avoidance generally fails to acknowledge that an issue—and its potential negative effects—exists, approved conflict resolution techniques attempt to reconcile the differences, incompatibilities, or violations that occurred with a resolution that allows all parties involved to move forward with a common goal.
How Does Negotiation Relate to Conflict Resolution?
On its face, negotiation—a discussion chosen to resolve differences or disputes or reach an agreement between two or more parties—appears very similar to the broader concept of conflict resolution. However, the two concepts exist separately, and one may affect the other at any given time and during any given dispute. For example, parties may experience conflict during the negotiation process and seek conflict resolution so negotiations can continue.
Similarly, two or more parties experiencing a conflict may find that the primary conflict is a dispute that might best reach a resolution via negotiations. For example, individuals entering into conflict resolution due to workplace incompatibilities may ultimately uncover that the source of conflict is a difference of opinions regarding a timeline or budgetary concern. The individuals could then enter into negotiations to agree upon a finalized budget for the project.
Potential Sources of Conflict During Negotiation
In particular, it is relatively common to experience conflict in the midst of negotiating an agreement. This is unsurprising, as two parties entering into the process often arrive with differing goals, differing outlooks, and other differences that can ultimately prove a source of conflict. Other times, situations may occur during the negotiation process that effectively stall even the most well-meant conflict resolution and negotiation strategies.
According to SHRM, the most common sources of conflict during negotiation include:
- Differences in goals
- Differences in personality styles
- Differences in values or core beliefs
- Differences in power, status, expertise, and influence
- Communication issues, including language barriers, differences in communication styles, cultural differences, gender differences, and more
- Confusion regarding responsibilities
- Lack or scarcity of resources
- Misunderstandings related to any of the above
When one or more of the above conflicts—or other conflicts not listed here—occur during the negotiation process, both parties must address each before continuing the negotiation of the original agreement. Otherwise, the parties will remain unable to utilize functional conflict to promote motivation or progress toward the shared goal; worse, prevalent dysfunctional conflict will not only overshadow effective negotiation strategies but directly hamper negotiations altogether. If not addressed, conflict can result at the end of negotiations before an agreement.
How to Employ Conflict Resolution During Negotiation
As mentioned, it isn’t always possible—or desirable—to avoid conflict altogether. However, when conflict arises during the negotiation process, conflict resolution and negotiation strategies must be used in tandem to ensure those negotiating can meet the ultimate objective—an agreement that benefits both parties. If you do experience conflict during negotiations, employing one or more of these conflict resolution strategies should help all involved move past the roadblock:
- Address the conflict, not the person. While other people can become a source of frustration, it is important to direct attention to the issue at hand instead of another negotiator’s personality. Similarly, avoid responding to personal attacks. Focus on the source of the problem and the ways negotiators can address it.
- Engage in active listening. Conflict resolution—and negotiations themselves—are likely to stall if one party does not feel heard by the other. Engage in active listening techniques like repeating back critical information, reaffirming statements, and maintaining eye contact. The result is a deeper understanding of the issue at hand, the other negotiator’s needs, and mutual trust that would not develop in the absence of true listening.
- Find shared interests. Although it is crucial to identify needs and desirable outcomes before negotiations begin, when conflict arises, it is also important to identify other negotiators’ needs and find common ground. Redefine the issue, so both sides can identify needs and achieve a win, no matter how small. Then, work together to develop a win-win situation.
- Set an objective. Of course, the desired outcome of the conflict resolution is an end to conflict so negotiations can continue. However, it’s critical to develop an objective to work toward. If the goal of the negotiations is to solidify a business deal and the conflict revolves around price structure, the objective could be to compromise on an acceptable price that provides value for the client and profit for the company; the win-win, in this situation, is a clear objective that requires give and take.
- Determine the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). A skilled negotiator enters the discussion with the BATNA in mind. In addition, it is especially important during conflict resolution to determine the BATNA of the opposing negotiator. Such an insight may present an opportunity to reduce conflict and promote compromise.
While conflict can certainly stall negotiations, the end agreement remains in reach with the implementation of the above conflict resolution and negotiation strategies. Approaching negotiations and conflict resolution as part of a process instead of a one-time event allows both to work in tandem, enabling navigation of conflicts as they arise. Through continuous communication, active listening, and the development of a deep understanding of mutual needs, all parties involved can work together towards an integrative solution.