It seems that life is full of conflict—from the occasional conflicts that arise in our interpersonal relationships to the everyday conflicts that occur in our interactions with strangers. The workplace, too, is a frequent source of conflicts of all shapes and sizes; in fact, over 85% of respondents in a survey of 5,000 people across nine countries reported experiencing frequent conflict at work. When these struggles arise—whether due to a difference of opinion, disagreement about interests, or a misunderstanding about either—employing a conflict resolution strategy can help resolve the situation at hand before it escalates out of control.
In a sense, conflict management is one of the most important skills you can learn, whether you apply its concepts formally or informally. However, it is essential to understand that what is necessary to achieve conflict resolution is not a single strategy. Rather, there are multiple forms of conflict resolution. Each may incorporate multiple strategies to ensure success; learning when to practice each is a key to developing effective conflict resolution skills.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Conflict resolution can help you restore balance and avoid damaging your personal and workplace relationships. Better yet, it can help you ensure continued morale and even peace in multiple areas of your life. Begin by assessing these strategies to determine if each can help facilitate the restoration of balance and peace for your current conflict:
1. Avoid the conflict. Of course, not every conflict is worth your time—and avoidance is a legitimate conflict resolution strategy in and of itself. If there is no clear path forward in which both parties may be satisfied, you may consider avoiding engaging in the conflict altogether. Other times, avoidance may serve as a temporary solution until you can find another venue or engage in more effective means of conflict resolution.
2. Address the conflict privately. When conflict occurs privately, via phone, email, or in person, all involved can feel safe conveying any emotions, impacts, or consequences without the interference of others. However, in the workplace—as well as within personal life—you cannot always control the location of the original conflict. If a conflict occurs in public, state that you wish to address the issue privately and move the conversation to a private location.
3. Choose a neutral location. Often, the initial anger or other high emotions you or others may feel at the onset of the conflict are connected with the current environment. Moving the discussion to a neutral location not only disconnects you from that emotional association but also prevents either party involved in the conflict from holding a position of power over the other. The resulting atmosphere is calmer, more comfortable for both, and much more able to lead to a constructive discussion; as an added benefit, changing locations allows both parties time to step back and take a deep breath before continuing discussion or negotiation.
4. Discuss using “I” statements. Unless you are facilitating conflict resolution for others, utilize “I” statements when discussing the conflict. Doing so effectively attaches you to any feelings and reactions you may have had to the conflict-inducing event and prevents you from making accusatory statements or demands from the other party that could cause negotiations to break down. Also, “I” statements like, “I feel frustrated when I am not included,” allow much quicker resolution than accusations like, “You never include me,” which tend to spur the other party into defense mode and prolong the conflict.
5. Use active listening techniques. If you’ve ever felt someone was not listening while you were talking, you understand why the issue is the source of many conflicts—and prevents successful conflict resolution. To avoid this, employ active listening techniques to ensure the other individual you are not only listening but engaged with what they have to say. Give active feedback as you listen, including acknowledging what the other person has just said and affirming what you’ve heard; then, expect similar treatment as you respond.
6. Repeat back important statements for understanding. This conflict resolution technique is a major component of active listening but deserves discussion in its own right. Repeating back important statements the other party has made not only reassures them that you are listening but also allows you to confirm what you’ve heard for your understanding. You cannot proceed with a final conflict resolution strategy until both individuals involved have shown understanding of the terms of the agreement, and repeating back the most important statements reaffirms that understanding.
7. Engage in brainstorming. Once both individuals have had an opportunity to outline the issue at hand, you must reach a solution. Often, brainstorming together to reach a mutual solution can resolve the conflict and benefit you both. If you can refrain from being pushy, collaborating can strengthen your relationship and enhance your opportunity to walk away from the conflict with an outcome that meets your needs.
8. Make a compromise. In some cases, a solution where both parties come away a winner is not possible. In this situation, brainstorming and collaboration can result in conflict resolution without satisfying both parties’ needs. Instead, both parties must let go of one or more terms in favor of ending the conflict and moving forward. You can also use compromise to table a conflict until you can implement a more mutually beneficial, permanent resolution.
9. Make a concession. Determine whether the continued conflict is worth potential damage to your relationship or additional delays within the workplace, and assess the associated cost of conceding some terms. If the situation is not of high importance to you, or a quick conflict resolution is more beneficial than achieving your original goal, accommodation may be an easy decision.
10. Be willing to bring in an authority. If a mutual agreement is not forthcoming, inviting an expert or person of authority often proves an effective conflict resolution strategy. In particular, when a conflict begins to take its toll on your relationship or causes undue stress or other negative issues in the workplace, it may be time to take the conflict to an authority. At work, consider involving HR; in any situation, consider utilizing a professional mediator’s services.
Learning to use these conflict resolution strategies is just the beginning. You must also learn to deduce when each may become effective and when it is time to move on to a new tactic during the negotiation. From avoiding conflicts that promise little benefit and untold negative effects on those involved, to active cooperation during the negotiation process, to a willingness to involve others to smooth your path to a successful resolution, it is crucial to consider all potential conflict resolution strategies in your efforts to maintain a peaceful, productive living and working environment.