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Conflictology 101

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Why are we so different and yet so similar at the same time? Such questions often come to mind when we find ourselves in conflict with others over facts, goals, interests, values, actions, beliefs, assets, methods, or values. Recognizing these differences, and establishing boundaries, helps us refocus and realize that to solve any problem, we first need understanding.

Human beings are the most intelligent species on earth. We’re unique and wonderfully made. Look around and you will see diversity in age, race, color, gender, education, skills, communication style, nationality, ability and disability, income, religion, and personality. Because we are multi-dimensional, it’s not likely we’ll be successful in life without having a few conflicts with others.

We experience conflicts in business—with employees, clients, and colleagues—and in personal relationships. According to Wikipedia, conflict resolution, or “conflictology,” is the process of attempting to resolve a dispute or a conflict. Successful conflict resolution requires listening to, and providing opportunities to meet, each side’s needs, then adequately addressing each side’s interests so everyone is satisfied with the outcome. 

Conflicts can arise from any number of sources, including:

  • Interpersonal, emotional, group dynamics, or economic challenges
  • Goal differences
  • Values and ethics
  • Communication barriers
  • Cultural differences
  • Personalities
  • Parties being unwilling to negotiate
  • Individuals being mean-spirited and/or unkind
  • Lack of knowledge and understanding about a matter
  • Disparity in skills and abilities
  • Power imbalances
  • Perceived or legitimate concerns that a party may not be adequately skilled to address

Conflict resolution aims to end conflicts before they start or before they lead to verbal, physical, or legal fighting. This is different from conflict management, in which conflict is used as a deliberate personal, social, or organizational tool. Though conflict management is the more common road, it is not popular with practitioners of conflict resolution; it is better to avoid the conflict at the start. As pioneering self-help author Napoleon Hill said: “The most important job is that of learning how to negotiate with others without friction.”

Reaching a Solution

Duke Ellington had it right when he said, “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” To deal with conflict successfully, be concerned about your own outcomes and also the outcomes for the other party.

Consider using a process like the one below. This process can be useful in dealing with conflict in relationships, workplaces, or other situations where there is an interest in seeking a negotiated solution. These steps won’t guarantee an agreement, but they greatly improve the likelihood that problems can be understood, solutions explored, and the advantages of a negotiated agreement considered within a relatively constructive environment. This process also provides useful strategies that reduce the impacts of stress, fears, and “surprise” factors involved in dealing with conflict.

Success strategies for conflict resolution include:

Success strategies for conflict resolution include:

  • Have a high concern for both your own and the other party’s outcomes, and attempt to identify mutually beneficial solutions.
  • Know and take care of yourself.
    • Understand your perceptual filters, biases, and triggers.
    • Create a personally-affirming environment for yourself before addressing the conflict (sleep, eat, seek counsel, etc.).

  • Clarify personal needs threatened by the conflict.

    • Know your substantive, procedural, and psychological needs.
    • Determine your “desired outcomes” from a negotiated process.
  • Identify a safe place to meet and negotiate.
    • Arrange an appropriate space for the discussion that is private and neutral.
    • Gain mutual consent to negotiate and ensure the time is convenient for all parties.
    • Consider if support people would be beneficial (for example, facilitators, mediators, advocates, etc.).
    • Agree to ground rules.
  • Take a listening stance.
    • “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
    • Use active listening skills, and listen loudly.
  • Assert your needs clearly and specifically.
    • Use “I-messages” as tools for clarification.
    • Build from what you have heard; continue to listen loudly and actively.
  • Approach the interaction with flexibility.
    • Identify issues clearly and concisely.
    • Participate in generating options (brainstorming), while deferring judgment.
    • Be open and don’t get distracted by “tangents” and other problem definitions.
    • Clarify criteria for decision-making.
  • Manage impasses with calm, patience, and respectful behavior.
    • Clarify feelings.
    • Focus on underlying needs, interests, and concerns.
    • Take a structured break if needed.
  • Build an agreement that works.
    • Review “hallmarks” of a good agreement.
    • Implement and evaluate—live and learn.

Using these techniques can improve the outcome of a conflict resolution process for everyone concerned.

By Deborah Stallings, HR Anew


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