The energy in the room is tense.
Perhaps a team-wide announcement was just released that took everyone by surprise. Or maybe it’s Monday after the company holiday party that got a bit dicey.You can feel that conflict is brewing between some of your coworkers, partners, and maybe even customers, and you want to know whether to address it or avoid it.
As much as we'd all love to work in an organization that's free from disagreements and conflicts, we know that we can't. Conflict is a type of communication that helps us collaborate to solve problems and better our environments so we can thrive within them.
Even with that said, many of us still fear conflict. We want everyone to be satisfied and for every workday to be a breeze — and conflict can’t possibly be conducive to that goal...or can it?
Conflict is a healthy, important part of any relationship, especially those at work. It means that people are actively negotiating their needs and expectations with others, and that’s exactly what helps us stay happy with our workplace interactions.
In this blog post, we'll review different conflict management skills and conflict resolution strategies you can use to navigate a conflict you may be experiencing right now or one that you might experience in the future. You’ll also learn how to adapt your conflict style to yield productive solutions for everyone involved.
What is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution is the process in which two or more parties work toward a solution to a problem or dispute. The parties involved work together to achieve a solution that solves the problem in a way that is productive.
Conflict Management Skills
Conflict management can be approached using a variety of different styles. While these styles may differ, every method utilizes the same management skills. To successfully manage conflict, you’ll need to hound each of these skills and learn the right time to exercise each one. Below are some of the core skills and characteristics that you’ll need to adopt if you want to effectively manage workplace conflicts.
1. Active Listening
Active listening focuses on being attentive to what the other person has to say. This skill is commonly used by salespeople to better connect with customers during a pitch, but it’s also a universal competency that any consummate professional should master.
To practice active listening, the most important thing you can do is have an open mind (and open ears!) To do this, make note of the other person’s phrasing. Then, respond using their same wording. This demonstrates that you were listening and helps clear up any confusion about the points being discussed. Additionally, be sure to ask questions when you’re confused about a point and focus on identifying the other person’s goals.
2. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence describes the ability to perceive and understand other peoples’ emotions as well as your own. This skill is essential when managing conflict because it prevents the situation from escalating. If you can effectively interpret your opposition’s emotions, it’ll be easier to communicate with them without provoking them. Recognizing and curtailing confusion, anger, and frustration from the conflict leaves space for everyone involved to think creatively and logically about a solution.
Conflicts are rarely simple to overcome. If they were, there wouldn’t be 22,000 people searching for “conflict resolution” on the internet each month. Conflict resolution is so difficult because people don’t like to be wrong and will often hold their stance on an issue because of it. If you’re looking to resolve a conflict with a person like this, you’ll need patience.
It’s important to keep in mind that the problem may not be solved right away, even if the solution is obvious. Ideally, you’ll want to take the time to listen to every participant and value each argument evenly. Even if there’s a clear answer, rushing to a resolution can make people feel like they’re left out in the decision-making process. (Although there is one exception to this rule.)Taking the time to equally consider all options now can help create a long-term solution that will save you a headache later.
Another reason conflicts can be difficult to resolve is because they don’t always stay focused on the conflict itself. The conflict can sometimes serve as an opportunity to air previous grievances that have developed between the involved parties over time. Now, the problem at hand can’t be resolved until the historical issues are addressed.
In this type of situation, it’s best to separate the conflict from the people who are involved with it. Don’t focus on the people and their personal characteristics. Instead, look at the problem itself and center your energy on finding a solution. While it might be important to work through those past issues at some point, don’t deprioritize the situation at hand now to solve the older ones. Remember the mantra: important vs. urgent. You can definitely work on the other important issues that impede you from meeting goals at a later time, but urgent issues should be handled first.
It’s hard to come to agree on a solution if no one is happy about it. Even if you do agree, a half-hearted compromise doesn’t motivate you to actually follow through on your end of the bargain. This can even provide a participant with an excuse to avoid dealing with the conflict altogether.
Being positive with your conflict management actions is a great way to keep the conversation moving forward. Conflicts are full of roadblocks and you’ll need to be willing to overcome them if you want to come to a resolution. Having a positive attitude going into the conflict can help other participants who may be wary of the interaction feel more at ease.
6. Open Communication
Relationships between the people involved in a conflict don’t always go back to normal when a problem is resolved. This relationship needs to be nurtured after a solution is found in order to prevent future issues from arising.
Creating an open line of communication between the parties is the best approach for fostering a healthy, long-term relationship post-conflict. This allows both parties to check in on one another and make sure that both ends of the agreement are being upheld. If new challenges arise, a precedent of open communication should make it easier for participants to address the roadblock without risking any progress they’ve previously made.
While understanding these skills can help you and your team manage conflicts and prevent them from escalating, it’s important to understand how you can apply them in action when a conflict emerges. In the next section, we break down some of the ways you can use these skills to produce effective resolutions to conflict.
Conflict Resolution Skills
Conflict Resolution Skills
- Use yes, and statements.
- Don't point fingers.
- Let the person explain themselves, and actively listen.
- Use I statements.
- Maintain a calm tone.
- Show a willingness to compromise or collaborate.
- Don't talk behind people's backs.
- Don't take anything personally.
- Pay close attention to nonverbal communication.
- Prioritize resolving the conflict over being right.
- Know when to apologize and forgive.
- Focus on the conflict at hand and not past ones.
- Use humor, when appropriate.
- Remember the importance of the relationship.
The management skills that we listed above are crucial for conflict resolution because they help produce effective, long-term solutions. Applying these skills at the right time and in the right situation will help reduce miscommunication and create more opportunities for participants to reach common ground.
If you’re not quite sure how you can best use these skills to resolve your disputes, take a look at these tips we recommend considering when approaching your next conflict.
1. Use “yes, and” statements.
In any conflict, whether it be professional or personal, it's easy to jump to the defense. Your banter might include a series of "no's" and "yes, but" statements which might come across as uncooperative.
Rather than getting defensive about an attack on your argument, take it as an opportunity to see things from a different point of view. You don't have to agree with that person, but you can try to understand where they're coming from. Just as you have your opinion, they have theirs and refusing to hear their point of view creates an impossible scenario to navigate.
Instead, change those "I hear you, but" statements into "Yes, I understand, and" statements that build off one another, rather than tearing each other down.
2. Don't point fingers.
On the opposite side, jumping on the offensive is also disrespectful. Being on the offensive creates a negative foundation that makes it nearly impossible to find a solution.
Don't put blame on others or create a space in which someone feels unsafe to voice their opinion. The best way to solve a conflict is by allowing each person to frame their argument without being blamed or shut down. After all, you wouldn't appreciate the same being done to you, either.
3. Let the person explain themselves, and actively listen.
Listening is a huge aspect of conflict resolution that's typically overlooked. It might seem imperative to get your voice in as much as possible so you can explain every little detail of your argument and try as hard as you can to get the opposing party to see your side. But don’t let this idea tempt you. The temporary satisfaction of “airing it out” isn’t worth it in the long run.
Instead, let the other person explain themselves, uninterrupted. You may find that you misinterpreted their original argument and you'll be more equipped to handle compromising or collaborating on a new solution when you've taken the time to listen, think, and plan.
4. Use "I" statements.
Similar to pointing fingers, a series of statements that begin with "you" can come across as blaming. Conflict shouldn’t be about what the other person is doing wrong; it's about what you believe you're doing right and how to get the other side to understand.
Thus, using "I" statements, such as "I feel like I'm not getting the chance to explain myself" rather than "You're not listening to me" can transform your conversation. These statements make your argument more about your emotions, opinions, personal beliefs, and morals, rather than about all the things you don't like about the opposing party. No one can disagree with opinions or feelings you believe or standby, plus they make for a more respectful debate that reminds all parties that cognitively complex humans are involved.
5. Maintain a calm tone.
You’ll benefit from remaining level-headed in order to think rationally about a solution that appeases both parties. This can be a tough one because it’s not always easy to hear your tone from someone else’s perspective. Because of this, there’s one trick you can practice to avoid having a discourteous tone when mitigating conflicts.
Wait until you've let out your emotions before you plan a time to meet and discuss with the opposing party. You're allowed to yell, cry, vent, or whatever else you need before the conversation takes place — but not during it. When you enter the conflict resolution meeting, you should be calm and ready to discuss with consideration for differing perspectives.
6. Show a willingness to compromise or collaborate.
Depending on the situation, other conflict management styles may be more effective.
- For smaller, trivial conflicts, avoiding them may make sense.
- An accommodating style may work when the other party seems to care much more about the solution than you do.
- A compromising style could be the choice when there is limited time to make a decision and you simply need to put your foot down.
However, in most other significant conflicts, it's essential to come to some sort of agreement between both parties. Sometimes you’ll simply need to let go of your pride and your grip on your argument. Show the opposing party that, as much as you care about the conflict and presenting your side, you care more about coming to a solution that is productive for everyone involved.
7. Don't talk behind people's backs.
What happens between you and the opposing party should stay between you and them, unless it's absolutely necessary to divulge the details of your conflict.
But when’s a good time to share the details of a conflict?
Believe it or not, there’s a golden rule about sharing sensitive information like conflict resolutions — share up, not out or down. This means that if you feel comfortable and if it’s significant to your role, you can confide in your supervisor or someone in a higher position than you about the conflict. They can help you navigate the situation and help you form a support system for future conflicts that may arise. This also means that you should never share the details with a colleague in a similar role or someone subordinate to you as they aren’t likely able to offer this same level of support. Conflict resolution should always be built on honesty with one another and trust that what was said will remain confidential.
While you may sometimes have the urge to vent, consider other options to do so that won't affect the reputation of that person. You could write out your feelings in a journal or talk to someone outside of work who has no ties to that person and keep their name anonymous. This way, you can protect the privacy of the conversation.
8. Don't take anything personally.
A conflict with a customer or team member is typically not a conflict with you, personally. It usually involves policies that you as an employee must adhere to or even unvoiced expectations that other people have for your role or profession. Thus, a conflict that emerges is rarely ever an attack on you as an individual.
Many people get defensive or upset or refuse to budge on an argument because they cling to their viewpoint as a part of themselves. If you can learn to separate yourself from the conflict, it will be a lot easier to accept compromise or a collaborated solution that is, at the end of the day, better for all parties involved.
9. Pay close attention to nonverbal communication.
Not everyone is great at handling conflict head-on. These are the people who might typically lean towards avoiding or accommodating conflict management styles. Basically, these people don't like conflict and won't always be transparent with you about what they want or need. In these situations, it's important to pay attention to their nonverbal communication.
Body language can tell you when someone is saying one thing but means another. By being emotionally aware, you can notice when someone's posture, gestures, or facial expressions differ from their words. When someone says "I'm fine," you can tell they're not fine if they avert their eyes. Then, you can create an environment that makes that person feel more comfortable being honest with you.
10. Prioritize resolving the conflict over being right.
A conflict in the workplace is typically one that involves more than just yourself. Perhaps it's a frustrating call with an angry customer or an issue with a policy change implemented by your manager. Whatever it may be, the situation goes beyond you.
Thus, when you're trying to resolve the conflict, you might need to take a step back and assess the situation in such a way. Recognize that, even if you have a strong opinion on one end of the spectrum, it might be beneficial to wave the white flag if it ultimately improves the conditions for everyone else. Conflict resolution is occasionally about making those sacrifices.
11. Know when to apologize and forgive.
Two of the hardest words to say are, "I'm sorry." It's not easy to apologize when you feel like you were right all along. Don't let pride deter you from making amends with the opposing party.
In an instance when the other person might be responsible for apologizing to you, you may feel so riled up about comments they made that you don't think you can forgive them. However, these relationships are professional, first. Put aside your personal annoyances and forgive that person. This will make for a healthier relationship moving forward.
12. Focus on the conflict at hand and not past ones.
In attempting to resolve a conflict, you may start getting frustrated with the other person. This can bring up memories of past conflicts you've had with that person. And, in the heat of the moment, it can feel like the perfect time to bring those up, too.
I like to consider a 48-hour rule. If a conflict emerges or there's something that bothers you about someone else, you should reach out and ask to discuss it within 48 hours. Once that time frame has passed, you should let it go. So, any pent-up frustrations about past conflicts that were never resolved should not be brought up later on when trying to resolve a different conflict. The time has passed, and it's important to remain in the present.
13. Use humor, when appropriate.
Using humor to lighten the mood during conflict resolution is only appropriate in conflicts that are not personal. You never want to offend someone by making a joke about a sensitive topic.
Instead, consider humor to be a tool to make you both loosen up and feel more comfortable discussing a solution. Read the opposing party, and use your best judgment to decide if humor is something they would appreciate. Sometimes, that's all it takes to end an argument and turn it into a constructive conversation.
14. Remember the importance of the relationship.
At the end of the day, a conflict is usually one small roadblock in an otherwise healthy relationship. Whether you need to remember the good times or change the scenery and discuss a different topic, try to remember how the relationship was prior to the conflict and operate within that headspace as you reach common ground.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
The Thomas-Kilmann Model of conflict resolution describes five strategies for addressing conflict. The five strategies lie on two axes: assertive and cooperative. Each of the strategies ranges between assertiveness and unassertiveness and cooperative and uncooperative. No strategy is right or wrong, there’s an appropriate time to use each one.
Before diving head-first into the conflict discussion, establish boundaries upfront for all parties to follow. These might include the following:
- Reminding everyone that the conflict is not personal
- Asking everyone to keep the discussion confidential
- Trusting everyone to manage their emotions and not make outburst, hurtful remarks, or make untrue statements
Have a third-party weigh-in.
In some cases, the conflict may simply be too emotional to address yourself. If you’re afraid of retaliation, discrimination, or other inappropriate or illegal ramifications for addressing conflict, it may help to have a third-party weigh in to address, or at least mediate, the conflict on your behalf. A neutral third party can either act as a sounding board to retrieve the facts from each party to achieve a resolution, or they may simply guide the conversation and keep time so that you don’t waste the workday having an unproductive conversation.
The accommodating style is commonly seen when people want to be unassertive and cooperative. Not every conflict needs to be a war — conflicts worth accommodating are those battles that are strategically lost to win the war.
An example of a time where you might accommodate a colleague or customer is when they complain about a process, but not an outcome. Perhaps you ran a report that yielded the results the other party needed, but the report was in PDF form and not Excel. The other person didn’t specify a preference but took issue with the delivery. By simply accommodating the request, you prove to be a helpful, solutions-oriented team member. Plus, you’ll get bonus points if you deliver the correct report quickly.
The avoiding conflict strategy is reserved for individuals who are more inclined to be unassertive and uncooperative in mitigating conflict. Generally, this is an apathetic approach — people who adopt this strategy want no parts of the conflict and would rather wait for it to blow over.
This strategy is best for small annoyances, one-off mistakes, and issues that would otherwise be worsened by addressing them. An example of a conflict you might avoid in the workplace is when someone drinks the last of the water from the water cooler without replacing the water container. If it’s a one-time issue, leave it be. It’s likely not worth the 2-minute discussion in the all-hands meeting.
If you want to keep a relationship intact and find a solution that works for everyone, try the collaborative style of conflict resolution. This strategy is both cooperative and assertive which means that all parties will be heard and the solution that is chosen should work well for everyone.
An example of a conflict you might collaborate on at work is a process between two separate teams. Perhaps the sales team needs to hand off customers to the support team once the deal is closed, but customers aren’t being contacted by support for days after the handoff. The two teams may collaborate to streamline the workflow. The sales team may stagger the deals they close so that support can keep up with the demand. It’s a win-win for both parties.
Assertive and uncooperative, the competing conflict style is an intense approach to resolving grievances. It’s not uncommon for a competing conflict resolution strategy to yield a positive outcome for one party and a negative outcome for the other. This strategy isn’t one to make new friends, so tread lightly.
You might see a competing conflict management strategy used when negotiating deals. Lawyers may use this strategy to get the best legal outcome for their client at the expense of the other party. A competing strategy works here because it’s highly unlikely that the lawyer will cross paths with the opposing party again, so there’s no relationship to maintain or salvage later.
People tend to compromise during conflicts when they are assertive and cooperative in negotiating a solution. This strategy may sound harsh, but it’s usually employed when time is of the essence and there’s no time to hear everyone’s concerns or opinions. The compromise is based on the most important and urgent facts that can bring about a decision that works for the time being.
A team might compromise on a solution to cancel an event at the last minute due to issues with the venue. While it may not be the best solution for revenue, prolonging the conflict doesn’t help the situation. So a compromise to cancel the event and figure the rest out later is the best solution for customers, employees, and vendors.
In addition to these five conflict resolution strategies, the following two tips can accompany any of the above to reach a resolution.
Conflict Resolution Examples
Conflicts can emerge from several different factors including miscommunication, prioritization, and unmet expectations. Below, we’ll describe three scenarios that depict each of these common causes for conflict and how to resolve them with one of the strategies listed above.
Scenario 1: Unmet Expectations
Marcus and Ollie work at TechTak, a start-up that provides marketing and sales solutions to small businesses. They’re working on a pitch presentation for their biggest client to date, SaveSend. The presentation is scheduled for next Thursday with Maria, the program director at Save Send, so it’s important that Marcus and Ollie finish it on time.
At the alignment meeting last week, TechTak’s client services department head, Riley, delegated the presentation content to Marcus’ team and gave the design responsibility to Ollie.
On the Tuesday before the presentation date, Riley sent an email to check the status of the presentation and how well the two teams were working together. Unfortunately, Ollie hadn’t received any content from Marcus’ team to design the presentation around. On the other hand, Marcus hadn’t received creative direction or the recommended presentation length from Ollie so his team could write enough content.
With Thursday’s deadline approaching and no presentation draft in sight, Ollie and Marcus are both frustrated and anxious to complete the project on time. How should both teams resolve this conflict?
Let’s look at the facts:
- Time is of the essence and delaying the presentation isn’t an option.
- Both Ollie and Marcus need more information to complete their assigned tasks.
- The line of communication has been opened by a third party, Riley.
Based on what we know about each conflict resolution strategy, the collaborative style would work best for this situation. Marcus and Ollie are under a time crunch, and the work will need to be done in the next two days. They can use Riley as a neutral third party to help them outline the specifications of the project and assign strict deadlines that both parties can agree on.
Scenario 2: Out of Order
Brenda and Candace both work as administrative assistants for the local credit union MetroMoney. Their roles are highly dependent upon one another, and as a result, they’ve become good friends both at work and in their personal lives.
At MetroMoney, Brenda focuses on scheduling appointments for new members to open accounts while Candace prepares the documents they’ll need to sign when they arrive. Due to the nature of the role, Brenda’s workflow moves much faster than Candace’s. Brenda can schedule about 10 appointments each day while Candace can prepare about five document packages in her shift.
Occasionally, some customer’s documents aren’t prepared at the time of their appointment as Candace prepares documents in the order that appointments are set, not the date on which they’re scheduled.
On this particular day, Brenda asked Candace to expedite the documents for two customers who were set to arrive soon. Candace responded that she couldn’t because her cadence would be out of order. Instead, she asked Brenda to reschedule the customers' appointments for a week later when their documents would be ready.
How can Brenda and Candace work together to make sure the customers will have their documents when they arrive at their appointment?
Let’s look at the facts:
- Brenda and Candace both have goals to achieve each day, neither of which can be ignored completely.
- Timing is important, but there is some wiggle room for both parties to work within.
- If the customers’ documents aren’t ready, they won’t be able to open their accounts, which affects the bottom line for both Brenda and Candace.
We know that Brenda and Candace have a strong relationship and some leeway in solving this issue, so they could collaborate to solve the conflict. By asserting their needs and cooperating with each other, Brenda can reschedule the customers’ appointments for the end of the week rather than next week as Candace originally proposed, and Candace can reorganize her workload to prioritize their documents first. The benefit of collaborating on this resolution is that both Brenda and Cadance can maintain their otherwise seamless working relationship without any hard feelings later on.
Scenario 3: The Interview
Sadie is applying for a role as a customer service representative at Humbolt Hardware, a hardware subscription service for DIY home renovators. Jim, the hiring manager, scheduled her interview for Wednesday at noon and Sadie agreed to arrive at that time.
On Wednesday, Sadie logged in to Zoom for her interview with Jim, but ten minutes passed and he didn’t show up or respond to her email asking if he could still make it.
An hour later, Jim responds to Sadie’s email saying he’s online and ready for the interview.
Sadie was unavailable and didn’t see the email until later that evening. When she responded, they both realized that they were operating in two different time zones, and neither of them confirmed which one. Jim, unfortunately, doesn’t have any openings available to reschedule the interview tomorrow and Sadie is frustrated with the process thus far.
How should Sadie and Jim proceed?
Let’s look at the facts:
- Sadie is applying for a role and is willing to be flexible to secure the job with Humbolt Hardware, but she still wants to make the most of her time during the interview process.
- Jim’s schedule is busy and he has several interviews scheduled aside from Sadie’s.
- Neither Sadie nor Jim intended to miscommunicate the time of the interview and both made an effort to show up at the time they thought was correct.
The accommodating conflict resolution strategy is the most applicable in this situation. The bright side is, both individuals have some motivation to accommodate the other person. Sadie wants to put her best foot forward and be a stand-out candidate for the role. Jim wants to vet all the candidates and fill the role as quickly as possible. So long as both parties specify the time zone of the interview this time around, they’ll have solved the conflict in a way that is amicable and productive.
Manage and Resolve Conflicts Like a Pro
Conflict doesn't have to be a scary eight-letter word. Addressing conflict is how we strengthen our relationships and express our expectations in relation to those of others. By understanding the five conflict resolution strategies and applying the skills that make them effective, you’ll know exactly when to avoid conflict and when to address it. Your relationships with your coworkers and customers will be better for it.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.