Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

In a nutshell

1. What is conflict?

A conflict occurs when two or more parties perceive their interests or needs to be incompatible and pursue their own interests and needs through actions that cause harm to or in some way damage the other party or parties.

  • Differences and disagreements are part and parcel of social life and they will continue to occur.
  • When one party decides to behave in a way that is not in harmony with the values of the group, organisation or society, and pursues their own interests by whatever means possible, then the likelihood of that event manifesting as a conflict is high.

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2. The benefits of doing it right

About 80 per cent of conflicts that people opt to resolve through mediation reach a successful outcome that meets the needs of both parties. Among the benefits of mediation are

  • Cost efficiency
  • Speed of resolution
  • Confidentiality
  • The relationship between the parties can continue
  • Empowerment.

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3. The DNA of conflict

There are three key ingredients that are always present in interpersonal conflict:

  1. The parties, who might be evenly matched or, for example where there is an actual or implicit difference in position or seniority, unequal in power and authority
  2. The interests or needs, which include the objective, tangible aspects of the conflict, such as resources and manpower, and subjective intangibles, such as power, recognition and respect
  3. The actions and behaviours, either passive or aggressive.

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4. Why conflicts are difficult to resolve

There are two main reasons why conflict is difficult to resolve:

  • Emotions, which are expressed in our behaviour, but which generally stem from our interests and needs not being met
  • Positions (what people decide they want as the solution) and interests (what they really want, such as dignity and respect).

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5. The tell-tale signs of a conflict

Most people respond to conflict in a fairly predictable way, in so much as they confront it head on, or completely avoid it or maybe decide to tackle it surreptitiously from another angle. We can label these behaviours as aggressive, passive and passive aggressive. Sometimes, we have no control over how we momentarily respond to conflict. It’s simply how our body responds.

  • Aggressive behaviours include shouting, writing threatening emails and character assassination.
  • Passive behaviours include arriving late, avoiding face-to-face contact and not returning phone calls.
  • Passive aggressive behaviours include sabotaging and withholding information.
  • Unintentional responses include sweaty palms, nervous gestures and hyperventilation.

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6. How conflicts escalate

As you observe a conflict develop, you will notice it moving through some fairly distinct stages as it gathers momentum, rather like a snowball rolling down a hill.

  • Stage 1 – this is the initial event or action that starts the ball rolling.
  • Stage 2 – the other party makes assumptions about the person responsible for the trigger and labels them.
  • Stage 3 – the other person reacts, according to their assumptions, by attacking or harbouring resentment.
  • Stage 4 – people start to seek alliances.
  • Stage 5 – as the conflict gathers momentum, people invest resources and emotions in maintaining it on its downward trajectory. They become entrenched.
  • Stage 6 – they meet confrontationally, perhaps in tribunal. There is a winner and a loser.

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7. Approaches to resolving a conflict

There are two main approaches to resolving conflict; adversarial or non-adversarial.

  • Adversarial approaches result in a winner and a loser. They include litigation, the outcome of which is uncertain until the court has reached a conclusion; arbitration, which is less formal that a courtroom trial, and adjudication or expert determination, which can avoid prolonged litigation.
  • Non-adversarial approaches are interest-based, with the aim of discovering the deeper interests of both parties and finding a win-win solution. They include conciliation (which can sometimes become adversarial), facilitated negotiation and mediation.

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8. Choosing your approach

There are conflicts that are simply not best settled by mediation and in such cases more adversarial procedures are often required. The adversarial process might be the catalyst needed to bring the parties to the table in the first place, while the use of informal justice processes, such as mediation, can sometimes be open to abuse. When choosing your approach, you need to take various factors into consideration:

  • The transaction costs, direct and indirect, such as costs of litigation or loss of business
  • The impact on relationships
  • Your (and the other party’s) desired outcomes
  • The resources you have available to find a resolution.

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9. Know your preferred style

When under the stress and pressure of a conflict situation, we all typically revert to a default style or pattern of behaviour. Knowing your own style is useful because you can become more flexible in your approaches. Typical default responses include

  • Avoidance – a lose/lose approach in which the person pretends there is no conflict
  • Accommodating – which ultimately leads to resentment and lose/win outcomes
  • Competing – a self-focused, win/lose approach
  • Collaboration – focusing on meeting everyone’s needs, a win/win approach
  • Compromise – which can often lead to stalemate.

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10. Resolving a conflict when you’re involved

If you’ve ever been a party to a conflict, you’ll know how difficult and uncomfortable the process of resolving it can be. If you are determined to address it yourself, you’ll need three things. The appropriate set of attitudes (courage, compassion and curiosity), a set of skills, including rapport building and assertiveness, and a tried-and-tested process.

  • Preparation is crucial – what actually happened, how did and do you feel, what was the impact of their behaviour, what do you want to happen, and what part did you play in it all?
  • Give the other person time to prepare...
  • At the meeting, check your nerves and admit to them, if necessary; tell your story; give them time to tell theirs, and then move towards an agreement concerning the future.

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11. Resolving a conflict between two people

As well as resolving conflicts, you could also use this process to address issues relating to disruptive behaviour during meetings by two of your team, where this approach will help to nip any disagreement in the bud and prevent it escalating in future.

  • First, test your assumptions to establish whether there is a conflict and whether the person who appears to be causing the problem is aware of what is happening. Bringing it into awareness can sometimes lead to an instant solution.
  • Once you know there is an ongoing conflict, prepare the ground by holding separate meetings with each party to declare your interest and set the scene for a joint meeting.
  • Prepare for the joint meeting by arranging a neutral and private venue, making sure everyone has allocated sufficient time, and organizing refreshments, such as a plentiful supply of water.
  • The joint meeting may need to be held by a professionally-trained facilitator.

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12. The key skills and attitudes required

To be effective at resolving conflict, you need to develop the correct attitudes (compassion, courage and curiosity) and appropriate skill set:

  • Listening – to what is said and what is not said
  • Summarising, which builds rapport, keeps you on track and can buy you time
  • Questioning, especially asking open questions
  • Reframing – taking the sting out of statements or turning negatives into positives
  • Empathy, acknowledging the other person’s concerns
  • Rapport building
  • Maintaining a resourceful state
  • Assertiveness

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