Table of Contents
- Guidelines For Resolving Conflict
- What's Your Style?
- Conflict Worksheet
- The Three Steps To Effectively Deal With Conflict
- What's Causing This Conflict?
- Specific Personalities And Strategies
To Deal With Them
Conflict is a positive element of all groups.
Without it, people would not be challenged to think beyond their
everyday, routine boundaries. When a variety of people with different
perspectives, values, experiences, education, lifestyles and interests
come together, differences abound. That diversity can enrich the
discussion, the ideas and the project goals if the conflict and
tensions that emerge are resolved and the group uses the learning
to improve its work.
Conflict can also be negative and adversely affect
the success of the group. The solution is for the group to deal
with its conflict constructively, before it becomes embedded, spreads
and erodes the foundation to the point where it cannot carry on
Understanding conflict is important before you
can deal with it effectively. Research tells us that conflict evolves
through stages, involves an observable process and has a number
of common characteristics. Recognizing and understanding what may
be happening is the first step in resolving the situation effectively.
Some conflicts can be avoided entirely, or at least kept from escalating,
if you understand what is happening, your style and attitudes about
conflict and its causes.
Key Elements are common to all conflicts, whether large or small.
- All conflict involves at least two parties - two or more people,
two groups, two countries, a person and a group, a country and
a group, etc.
- Some sort of struggle or threat, either real or suspected,
- Interaction or interference takes place.
- The interaction may be emotional.
Stages of conflict are evident, and can be tracked as they occur.
- Tension Development - Various parties start taking sides.
- Role Dilemma - People raise questions about what is happening,
who is right, what should be done. They try to decide if they
should take sides, and if so, which one.
- Injustice Collecting - Each party gathers support. They
itemize their problems, justify their position and think of revenge
or ways to win.
- Confrontation - The parties meet head on and clash.
If both parties hold fast to their side, the showdown may cause
- Adjustments - Several responses can occur, depending
on the relative power of each party:
- domination - when one party is weak and the other
- cold war - neither party decides to change, but
attempts to weaken the other
- avoidance - one party may choose to avoid the
other, while the conflict continues
- compromise - each party gains a little and loses
- collaboration - active participation resulting
in a solution that takes care of both parties' needs
Only collaboration, and sometimes compromise,
resolves the conflict over time. In society today, other adjustments
are, at best, short-term solutions. If resolution means domination,
cold war or isolation, the cycle of conflict may continue forever.
Guidelines For Resolving Conflict
To help resolve conflict within your group, consider and adopt
the following principles. Several strategies are suggested that
confirm your commitment to the process of finding a reasonable solution.
Underneath incompatible positions lie compatible interests.
- Dig for and reach the compatible interests.
Every side usually has something valuable to say.
- Listen to both sides equally, and hear the valuable contributions.
Issues become polarized when there is little or no dialogue.
- Initiate discussion and dialogue, encouraging participation.
High emotions charge the issue.
- Create an environment where people can express their feelings
Parties will focus on differences.
- Ask them to identify areas they have in common, remind them
and express progress.
Parties may become defensive and protect, justify or explain
- Search for solutions: seek to understand but remind them of
the need to move on.
Parties will immediately want to discuss their individual needs.
- Only when contact, and good will have been established, should
needs be discussed.
Parties often feel their story has not been heard.
- Listen to each parties' needs, and ensure each party listens
to the other.
Identifying and understanding the desired outcomes will result
- Step back - ask the parties what they want the outcome to be,
and list the desired outcomes.
Conflict creates emotions and feelings that are barriers to
- Take stock here and now, identify and understand the emotions,
and move the discussion to approaches, strategies and desired
What's Your Style?
Most people have a dominant method or style of dealing with conflict.
In some cases, that style may be appropriate, but it may not be,
depending on the situation. In most cases, the best style to use
is one that achieves an acceptable solution to both parties. This
is a collaboration style, and to a lesser extent, a compromising
style. This list of styles describes the five most common styles
people use to deal with conflict. Which one describes you best?
- Avoiding (unco-operative and unassertive)
Your customary manner is to be passive and withdraw from conflict
situations. Your most frequent attitude is to be accepting and
patient, often suppressing your strong feelings to avoid confrontation.
This type of behaviour usually victimizes one's self, and tends
to make it difficult for others to know there is a problem.
Avoiding can be useful when: an issue is trivial, you have
no chance of getting your way, potential harm outweighs the benefits,
you need time to let people cool down.
- Accommodating (co-operative and unassertive)
You try to satisfy the other person's concerns at the expense
of your own. You strive to understand, listen and put yourself
in the other person's place. The mood is often co-operative and
An accommodating style may be useful when: you know you
are wrong, as a gesture of good will, to build favours owed, when
you are clearly losing, when harmony is very important.
- Competing (unco-operative and assertive)
You use direct tactics and have a strong need to control the situation
and/or people. You want to straighten out the other person, to
argue about who is right, and are ready to defend your ideas forcibly.
You use whatever seems appropriate to win.
This style may be most useful and effective in emergencies, discipline,
enforcement of unpopular rules, when doing unpopular things that
must be done.
- Collaborating (co-operative and assertive)
You work with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies
both sides. You are ready to defend a stand without being too
pushy. You are willing to work toward a mutually agreeable solution
through negotiation. Verbal skills are used to move the discussion
This style is helpful when: both sides are important, learning
something new is important, to merge insights, buy-in from others
is important, to deal with hard feelings.
- Compromising (intermediate in co-operating and assertiveness)
You work to seek a middle-ground solution for both parties. The
solution provides partial satisfaction for both, but in the interest
of time and a lack of commitment or effort to do better, this
This style is most helpful when: neither side is very important,
power on both sides is equal, to arrive at the best solution because
you are pressed for time, as a back up when other ways fail.
Think of a difficult situation in this group or another where you
have been involved and wanted to have resolved more positively.
Write down your observations and understanding of the situation:
The problem (2 to 3 sentences)
Who was involved? Who are the main parties?
What actually happened?
What did you want to happen?
The Three Steps To Effectively Deal With
- Define the situation, the facts, the aim or outcome (recognize
- Review the immediate environment.
- Assemble information.
- Describe the situation.
- Specify the outcomes.
- Search for alternatives and their implications (generate alternatives)
- Create choices (reach beyond "either/or" solutions).
- Identify as many feasible solutions as possible.
- Assemble criteria to evaluate choices.
- Assess alternatives: advantages, disadvantages, implications
- Make a decision (choose a solution).
- Select the most appropriate solution.
- Determine implementation plans - who does what by when?
- Follow up on tasks assigned or agreed upon.
- Evaluate the solution and whether or not it is working.
What's Causing This Conflict?
There are five main sources of conflict between two parties. Knowing
these root causes may help to determine what's needed by either
or both of the parties to resolve the situation.
Techniques for Dealing with Challenging Personalities
In many cases, conflict can arise between two people or parties
because of the personalities involved. Here are several strategies
for dealing with challenging personalities, followed by descriptions
and specific strategies for a number of the more common difficult
personalities found in groups and organizations.
Assess the situation
Is the person genuinely difficult or just cranky for a short time?
Stop wishing the person were different.
You can't change it. It's not even a good idea to try.
Distance yourself from the difficult situation.
Develop a detached view. By giving yourself some distance, you
get a better perspective.
"Keep your cool."
Don't defend or retaliate.
Formulate a plan to interrupt the situation and carry it through.
You can't change the behaviour of the other person, but you can
change yours. Be prepared to adjust your strategy as you go along.
If your strategies for coping don't work, stop your efforts
for the time being.
Don't let the situation do you more harm.
Keep it all in perspective.
Consider the source, the importance of the issue and if others
see it as a problem.
Root Problem 1: Values (often the most difficult to resolve, due
to the deep-rooted nature of the situation)
- assumptions about the other person's values
- real differences in values
- not checking assumptions about values
- mistaking behaviour for values
- seeing a difference between the person's behaviour and what
they say are their values
- values are not disclosed
- different ways of life, ideology and/or religion
Root Problem 2: Resources
Root Problem 3: Interpersonal
- general lack of familiarity with others
- failure to check assumptions about one another
- behaviours perceived to be negative
- unresolved disagreements
- unstated interests
- past negative encounters with the other party
Root Problem 4: Interests
- competing needs, desires or wishes
- substantive, procedural or psychological interests perceived
to be in competition
Root Problem 5: Facts
- lack of information
- different views on what is relevant
- interpretation of differences
- different assessment procedures
Specific Personalities and Strategies
to Deal with Them
- Gripe incessantly but never try to do anything about their complaints.
- May feel powerless to do anything or may refuse to bear the
responsibility for a solution.
- Listen attentively even though it may be very difficult.
- Acknowledge what the complainer says by paraphrasing the complaints.
- Don't agree with the complaints.
- Be prepared to interrupt and take control of the situation.
Complainers love to ramble.
- Use limiting responses that pin the complainer to specifics.
- Avoid the accusation-defense-reaccusation sequence where you
defend an accusation and then are reaccused.
- State the facts without comment and without apology.
- Switch to problem solving.
- Be prepared to begin this strategy from the beginning several
- Can ruin a program because they put off decisions until it is
too late to do anything about it.
- Delay making a decision until the decision is made for them.
- Won't let go of anything until it is perfect, which it never
- Bring the issues out in the open and make it easy for them
to be direct. Pursue all signs of indecision.
- Help them solve the problem(s).
- Place all the alternatives in rank of importance.
- Emphasize the importance of quality and service.
- If possible, keep control of what you are working on.
- Watch for signs that the pressure to make a decision may be
- Appear very reasonable, sincere and supportive, at least in
- Often don't produce what they say they will produce.
- Sometimes act contrary to what they have led you to expect.
- Make honesty non-threatening. They are afraid you don't want
to hear the truth.
- Be personable if you can and only if you mean it.
- Don't allow them to make unrealistic commitments they can't
- Be prepared to compromise so you are both in a win-win situation.
- Listen to their humour. They often hide the truth there.
- Object to everything.
- Believe whatever you propose won't work or is impossible.
- All too often completely deflate any optimism you might have
for a project.
- Avoid getting drawn into their attitude.
- State your own realistic optimism.
- Don't agree with them.
- Don't hurry to propose solutions.
- Use their negativism constructively. It never hurts to have
a devil's advocate.
- Be prepared to take on the project with support from others
if you can't change their attitudes.
5. Know-it-all Experts
- Believe, and want you to believe, that they know all there is
to know about anything worth knowing.
- Are usually condescending, imposing or pompous.
- Will try to make you feel inferior.
- Do your homework on the subject.
- Listen to and acknowledge what they say.
- Question firmly, but don't confront. They hate being wrong.
- Avoid being a counter-expert.
- Let them be the expert they think they are.
- Answer every question and every plea for help with a yes, a
no, or a grunt and sometimes with an I-don't-know.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Use the friendly, silent stare.
- Pause for long periods, inviting them to fill the void.
- Comment on what is happening in the discussion.
- Recycle the conversation if necessary.
- Break the tension by helping them to say what they are thinking.
- Set time limits on the length of the discussion.
- Try to bully and overwhelm you by bombarding you.
- Make cutting remarks or throw temper tantrums when they don't
get their own way.
- Are convinced theirs is the only way.
- Stand up for yourself, without being threatening.
- Give them time to run down.
- Get their attention, but don't startle them.
- Have them sit down; this will make them less aggressive.
- Speak for your own point of view; don't attack them.
- Avoid a head-on fight.
- Be friendly.