Conflict resolution is a practical and useful way to address interpersonal issues and brainstorm creative alternatives grounded in mediation, communication, and empathy.
Conflicts on teams (and in life) are unavoidable. Individuals have different personalities, passions, goals and ideas that sometimes come into conflict with each other, especially when there are big projects involved.
But whereas conflict is unavoidable, the end of that conflict is not always set in stone. Conflicts can devolve and become disruptive for the rest of the team, or they can lead to solutions that benefit both parties, and that end up making the team stronger as a result.
So in today’s blog post we’ll be delving into conflict resolution, which is a way of solving problems using negotiation, communication, and brainstorming creative ways that allow both parties of a conflict to move forward.
As we explained in a recent post, not all conflicts necessarily have solutions, and other means of dealing with conflicts are available when that happens. However, conflict solution is a well-known method, and it is suitable for handling many of the conflicts between team members that occur on a day-to-day basis.
It also encourages teams to be more communicative, to listen and understand each other, and to brainstorm solutions together–all of which are invaluable to teams and team building, regardless of the conflict.
What is conflict resolution?
At its most basic level, conflict resolution seeks to find a peaceable solution to a given conflict that both sides agree to. If this sounds diplomatic, that’s because conflict resolution is often used in international relations and diplomacy as a means of resolving major conflicts between countries or ethnic groups, through negotiations and the use of third-party mediators.
The end of these negotiations is usually the negotiated peace settlement or treaty, which outlines the conditions that both sides need to meet and maintain, as well as the consequences that will occur if these conditions are not met.
While conflicts in the office or on teams are obviously less high-stakes, the principles behind conflict resolution in these cases are the same. Both sides sit down, listen to each other’s feelings and needs (possibly with the help of a third party, such as a manager or HR rep), and come up with ways to address them both.
It’s important to remember that because conflict resolution, as its name suggests, is focused on the resolution or end of the conflict, it will be more useful when there is a clear path out of the conflict. That is to say that conflict resolution works best when the grievances of the two sides can actually be addressed.
Here are some of the cases where that happens:
- Conflicts where there are two clear sides.
- Conflicts on teams that are acute or short-term.
- Conflicts on teams resulting from miscommunications, or misperceptions.
- Task and role-related conflicts on teams. .
- Minimizing the damage of conflicts in the moment and de-escalating intense situations.
Conflicts that are outside of this range, such as long term conflicts, conflicts over deeply held beliefs or ideas, or conflicts that require a change in team structure or organization, will likely not be able to be solved through conflict resolution alone (although it may help minimize the damage).
Goals of conflict resolution
The goals of conflict resolution can give us a better sense of what conflict resolution actually is, so let’s look at them here:
- To produce a solution that all parties can agree to.
- To work as quickly as possible to find this solution.
- To improve the relationships between the sides in the conflict.
An example of conflict resolution in action
A perfect example of where conflict resolution would come in handy is the case of two team members who get into a verbal fight during a meeting. One team member says something off the cuff that offends the second member, the second member then escalates the situation by saying something more directly offensive back, and the meeting devolves from there.
In this case, a manager or team leader can take the two aside, hear both of their perspectives on what happened, and figure out a way to move forward with an agreement that both team members will end hostilities and agree not to say anything offensive. There might even be threats of consequences and accountability if that agreement is broken.
In the example above, there are two clear sides, the conflict is short-term, and the grievances of both sides can easily be listened to. Furthermore, an agreement at the end is imaginable and executable. The damage of the conflict is therefore minimized by dealing with both team members in this way, and the rest of the team is no longer in danger of being sucked into a disruptive conflict.
A step-by-step guide to the process of conflict resolution
Now that we properly understand what conflict resolution is and what it’s trying to achieve. Let’s get into the actual process itself. In conflict resolution, the process is important, especially the order. It’s crucial not to jump around or rush to get to the end without properly going through the preceding steps.
For example, you don’t want to try to come up with an agreement before understanding both sides and brainstorming solutions together. Otherwise, you run the risk of overlooking or not acknowledging one side’s frustrations, which could complicate the whole agreement later on.
It’s also vital that no one jumps to conclusions. The whole point is to hear both sides out as completely as possible. This will ultimately lead to better ideas for solving the conflict, and a better resolution.
1. Recognition of the conflict
The first step of conflict resolution is recognizing that there is a conflict to begin with. This might sound unnecessary or obvious, but it’s actually quite vital to the process. Getting both sides to become aware that there is an issue is the first step to being able to resolve it. This awareness may come from the parties themselves, or it could come from a third party (a superior or other team member) who is concerned about the conflict. Part of this awareness is therefore realizing that others are being affected as well.
2. Communication between both sides
Once the parties recognize that there is a conflict, the next step of the conflict resolution process is having the two sides sit down and communicate together. This is the initial contact point, so tensions may still be high and emotions may be heated. But the goal of this step is to ultimately agree to resolve the conflict and to take the steps necessary to find a solution.
3. Understand the conflict
In this stage of the conflict resolution process, both sides come together to understand the actual conflict from both perspectives. Talk through what is making each side upset and how they feel both before the conflict occurs, during the conflict, and after the conflict is over. Here are some things to think about during this step:
- Be as specific as possible–actions, words, thoughts, behaviors.
- Focus on trying to understand triggers and reactions–what makes both sides upset and in what circumstances?
- Make sure that both sides are given chances to speak without interruption.
- Listen to each other fully, and let go of the need to argue.
Listening and empathy are critical in this step, and will allow both sides to feel like their voices are being heard. That is really the goal of this step, and of the entire process. When people feel like they are being listened to and fully respected, their emotions can de-escalate because their need to protect their pride or self-image isn’t as threatened.
4. Brainstorm possible resolutions
This is the creative stage of the conflict resolution process. Using what you have identified as possible triggers and emotional reactions, try to brainstorm solutions together. This should be as creative a process as possible–any idea should be put on the table for now. Having this attitude may help you look at ideas that you might not have otherwise.
Creativity can also work in other ways. When you have the mindset that anything is possible, that all (or most) conflicts can be negotiable or at least de-escalatable, you set your mind towards the solution, rather than wallowing in the problem itself.
5. Use a third party mediator
Third party mediators or negotiators can be used at any time. Depending on how bad the conflict gets, they can even be called for from the beginning. But generally, conflict resolution encourages the two parties to meet alone together at first in order to establish communication and a ground level of respect for each others’ views, aways from any influences or authority figures.
After the two parties have met, discussed the issue, and begun brainstorming, third party mediators can help bring the two sides to a settled conclusion. The reason is that now the devil is in the details: both sides need to hammer out an agreement that is acceptable to everyone, which can sometimes be tricky. A third party helps control the environment, offer an objective view, and keep the ball rolling.
6. Explore alternatives
With a third party mediator, there is the chance to explore alternatives to what you came up with before. A new set of eyes can help focus objectives, cut out the unnecessary, and propose new solutions. Again, this is the chance to be a little creative together, and to think outside the box a bit by adding new ideas and solutions to the mix.
7. Agree on a plan
In this stage of the conflict resolution process, you agree on a solution that both sides feel comfortable with. This doesn’t have to be in one session, and in fact it may take multiple meetings to find the solution that is best, or to whittle down other solutions into one that is workable.
Make sure that your agreed-to plan addresses the concerns from above. If it doesn’t, it may not be a sustainable solution. Just like before, also make sure your plan is as detailed as possible. Now isn’t the time to be vague. Lay out everything on the table, including the consequences should someone break any of the conditions in the agreement.
8. Monitor the impact of any agreements
After the agreement is made, your work is not done though. A major aspect of conflict resolution is the importance of monitoring the two sides after the agreement is made, and studying the effects of the agreement itself.
For example, are both sides content or is there lingering frustration with the agreement itself? Have there been any lapses? Has it made both sides more cooperative, or is there still trouble brewing below the surface? How has the agreement affected the rest of the team or workspace–does the environment overall feel more calm or more tense?
9. Hold team members to the agreement through responsibility and accountability
While you should be monitoring the agreement for its impact overall, there is of course one thing that should be monitored above all–whether the two sides are abiding by the agreement that was made. If they aren’t, they should be held accountable.
Holding members accountable for breaching the agreements they made is crucial because if you believe in the agreement, then you will want to make it work and last. It’s also an issue of trust. Team members that don’t follow what they commit to cannot be trusted as much, and this lack of trust can spread to the rest of the team.
So that is the conflict resolution process. I hope you see how important it is to go through each step, and what step means to the larger process. Clearly, conflict resolution is very goal and detail-oriented. It’s about discussing, negotiating details, and working out sustainable solutions. It’s not necessarily about perfection, but rather creating something practical through communication and problem-solving together, which makes it well-suited for strengthening teams.