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Principles for Addressing Workplace Conflict

Common and ineffective strategies to deal with workplace disputes include:

Principles to help:

Source: CDR Associates,Conflict Resolution for Managers and Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, 2007 and Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan,Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, John Wiley & Sons, 2007.


Understanding Conflict Handling Styles

In a dispute, it's often easier to describe how others respond then to evaluate how we respond. Each of us has a predominant conflict style. We can gain a better understanding of the impact that our personal conflict style has on other people. With a better understanding, you can make a conscious choice on how to respond to others in a conflict situation.

Behavioral scientists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, who developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, have identified five styles—competition, collaboration, compromise, avoidance, and accommodation. No conflict style is inherently right or wrong, but one or more styles could be inappropriate or ineffective for a given situation.

1. Competing

Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I win, you lose

Competitors come across as aggressive, autocratic, confrontational, and intimidating. A competitive style is an attempt to gain power and pressure a change. A competitive style can be appropriate when you have to implement an unpopular decision, make a quick decision, the decision is vital in a crisis, or it is important to let others know how important an issue is to you – "standing up for your right." However, relationships are harmed beyond repair and may encourage other parties to use covert methods to get their needs met.

2. Accommodating

Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value relationship: High
Result: I lose, you win

Accommodators set aside their own needs because they want to please others in order to keep the peace. Smoothing or harmonizing can result in a false solution to a problem and can create feelings in a person that range from anger to pleasure. Accommodators are unassertive and cooperative and may play the role of a martyr, complainer, or saboteur. However, accommodation can be useful when one is wrong or when you want to minimize losses to preserve relationships. It can become competitive – "I am nicer than you are" – and may result in reduced creativity and increased power imbalances.

3. Avoiding

Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I lose, you lose

Avoiders deliberately ignore or withdraw from a conflict rather than face it. Avoiders do not seem to care about their issue or the issues of others. People who avoid the situation hope the problem will go away, resolve itself without their involvement, or rely on others to take the responsibility. Avoidance can be appropriate when you need more time to think and process, time constraints demand a delay, or the risk of confrontation is not worth what might be gained. However, avoidance is destructive if the other person perceives that you don’t care enough to engage. By not dealing with the conflict, this style allows the conflict to simmer potentially resulting in angry or negative outbursts.

4. Compromising

Value of own issue/goal: Medium
Value of relationship: Medium
Result: I win some, you win some

Compromisors are willing to sacrifice some of their goals and persuade others to give up theirs too–give a little, get a little. Compromisors maintain the relationship and can take less time than other methods, but resolutions focus on demands rather than needs or goals. The compromise is not intended to make all parties happy or find a decision that makes the most business sense, but rather ensures something just and equitable even if it causes a loss for both parties. Power is defined by what one part can coerce or get the other to give up. To split the difference game playing can result and the outcome is less creative and ideal.

5. Collaborating

Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: High
Result: I win, you win

Collaboration generates creative solutions that satisfy all the parties’ concerns and needs. Collaborators identify the underlying concerns, test assumptions, and understand the views of others. Collaboration takes time and if the relationship among the parties is not important, then it may not be worth the time and energy to create a win-win solution. However, collaboration fosters respect, trust, and builds relationships. Collaborators address the conflict directly and in a way that expresses willingness for all parties to get what they need.

In any conflict ask: "Is my preferred conflict handling style the very best I can use to resolve this conflict or solve this problem?"

Source: Thomas, K. W. and R.H. Kilmann, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument


Focus on Interests (Needs), Not Positions (Wants)

Understanding people's interests is not a simple task, because we tend to communicate our positions – things that are likely to be concrete and explicit. Try to recognize the difference between  positions and interests to assist in creative problem solving.

Remember that figuring out your interests is just as important as figuring out their interests.

How to Identify Interests

To identify interests of the other person, you need to ask questions to determine what the person believes he or she truly needs. When you ask, be sure to clarify that you are not asking questions for justification of their position, but for a better understanding of their needs, fears, hopes, and desires.

Using open-ended questions that encourage a person to "tell their story" helps you begin to understand their interest. Open ended questions are opposite of closed-ended questions, which require a response of "yes" or "no." To illustrate the difference, consider the following example:

Examples of open-ended questions:

It is not uncommon for you or the other person to have multiple interests.

Problem solving based on interests leads to more creative and successful resolutions.

Source: Fisher, Ury, and Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Houghton Mifflin, Second Edition, 1992.


Listening Effectively

Problem solving requires effective listening skills. When you listen effectively, you help calm the other person’s emotions so they feel heard. Once emotions are deescalated then both parties can use cognitive problem-solving to generate options.

Pay attention to your listening behaviors. Be cautious of:

Check out this Ted Talk on 10 ways to improve conversations

We filter information through our biases, values, emotions, meaning of words, and physical frame of mind. Be cautious of:

How to Listen Effectively

  1. Prior to the meeting, recognize and understand the emotions. Are you nervous? Are you angry at the other person? Are you frustrated about something? Ask yourself what is causing the emotion. Are you carrying the emotion over from one issue to another? Are there personal problems from home that are interfering with work?
  2. When meeting, pay attention to the speaker. Resist distractions. Put down your pen, make good eye contact, and lean forward to show your interest. Don't interrupt. Jot down notes if it helps.
  3. Listen with an open, curious mind. Do not judge what the other person is saying as "wrong." Clarify meaning by asking questions to get additional information. Try: "Please help me understand …" or "How did you say that happened?"
  4. Don't react to emotional outbursts. Talk to the other side about their emotions. Talk about your own emotions. Acknowledging emotion proactively will stop it from dominating the discussion. Examples of what you can say "You feel that…" or "It must have been frustrating to have …"
  5. Reflect and clarify on meanings. After the speaker is finished say "Did I understand you correctly that you are saying …?" "Let me see if I have this correctly, …" "From you point of view, the situation is …" Try summarizing, mirroring, or reframing.
  6. Summarize to bring the discussion and check progress on moving forward.


Conflict Management Bibliography