A conflict is a situation when the interests, needs, goals or values of involved parties interfere with one another. In the workplace, conflicts are common and inevitable. Different stakeholders may have different priorities; conflicts may involve team members, departments, projects, organization and client, boss and subordinate, organization needs vs. personal needs. Often, a conflict is a result of perception. Is conflict a bad thing? Not necessarily. Often, a conflict presents opportunities for improvement. Therefore, it is important to understand (and apply) various conflict resolution techniques.
Also known as competing. An individual firmly pursues his or her own concerns despite resistance from the other person. This may involve pushing one viewpoint at the expense of another or maintaining firm resistance to another person’s actions.
Examples of when forcing may be appropriate:
- In certain situations when all other, less forceful methods, don’t work or are ineffective
- When you need to stand up for your own rights, resist aggression or pressure
- When a quick resolution is required and using force is justified (e.g. in a life-threatening situation, to stop aggression)
- As a last resort to resolve a long-standing conflict
Possible advantages of forcing:
- May provide a quick resolution to a conflict
- Increases self-esteem and draws respect when firm resistance or actions were the response to aggression or hostility
Some caveats of forcing:
- May negatively affect your relationship with the opponent in the long run
- May cause the opponent to react in the same way, even if the opponent did not intend to be forceful originally
- Cannot take advantage of the strong sides of the other side’s position
- Taking this approach may require a lot of energy and be exhausting to some individuals
Also known as confronting the problem or problem solving. Collaboration involves an attempt to work with the other person to find a win-win solution to the problem at hand - the one that most satisfies the concerns of both parties. The win-win approach sees conflict resolution as an opportunity to come to a mutually beneficial result. It includes identifying your opponent’s underlying concerns and finding an alternative which meets each party's concerns.
Examples of when collaborating may be appropriate:
- When consensus and commitment of other parties is important
- In a collaborative environment
- When addressing the interests of multiple stakeholders is required
- When a high level of trust is present
- When a long-term relationship is important
- When you need to work through hard feelings, animosity, etc.
- When you don't want to take full responsibility
Possible advantages of collaborating:
- Leads to solving the actual problem
- Leads to a win-win outcome
- Reinforces mutual trust and respect
- Builds a foundation for effective collaboration in the future
- Shared responsibility of the outcome
- You earn a reputation as a good negotiator
- For those involved, the outcome of the conflict resolution is less stressful (however, the process of finding and establishing a win-win solution may be very involved – see the caveats below)
Some caveats of collaborating:
- Requires a commitment from all parties to look for a mutually acceptable solution
- May require more effort and more time than some other methods. A win-win solution may not be evident
- For the same reason, collaborating may not be practical when timing is crucial and a quick solution or fast response is required
- Once one or more parties lose their trust in an opponent, the relationship falls back to other methods of conflict resolution. Therefore, all involved parties must continue collaborative efforts to maintain a collaborative relationship
Also known as reconciling. Compromising looks for an expedient and mutually acceptable solution which partially satisfies both parties.
Examples of when compromise may be appropriate:
- When the goals are moderately important and not worth the use of more assertive or more involved approaches, such as forcing or collaborating
- To reach temporary settlement on complex issues
- To reach expedient solutions on important issues
- As a first step when the involved parties do not know each other well or haven’t yet developed a high level of mutual trust
- When collaborating or forcing do not work
Possible advantages of compromise:
- Faster issue resolution. Compromising may be more practical when time is a factor
- Can provide a temporary solution while still looking for a win-win solution
- Lowers the levels of tension and stress resulting from the conflict
Some caveats of using compromise:
- May result in a situation where both parties are not satisfied with the outcome (a lose-lose situation)
- Does not contribute to building trust in the long run
- May require close monitoring and control to ensure the agreements are met
Also known as avoiding. This is when a person neither pursues their own concerns nor those of their opponent. He or she does not address the conflict but sidesteps, postpones or simply withdraws.
Examples of when withdrawing may be appropriate:
- When the issue is trivial and not worth the effort
- When more important issues are pressing, and you don't have time to deal with it
- In situations where postponing the response is beneficial to you, for example -
- When it is not the right time or place to confront the issue
- When you need time to think and collect information before you act (e.g. if you are unprepared or taken by surprise)
- When you see no chance of getting your concerns met or you would have to put forth unreasonable effort
- When you would have to deal with hostility
- When you are unable to handle the conflict (e.g. if you are too emotionally involved or others can handle it better)
Possible advantages of withdrawing:
- When the opponent is forcing or attempts aggression, you may choose to withdraw and postpone your response until you are in a more favorable circumstance for you to push back
- Withdrawing is a low stress approach when the conflict is short
- Gives the ability/time to focus on more important or more urgent issues instead
- Gives you time to better prepare and collect information before you act
Some caveats of withdrawing:
- May lead to weakening or losing your position; not acting may be interpreted as an agreement. Using withdrawing strategies without negatively affecting your own position requires certain skill and experience
- When multiple parties are involved, withdrawing may negatively affect your relationship with a party that expects your action
Also known as accommodating. Smoothing is accommodating the concerns of other people first, rather than prioritizing one’s own concerns.
Examples of when smoothing may be appropriate:
- When it is important to provide a temporary relief from conflict or buy time until you are in a better position to respond or push back
- When the issue is not as important to you as it is to the other person
- When you accept that you are wrong
- When you have no choice or when continued conflict would be detrimental
Possible advantages of smoothing:
- In some cases smoothing will help to protect more important interests while giving up on some less important ones
- Gives an opportunity to reassess the situation from a different angle
- As a rule, does not require much effort
Some caveats of smoothing:
- The risk of being abused is real, i.e. the opponent may try to constantly take advantage of your tendency toward smoothing/accommodating. Therefore, it is important to maintain the right balance and this requires some skill
- May negatively affect your confidence in your ability to respond to an aggressive opponent
- Makes it more difficult to transition to a win-win solution in the future
- Some of your supporters may not like your smoothing response and be turned off
Books on Conflict Management
- Learn communication strategies for communicating effectively with different personality types.
- Assess personality type of your team members or candidates.
- What type of leader are you or your boss?
- Employer or manager: learn how to use personality assessments for effective teaming, personal and professional development of your employees and team members.
- Hiring new talent? Learn how to use personality assessment as part of pre-hire assessment of candidates.
- Trainer or coach: learn how to use personality assessments as part of career development, business and leadership training.
- Students, job seekers and employees: check this resource for personal career development.