Resolving Conflict Effectively

Whether it be at work or in our personal lives, it is almost impossible to avoid having to deal with conflicts of some kind. They can arise from simple events such as misunderstandings or a product failure and it is fortunate that they do not always escalate into serious arguments, long-standing disputes or irreversible damage to relationships – but they can. Conflict needs careful management.

It is also a well known fact that when managed well, aside from just the de-escalation, some conflicts can result in process improvements or even enhanced outcomes for all parties involved. So here are some effective methods that you can use to ensure that you take charge of a situation and manage conflicts more effectively.

  1. Resolve conflict early. If you can solve a small issue or argument before it turns into a full blown dispute then you will have saved a whole lot of pain, time, energy and potential damage to personal relationships. So don’t let things drag on. Actively engage in the process and use the techniques described below as soon as you can.
  2. Be an active listener. Many of us believe we are good listeners, but when conflicts arise we start listening mainly for the purpose of formulating our own response. The best way to resolve a dispute quickly is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and put yourself in their shoes. Take the time to properly consider their position and their desired outcomes. You should find pointers that steer you in the right direction and shortcut the pathway towards a solution.
  3. Steady as she goes. When our emotions escalate, we lose the ability to constructively engage with others. Anxiety and anger are emotions that can be linked to many things (hurt, fear, embarrassment, feeling trapped, insulted or ripped off for example) but if we can manage our own state we are better placed to support the de-escalation of such feelings in others. Staying calm is a technique that is advocated by industrial mediators and negotiators that are trained to resolve hostage situations. Generally emotions will be diffused when others recognise that someone is listening to them and is willing to help. So signal your willingness to do this during a dispute by using encouraging phrases like "Ok, tell me more", "go on" or "we can fix this".
  4. Empathy not antipathy. Everyone relates and respond to empathy and understanding. Find some points of common interest with the other person where possible that may help with positive relationship building. Use words like "I understand" or "I am here to help" and inclusive words such as "we" and "us" rather than "you". Where possible build trust with the other party by owning what you or your team did wrong, unprompted. Taking sufficient time to build empathy with others will also help them see your own perspective when it comes time to mutually negotiate a solution.
  5. Ask the right questions and ask them in the right way. Asking questions in times of conflict can be a difficult balancing act between finding out what you need to know to solve the issue and fuelling the emotional fire. A good technique to use is to tell a person why you are asking a question before you ask it. This lets them know that you are doing your job and are also trying to get to the bottom of things in order to find a solution. Invite the other person to give their perspective on the situation by using open ended questions like, "Can you tell me what happened from the beginning"?
  6. Attack the problem, not the person. This has the potential to become one of the most difficult issues to manage in a conflict situation. Even when we are conscious of managing the interaction carefully, accidents can happen or people sometimes take things the wrong way. Think before you speak in order to consciously take the ‘person’ out of the picture and objectively look at the issue that needs to be discussed.
  7. Go into solution mode. Avoid the blame game. Whatever has happened has happened and assigning blame does not necessarily lead to resolving things. Where possible ask the "what" and "when" questions to understand the situation properly before the "why" and "who". The "why" and the "who" questions can sound accusatory and will often get in the way of resolving the issues. Explore these things afterwards if possible to drive process improvements. Meantime focus on solving the problem and making things better.
  8. Be creative. This is something that is often overlooked in times of conflict. Cookie cutter responses or solutions are not always possible - so feel free to think outside of the box and the normal way of dealing with things. You may surprise yourself and turn a tense situation into a “win/win” scenario for both of the parties concerned! This might take longer but is incredibly satisfying regardless of what side of an argument we are on...

While conflict may be an inevitable occurrence when it comes to interacting with others, it is possible to achieve a satisfactory solution by following the tips above. But remember that resolving issues is a fine art - so don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go smoothly every time.

After all, we’re all only human.

Author: John Richmond
Team Leadership Services