How to excel in conflict resolution

Drake Editorial Team

Resolving conflict doesn’t come easily to many people. Most of us want smooth interpersonal interactions. However, disagreements and conflicts are part of any dynamic organization.

Conflict is not always negative. Sometimes it should be encouraged when discussion and debate can generate creative, innovative approaches to issues or decisions. Conflict is beneficial when the focus is on finding the best solution. However, conflict is unproductive when it fails to produce mutually satisfying solutions, or when it becomes personal in nature.


Steps to Conflict Resolution 

  1. Depersonalize the conflict. Catch yourself when you begin to fall into the trap of believing that the other person is deliberately trying to make a situation difficult.
  2. At the beginning of resolving differences or conflict, clearly sate your desire to find a solution that will work for all involved.
  3. Build on areas of agreement before you address areas of difference.
  4. Remember to listen first and talk second. Ask open-ended questions to draw others out and to encourage them to talk about the conflict
  5. Try to arrive at a common goal around upon which to focus, and agree to work through areas of disagreement. In other words, don’t agree to an outcome that you will not support. Surface reservations that you have, and talk with the other person until you can agree on a course of action.
  6. Dig for understanding without implying criticism.
  7. Focus on common ground issues. Find a “win” for all affected parties and avoid entrenched positions.
  8. Identify specific behaviours in concrete terms, and explain the tangible outcomes they have, so that the other person can more easily appreciate the nature of the difficulty.
  9. Rely on facts instead of judgments or inferences to help you avoid giving feedback that becomes personal.
  10. Have a goal in mind, a purpose for the discussion. Remember to put it in a sentence that attacks the problem, not the person.


When the Boss Should Get Involved

When direct reports are experiencing some problems, the first rule is for the boss to stay out of it, if you can. Jumping in to fix things may work in the short term, but in the long term, it won’t solve the underlying issues. When one of the people involved approaches you and vents, the first thing is to listen empathically. Then, when the direct report finishes explaining the situation, you can ask simply, “What would you like me to do with this information?” Usually the answer will be “Nothing.” However, if it isn’t, weigh carefully whether you should step in. Encourage the people to resolve things themselves.

However, sometimes you just can’t stay out of a disagreement. When productivity starts to suffer, or morale is compromised, something has to be done. If both of the people involved agree that they can’t work things out between themselves, the boss needs to get involved.


Pre-Work Strategy

A beginning strategy is to have both people meet with you to discuss the plan for resolving their differences. But instead of hashing things out right then, invite the participants to fill out some pre-work. Ask each person involved in the disagreement to answer these questions before the actual meeting occurs:

  1. What do you consider to be the main barriers to objective and constructive candor as you prepare for this meeting?
  2. How can these barriers be eliminated or lowered?
  3. What other problems must be resolved before you begin to tackle this problem?
  4. Describe the overall nature of your present on-the-job relationship with the other person. How productive is it?
  5. How would you describe what an ideal working relationship would be?
  6. What have you done to cause the current conflict?
  7. What resolution have you attempted?
  8. What has the other person done to contribute to the current conflict?
  9. What attempts has he or she made at resolution?
  10. What major obstacles stand in the way of making this relationship ideal? (Be candid and objective.). What obstacles do you introduce? What obstacles does the other person introduce?
  11. What can be done to eliminate these barriers?
  12. What other factors or people inhibit the relationship being ideal?
  13. What benefits (to you, the other person, the organization) would accrue if the relationship were improved?
  14. What adverse consequences (to you, the other person, the organization) might ensue if the relationship is not improved?
  15. What can be done (what can you do; the other person do; others can do) to improve the relationship so that the benefits are realized and the adverse consequences averted?

After the participants have answered the above questions independently of each other, let them meet alone to see if they can resolve the issues. If they can’t, have another meeting with you there. This can be a slow painstaking process, but it works. When each person is taking a turn reading answers to the other and then discussing the answers, volatile outbursts are unlikely. This technique requires time and patience, but it tends to be more successful than the “band aid” approach.



Effective communication is at the heart of all human activity. Bosses who excel in it make great strides in developing their people and keeping the stars in the organization. An organization’s competitive advantage depends on people, especially on creative, innovative people. Successful organizations must develop, sustain, and market high levels of innovation throughout their infrastructures if they want to maintain their industry leadership. To encourage the pace of this sort of initiative, leaders can no longer rely on a few key individuals to develop creative solutions. Instead, bosses who want to attract, retain, and develop a pool of talented thinkers must know ways to encourage each person’s contributions. Effective communication is that way.

Article reprinted from The Drake Business Review, a quarterly publication helping high performing managers and executives meet the challenges in their businesses now.

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