When and How to Manage or Resolve Conflict

Knowing when to manage and when to resolve a conflict is not always that easy. And once that is determined, knowing how to do it becomes a question of what skills are needed. So, where do we start to decide if we should work at managing or resolving the conflict.

To make this decision, it is helpful to examine the assumptions related to the situation and the strategies involved. The assumptions of managing a conflict or a dispute between or among parties include the following:

  • The differences expressed by the parties involved impact the common good or the society, the community, or the organization as a whole.
  • The situation is such that some of the parties involved will need to set aside their own views in the interest of the majority or what is determined by law.
  • In the conflict situation, all parties need the opportunity to express personal views and feelings. However, these feelings cannot be allowed to impede making progress.
  • It is clear in this situation that not everyone will be satisfied by the outcome. Failure to recognize this can create additional conflict.
  • The central issue in the situation is to determine what is best and, therefore, right for the common good.
  • Therefore, the way to manage the conflict to some conclusion is through power, which is held by the authority.

If these assumptions, as identified in the Dispute Resolution Model, seem familiar, it is because this is the basis of a lot of the conflict work in the United States. Thus, the strategies involved will also be familiar. They include litigation, legislation, arbitration, and administration. These strategies are all based on formal procedures and, therefore, require formally obtained skills. To implement litigation we need knowledge of the law and the skills of debating, articulating a clear position, and persuading others that our view is the right solution to the conflict. So we need to go to law school to obtain this knowledge and these skills. While there may not be a specific degree required for the other strategies, it is very clear that these same skills are extremely helpful to a person in the position of authority who must exercise their power in determining the solution to a conflict.

However, not all disputes or conflicts are this formal or such that the solution will impact the common good. In these cases we turn to resolution strategies to address the conflict. The assumptions that help us to determine that resolution is the correct approach in handling a dispute or conflict include:

  • The differences between or among the parties are a natural part of the human condition and are neither good nor bad.
  • Usually the conflict is the result or symptom of the tensions in the relationships between the parties involved.
  • When the parties accurately hear one another, the conflict can be resolved and, in fact, strengthen the relationships.
  • The hearing and accurately interpreting another person requires the individuals involved to be willing to confront the situation and work at objective problem solving.
  • Sometimes it may require a third party for assistance in hearing, interpreting, and solving the conflict based on all parties' interests.
  • The process of resolving conflict or disputes requires participation by all members involved, with the preferred decision making method being by consensus.

When reflecting on these assumptions it becomes clear that a lot of conflicts in the day-to-day interactions of humans can be resolved instead of managed. In fact, some conflicts or disputes ending up being managed could have just as effectively been resolved, thus avoiding the formal strategies.

The strategies involved in resolution include negotiation, moderation, mediation, and facilitation. While there are certification programs available for these strategies, they don't necessarily require a specific degree with years of formal training. However, that doesn't make the skills needed for these strategies any less significant. In fact, the strategies of management can be more effectively utilized by someone who has mastered the skills of resolution as well.

When we review the assumptions of resolution, it is obvious that these strategies require someone to be effective in interpersonal skills, such as communications, and in the knowledge of how groups interact. The negotiator, the mediator, or the facilitator must be able to establish rapport with the parties involved in the conflict. They must be able to remain neutral about the conflict or dispute and not hold a bias toward anyone involved. The negotiator, the mediator, or the facilitator needs to work at creating a climate of open dialogue and problem solving.

A critically important skill for resolution is "active listening." This skill is best described by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when he says, "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." There is something almost magical about demonstrating that you hear another individual and that you validate them by trying to understand what they mean. This doesn't mean that you agree with the person's perspective, but that you have empathy for what they are saying and feeling.

Once you demonstrate empathy, the other person is now able and more willing to hear and, hopefully, understand your perspective. When this mutual hearing and understanding is happening it now becomes possible for learning to take place and the conflict or dispute can be resolved.

When we examine these assumptions, strategies, and skills, it is apparent that conflict resolution and/or management are not simple or easy. If it were we would not have so much conflict in the world today. Hopefully, by having a better understanding of when and how to manage or to resolve conflict, we will not be as frightened by it. Hopefully, we can and will be more willing to address it.

In the next post, I would like to share some examples of conflict management and resolution.

Until next time, take a few minutes to examine a conflict or dispute situation and decide whether it should be managed or resolved.