Conflict Resolution: How to Have Tough Conversations

Rick Lepsinger

Today’s organizations strive to enhance competitiveness by encouraging collaboration between individuals, departments, and teams. Although this can promote innovation and maximize productivity, the need to consider so many perspectives creates the potential for more disagreement and conflict. In order to be successful, managers in every organization need to learn to handle these conflict situations effectively and efficiently.

While the word “conflict” suggests confrontation and disagreement, conflict itself is neither inherently good nor bad. How those differences are managed and resolved is what makes the conflict a positive or negative experience.

The first step in managing a conflict is understanding the root cause that needs to be addressed. Oftentimes, the symptoms of the conflict receive more attention because they appear easier to solve. Only addressing symptoms, however, produces temporary solutions. If the underlying problem goes unresolved, it can severely damage a team’s ability to be effective.

Managing conflict productively can lead to immensely positive outcomes. Many solid, long-term relationships are formed as the result of a difficult but constructive resolution to a conflict. The process can also foster creativity by requiring people to seek alternative solutions and develop their interpersonal skills. Natural leaders often emerge during conflict situations, often serving as objective third-party mediators.

Most conflicts are the result of disagreements over one or more of the following issues:

  • Facts: Differences of fact are generally the most straightforward conflicts to resolve because facts can be checked, compared, and tested. A conflict over facts can be settled more often through dialogue than conflict over other issues because there is a basis for discussion and the exchange of information. For instance, a team developing an action plan may disagree over the amount of time needed to complete a particular step.
  • Methods: Even when people agree on the facts, they may be unable to agree on how to achieve their shared goals. In these situations, a logical, rational method for choosing alternative courses of action can be useful because both sides ultimately want to accomplish the same goal. As an example, two production managers might prefer different methods for making their assembly line process more efficient.
  • Goals: When people have different objectives, they pursue different courses of action. Conflicts over goals are best resolved through information sharing, which helps to identify what is important to each side. In many cases, a third party is needed to determine which goal or combination of goals is most appropriate. For example, a marketing group may want to redesign product packaging to make it more attractive and increase sales while a distribution group wants the new design that will lead to fewer breakage problems that affect their quality standards.
  • Values: Conflicts over differing values are the most difficult to address and oftentimes cannot be resolved. Beliefs become inflexible over time and are often based on emotion and experience rather than reason. In these cases, separating issues that can be resolved from the unresolvable ones is the only way to move toward productive action. For instance, a manager might not believe it is appropriate to provide alcoholic beverages as a company picnic, but their team members feel that, since it is their picnic, they have a right to determine how the picnic fund is used.

Managing conflict in the workplace is a difficult task even for experienced leaders. It is easy to resort to common mistakes such as minimizing concerns, suppressing differences, or questioning the legitimacy of a position rather than engage in a potentially stressful, high-impact conversation that may resolve the issue.

When seeking to resolve a conflict effectively, the first step should be to identify the individuals involved, define the issues in question, and gather the facts and perceptions from everyone involved.

After the major issues have been identified, a seven-step process for managing conflict can be applied to most situations:

  1. Describe what’s important to you and why it’s important
  2. Check your understanding of what’s important to the other person and why it’s important to them
  3. Identify common ground and look for points of interdependence
  4. Invite alternatives that address your needs/goals and the other person’s needs/goals
  5. Use active listening (empathy, questions, balanced responses) to evaluate alternatives, resolve concerns, and improve ideas
  6. If an alternative isn’t immediately available, temporarily remove constraints to invite and propose new alternatives
  7. End the discussion by summarizing key points and stating next steps (such as following up by email)

Throughout the conflict management process, the focus should be on the problem, not the people involved. By separating the participants from the issues at hand, it becomes possible for empathy and understanding to play a part in the discussion. People have a right to think or feel differently from one another, and it is to their benefit to develop solutions that are acceptable and beneficial to everyone involved.

With cross-functional teams and matrix management structures becoming more common, conflict resolution is an important skill not only for leaders, but for all team members within an organization. While there is no universal solution for conflict, the successful management of any conflict situation relies upon an accurate analysis of the problem and a resolution that incorporates styles and behaviors appropriate to the situation. By addressing the underlying sources of conflict quickly and effectively, organizations can get back to working toward their shared goals.

Rick Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and co-author of Flexible Leadership and Virtual Team Success.

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