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How to Resolve Conflict

Conflict is a state of antagonism, heightened competition or struggle.  It often erupts when people take different positions on an issue and hold fast to their positions.  Reconciling the different positions generally requires going below the surface.  It is helpful to separate issues, positions and interests.

Issue – A point or matter of discussion, debate, or dispute.

Example – Overtime Pay

Position – A stance or point of view as it relates to a particular issue.  A party’s position is the “what.”

Example“I should be paid time and a half for working over 40 hours in a week.”

Interest – Desires, needs and concerns underlying the position.  A party’s interest is the “why.”

Example“I want to be treated fairly.”

The quickest and easiest way to uncover the underlying interest is to ask “why?”

With this in mind, you are ready to follow a simple four-step process to resolve the conflict.

4 Steps to Resolving Conflict

Following are four simple steps you can use to resolve conflict.  They are presented to you as if you are the mediator helping two other parties solve their differences.   You can easily adapt these steps for use in resolving your own conflicts with others.

Step 1 – Restate each party’s position and empathize with their respective situations

Purpose –To establish a more collaborative and trusting atmosphere for discussion by demonstrating a willingness to hear all perspectives.

How to do it

  • Mentally bracket your own opinions
  • Paraphrase what you hear
  • Check your perceptions of any unspoken assumptions, thoughts or feelings the speaker may have

Example – “Jim, what I think I’m hearing is that, because the job is so complex, you’d rather work alone to build the project plan.  Given the challenge, I can appreciate why you’d want that arrangement.”

Step 2 – Discover each party’s underlying interests

Purpose – To uncover what lies beneath the presented positions, so that underlying interests and needs can be understood and common ground identified.

How to do it

  • Ask probing questions
  • Check your perceptions of any unspoken assumptions, thoughts or feelings the speaker may have

Example – “Jim, it sounds like you want two things: (1) flexibility in how you lead the project and (2) a timely and efficient process.  What’s important to Ruth is that you base your recommendations on an accurate assessment of customer needs and that key stakeholders are consulted before launch.  Have I stated your interests accurately?  Where do we have common ground?”

Step 3 – Propose options without asking for commitment

Purpose – To explore a variety of possible solutions without creating undue pressure or immediate resolution.

How to do it – Ask for/make proposals for how to resolve parts or all of the issue

Example – “Ruth, given your respective interests, what approach to project planning and management might be effective?  For example, is there a way for you both to agree on project management guidelines and then let Jim run with the ball?”

Step 4 – Build small agreements

Purpose – To work toward a full solution by breaking the agreement into smaller parts.

How to do it

  • Deal with one idea at a time
  • Focus on agreement, not disagreement
  • Search for additional opportunities for agreement

Example – “You both agreed on the need for project management guidelines.  You also agreed to check in with each other intermittently during the planning phase.  What else can you agree on?”

Continue looking for common ground and making agreements until you have resolved every issue.  It’s not easy at first, but with practice, you will become skilled at resolving conflict.

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