February 2014

Leveraging the Power of Conflict (Part III of IV)

by Academy Leadership

Steps for Conflict Resolution

The primary objective for leaders is to guide people, teams, and business units in resolving their conflicts, preferably through collaboration but by compromise at worst. Leaders can help resolve conflicts by following these four steps:

  1. Approach conflict as a win/win situation—Leaders need to establish a culture that perceives the outcome of conflict as one in which each competing party can win something. They convey a win-win attitude by letting people know that they are personally committed to finding a mutually beneficial solution, one that is unifying and highly acceptable to all parties. It is important that no one feels that they are the loser. Everyone needs to walk away from conflict feeling good, not frustrated or angry, about having successfully satisfied their needs in an environment of cooperation. Leaders who help people achieve what they want will benefit by better performance and increased loyalty. Establishing a win-win approach is so important to conflict management that it will be addressed in greater detail later.

  2. Distinguish between misunderstandings and conflict—What is perceived to be conflict is often just simple misunderstanding. Before attempting to manage conflict, try to ensure that the conflict is not a misunderstanding that can easily be cleared up once identified. Check each party's beliefs about the conflict. Often, one of the parties is either misinformed or lacks the correct information about a situation. Sometimes merely providing the correct information will cause the person or team to change their position and eliminate the problem.

  3. Focus on interests rather than positions—Try to determine what conflicting parties really need (their interests) as opposed to what they say they want (their positions.) Conflicts often have multiple sources, making it difficult to find long-lasting resolution until the real causes are addressed. In such a circumstance, you may need to probe by asking questions for clarity. For example, "Is it possible you are angry because Bill got the assignment rather than you?" Or make an observation such as, "It seems that there might be something else bothering you." These types of questions and observations, quietly stated, can open the door for additional information. Summarize your understanding of the issues and ask all parties if these are accurate and cover all their interests. When reaching agreement on a problem appears to be coming to an impasse, suggest to everyone, "I wonder if we have all of the issues out on the table." A statement of this sort can allow for more open discussion about additional issues.

  4. Communicate clearly—Effective communications is a key component for building trust in organizations. Leaders skilled in communication will not only be able to help others clear up misunderstandings, but will set the stage for functional problem-solving efforts to resolve actual conflict. Three very simple techniques can assist in communicating clearly in conflict situations.

    1. Remain positive, calm, and respectful.Resist the temptation to get involved in the intense emotions that generally run high in conflict situations. Setting the example of treating others' opinions as respected points of view will encourage others to do the same.

    2. Keep the focus on the issues. Ensure that all agree in the beginning of the dialogue about what issues are in conflict. Gain commitment from competing parties to find resolution. Keep focused on the solutions for the future rather than dwelling on the problems of the past.

    3. Practice active listening and help others to practice it. Paraphrase others' points of view to ensure that their message is clear. Allow others to speak without interruption. Ensure that each person's point of view is heard, understood, and accepted as valid. Caution all parties to listen for content rather than to make judgments. Encourage them all to ask questions seeking clarity and to treat each other with the same respect and dignity they expect from others.