Life is full of lessons, an ongoing masterclass in the human condition.
One lesson common to humanity is how to negotiate conflict skillfully.
In a keynote speech to graduate students in conflict analysis, international mediator Kenneth Cloke (2011) made a profound statement that has stayed with me to this day: “Conflict is the arrow pointing to what we need to learn the most.”
Interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution extend beyond social circles, affecting the workplace and illuminating lessons yet to be learned.
American businesses lose $359 billion yearly due to unresolved conflict and low productivity (Kauth, 2020). The physical, emotional, psychological, and interpersonal tolls are incalculable.
Can we seek a better understanding of conflict and transform its devastating effects?
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This Article Contains:
- What Is Conflict Resolution & Why Is It Important?
- 5 Psychological Benefits of Conflict Resolution
- 7 Examples of Conflict Resolution Skills
- How to Do Conflict Resolution: 2 Approaches
- 6 Methods and Approaches to Apply in the Office
- 6 Strategies and Techniques for the Workplace
- Best Activities, Games, Workbooks, and Online Tools
- Helpful Books for Managers and Organizations
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Conflict Resolution & Why Is It Important?
Pruitt and Kim (2004, pp. 7–8) describe conflict as “perceived divergence of interest, a belief that the parties’ current aspirations are incompatible.”
Conflict resolution is an agreement reached when all or most of the issues of contention are cleared up (Pruitt & Kim, 2004).
Further, conflict management is a product of successful problem-solving in which the parties have worked out ways to de-escalate conflict and avoid future escalations.
Conflict can be disruptive and, at worst, destructive. Once it erupts, it’s hard to control (Bolton, 1986). Emotions run high during conflict, blocking the path to rational solutions.
Conflict resolution is important because “when people experience conflicts, much of their energy goes into emotions related to those conflicts” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011, p. 2).
Some emotions commonly associated with conflict include fear, anger, distrust, rejection, defensiveness, hopelessness, resentment, and stress (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011; Bolton, 1986).
Another reason conflict resolution is important is because people involved in heavily contentious conflict are likely to experience “a wide range of psychological and physical health problems including weakened immune system, depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, pp. 11–12).
Clearly, languishing in this state of emotional upheaval and chaos is harmful emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
Conflict resolution: A theoretical framework
Realistic conflict theory assumes “conflict can always be explained by some tangible (like territory, money, prizes) or intangible (like power, prestige, honor) resource that is desired by both groups and is in short supply” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, pp. 28–29).
This theory attempts to explain why conflict occurs as humans perpetually strive to acquire perceived needs.
5 Psychological Benefits of Conflict Resolution
When emotions run high, stress ensues and rational problem-solving is at risk.
Cortisol released because of ongoing stress soaks the brain’s nerve cells, causing memories to shrink (Leaf, 2008).
This affects the ability to think creatively, a helpful component for resolution.
In addition, the stress response increases blood sugar levels, speeding up our heart rate to pump blood to our arms, legs, and brain in preparation to escape (Leaf, 2008). This physiological fight-or-flight reaction saps precious energy.
Dealing with emotions first will help reduce emotional arousal and stress. Once the body returns to normal, rational problem-solving skills can resume. Typically, people get into trouble when they address conflict at the peak of emotional arousal.
For this reason, acknowledge that the issue needs to be addressed but wait until emotions subside before engaging in a discussion. This ensures the issue is not ignored. In other words, conflict can be scheduled.
Some psychological benefits of conflict resolution include (Arslan, Hamarta, & Usla, 2010; Sexton & Orchard, 2016; Bolton, 1986):
- Stress reduction
- Improved self-esteem
- Improved self-efficacy
- Better relationships
- Increased energy
Let’s take a quick look at two of the most common benefits.
Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their capability to complete a specific task successfully (Lunenburg, 2011). Learning and practicing skills such as effective communication and conflict resolution are essential building blocks for self-efficacy. Successful conflict resolution skills in the workplace increase confidence, promoting the likelihood of future successes (Lunenburg, 2011).
Increased self-efficacy “influences the tasks employees choose to learn and the goals they set for themselves” (Lunenburg, 2011, p. 1). It also influences employees’ efforts and perseverance when taking on and learning new tasks (Lunenburg, 2011).
Sometimes you have to expend energy to gain energy. Conflict robs individuals and organizations of precious energy. Mastering conflict resolution skills takes energy initially but can save energy in the long run through reduced stress and improved relationships and productivity.
7 Examples of Conflict Resolution Skills
To reap the benefits of resolving conflict, certain helpful skills must be applied, and there are many conflict resolution skills that are effective for the workplace.
Below are skills believed to be crucial for resolving conflict.
Self-awareness is described by Goleman (1995, p. 43) as “recognizing a feeling as it happens.” Goleman states that people with high self-awareness have moment-to-moment awareness and navigate life adeptly.
Self-control is the ability to manage unruly impulses and emotions effectively. Because emotions play a central role in conflict, the ability to stay composed despite heightened emotions is essential to constructive resolution.
3. Assertive communication
Bolton (1986) describes assertive communication as a dynamic communication style in which the speaker maintains self-respect, expresses personal needs, and defends their own rights without abusing or dominating others.
While an aggressive communication style may shut down a conversation, assertiveness encourages dialogue. This skill takes practice and courage. Bolton (1986) asserts that less than 5% of the population communicates assertively.
According to Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2009), the goal of collaboration is to consider all the important needs of the primary parties and develop a solution that meets these needs.
Problem-solving in relation to conflict resolution is a strategy that pursues alternative solutions that satisfy the needs and goals of the parties involved (Pruitt & Kim, 2004).
According to Sorensen (2017), empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions and feelings of others. Our understanding of another person’s perspective can increase the likelihood of emotional connection and collaboration.
Active listening is one of the most underrated and underutilized conflict resolution skills. Listening during conflict achieves key goals, primarily putting an end to cyclical arguing and opening the door to empathy and understanding.
How to Do Conflict Resolution: 2 Approaches
Bolton (1986) provides simple frameworks for conflict resolution and collaborative problem-solving, and outlines the contexts for applying each.
The conflict resolution method
This simple, three-step formula for conflict resolution works well for conflicts involving values and intense emotions.
Step 1: Engage with the other respectfully
Respect is an attitude shown through specific behaviors, such as how you look at the other person, how you listen, your tone of voice, and word choices.
Step 2: Listen fully until you experience their side
The goal of listening in this manner is to understand the content of the other person’s ideas or contributions, what it means for them, and their feelings about it.
Step 3: Verbalize your feelings, views, and needs
Assertive communication works well in this stage. Some caveats accompany this stage of conflict resolution:
- This step is not always necessary.
- Make your statement brief.
- Avoid loaded words.
- Be truthful and concise.
- Disclose your feelings.
Bolton (1986) provides a six-step outline for collaboration when the issue is more about needs than emotions.
- Define the primary needs surrounding the conflict.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Choose solutions that meet the needs of both parties.
- Create an agenda delineating who will assume each task.
- Implement the plan.
- Evaluate the solutions and reevaluate if needed.
The conflict resolution method and collaborative problem-solving are generalized approaches to conflict resolution when two or more parties are willing to work together on an issue.
6 Methods and Approaches to Apply in the Office
Lipsky, Seeber, and Fincher (2003) provide approaches to work through issues that erupt in work settings.
1. The open door policy
This generalized philosophy is intended to show that management supports open dialogue and encourages staff to discuss differences that arise in the workplace. It is considered an initial step toward conflict resolution.
These are neutral or impartial managers who provide informal and confidential assistance to staff and management in order to resolve work-related disputes. Ombudspersons may wear a variety of hats, including mediator, fact-finder, consultant, and change agent.
3. Internal peer mediation
Some organizations call on designated employees as mediators to help resolve conflict. This method often addresses issues of a non-statutory nature, such as unfairness.
The success of this method rests on the careful selection of peer mediators based on their exemplary communication skills and abilities.
4. Professional mediators
Professional mediators are not connected with the organization in any way and function as independent, impartial, third parties who assist the primary parties through a formal mediation process.
Mediation is a viable option for creating structure to conflict resolution in an unbiased manner.
5. Peer review and employee appeals
This process is sometimes used by manufacturing organizations in an effort to avoid a union process. The underlying belief is that if at all possible, employee disputes should be resolved internally.
6. Executive panels
This method provides an opportunity for employees to present their claims to a panel of the organization’s senior executives, assuming they will be objective and sympathetic.
Using tools such as questionnaires, activities, and assessments can help employees work through conflict by adding insight and skills to the equation. Let’s look at some such tools.
6 Strategies and Techniques for the Workplace
The use of tools to steer and manage conflict can help provide a level of awareness of common issues confronted by teams.
2 Tools for groups
Often, people haven’t been taught the skills to discuss issues calmly and productively. The following worksheets can be used to provide structure to conflict.
Reviewing these worksheets before conflict erupts is a great opportunity to open a conversation and agree upon a conflict resolution process before matters spiral out of control.
The Remaining Calm During Conflict – I worksheet helps clients walk through conflict, providing tips on how to perceive conflict and deal with emotional reactions.
The Remaining Calm During Conflict – II worksheet encourages clients to journal about times when they did and did not remain calm during a workplace conflict.
2 Effective questionnaires
This self-assessment provided by CINERGY™ can be used to broaden the scope of awareness of ourselves and others, particularly during conflict. The assessment measures an individual’s current level of conflict intelligence.
This Conflict Management Styles Assessment, made available by the Blake Group, allows clients to uncover their primary conflict style and includes a description of the five conflict management styles.
A look at meditation for conflict resolution
This video provides an insightful awareness of our own habitual patterns and how these manifest in us and others during conflict.
Here is another recommended video that helps visualize how to prepare for conflict and build boundaries with others in a calm manner.
Best Activities, Games, Workbooks, and Online Tools
The Two Dollar Game
The Two Dollar Game was developed to help employees learn basic conflict styles and the art of negotiation in a fun, thoughtful way.
Conflict Description Template
This conflict management template created by the University of Iowa is intended to deal with conflict in a university setting but can easily apply to other teams or departments and used as an intuitive conflict mapping guide.
Coping With Stress in the Workplace Workbook by Ester Leutenberg and John Liptak
This workbook by Leutenberg and Liptak contains activities, assessments, journaling prompts, and educational handouts that can be photocopied and used to address conflict in the workplace.
Chapters contain resources about how to deal with workplace stress, different personalities, work habits, and relationships.
Online tools and resources for conflict resolution
The website Online Master of Legal Studies includes a wealth of Free Tools and Resources for Conflict Resolution. Some resources have been incorporated into this blog.
The wide variety of resources include a Cost of Conflict Calculator and tools to enhance cross-cultural communication.
In this Assertive Message Role-Play, participants are presented with various workplace scenarios and encouraged to formulate assertive messages to initiate a discussion about the problem at hand.
Helpful Books for Managers and Organizations
1. People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts – Robert Bolton
Some books are classics.
This one has been used for years to help guide individuals through the communication and conflict resolution process.
It’s a great resource for anyone interested in building robust interpersonal skills.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games: Quick, Effective Activities to Improve Communication, Trust and Collaboration – Mary Scannell
This is a useful resource for incorporating activities and games to help employees listen to each other, engage productively, and create a culture of respect.
Topics include conflict, communication, diversity, trust, perspectives, emotional intelligence, and collaboration.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict – David Lipsky, Ronald Seeber, and Richard Fincher
The authors walk readers through the emergence of conflict in the workplace by creating dispute resolution systems for integration in a corporate setting.
This is a helpful resource for managers and corporate leaders interested in reducing the corporate costs of conflict.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
Crucial Conversations is a New York Times bestseller that provides tools to traverse difficult and important conversations.
Ideas discussed in this book can help transform your career, organization, and community.
Readers learn how to listen and speak in ways that create safety and inclusion.
Find the book on Amazon.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- Assertive Communication
This worksheet helps clients learn the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication. Assertive communication is essential for expressing our needs and opinions, and defending our rights in a direct and respectful manner.
- Active Listening Reflection Worksheet
Use this worksheet to help clients sharpen listening skills essential for conflict resolution.
The worksheet reviews eight essential skills for active listening and includes a reflection exercise to evaluate which skills we use effectively and which can be strengthened.
- Blindfold Guiding Exercise
This exercise can be used as an icebreaker or as part of a team-building exercise when members are struggling with trust issues.
Trust is a crucial element of team stability and is essential when conflict erupts. In this exercise, one person leads a blindfolded partner using simple statements. As trust builds, the duo can be instructed to speed up, slow down, or attempt to lead with silence.
- Generating Alternative Solutions and Better Decision-Making
This worksheet provides a map to work through problem-solving by considering three solutions to a specific issue accompanied by a discussion on the efficacy, do-ability, and effectiveness of the identified solution.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Conflict divides. The effects of poorly handled conflict range from disruptive to destructive. It robs individuals and organizations of precious resources, such as energy, productivity, peace, and harmony.
Regardless of our station in life, we all still have lessons to learn.
Will we ever be free of conflict? Perhaps we can look at it another way. As we gain skills and experience successes resolving conflict, we can anticipate the next conflict and the next lesson, mindful of the potential wisdom and strengths we’ll gain in the process.
Are you facing an unresolved conflict at work or in your personal life? Try not to be discouraged; instead, think of it as your next life lesson waiting to be discovered.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free.
- Arslan, C., Hamarta, E., & Usla, M. (2010). The relationship between conflict communication, self-esteem and life satisfaction in university students. Educational Research and Reviews, 5(1), 31–34.
- Bolton, R. (1986). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflict. Touchstone.
- Cloke, K. (2011). Untitled [Keynote Speaker]. In 24th Residential Institute – Winter 2011. Nova Southeastern University.
- Folger, J. P., Poole, M. S., & Stutman, R. K. (2009). Working through conflict: Strategies for relationships, groups, and organizations. Pearson Education.
- Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
- Kauth, K. (2020, January). Cost of workplace conflict. Mediate.com. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.mediate.com/articles/kauth-cost-workplace.cfm
- Leaf, C. (2008). Who switched off my brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Thomas Nelson.
- Leutenberg, E. R. A., & Liptak, J. J. (2014). Coping with stress in the workplace workbook. Whole Person Associates.
- Lipsky, D. B., Seeber, R. L., & Fincher, R. D. (2003). Emerging systems for managing workplace conflict. Jossey-Bass.
- Lunenburg, F. C. (2011). Self-efficacy in the workplace: Implications for motivation and performance. International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration, 14(1), 1–6.
- Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.
- Pruitt, D. G., & Kim, S. H. (2004). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and settlement (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill.
- Scannell, M. (2010). The big book of conflict resolution games: Quick, effective activities to improve communication, trust and collaboration. McGraw Hill.
- Sexton, M., & Orchard, C. (2016). Understanding healthcare professionals’ self-efficacy to resolve interprofessional conflict. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 30(3), 316–323.
- Sorensen, M. S. (2017). I hear you: The surprisingly simple skill behind extraordinary relationships. Autumn Creek Press.
- Wilmot, W., & Hocker, J. (2011). Interpersonal conflict (8th ed.). McGraw Hill.