Psychotherapy is, at its heart, a process of guiding clients from conflict to resolution.
As a therapist, counselor, or coach, your main job is to help clients identify the situations that are troubling them – the conflicts in their lives – and guide them through to win–win solutions.
Mutually satisfying outcomes can prevent anger, anxiety, and depression, and enable individuals, couples, and families to live together productively and in peace (Christensen & Heavey, 1999; Cummings, Koss, & Davies, 2015).
In this article, we’ll share some powerful conflict resolution worksheets that can teach parties the pathways to win–win outcomes, converting conflict into shared problem solving. Participants feel like they are sitting on the same side of the table, working together against the problem, instead of against each other.
If you wish to learn more, our Positive Relationships Masterclass© is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches and contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
This article contains:
2 Useful Conflict Resolution Worksheets
Conflict – problems, issues, troubles, dilemmas, tough decisions, etc. – generally emerge in one or more of the following three areas (adapted from Kellermann, 1996):
- Intrapsychic conflicts – pulls and tugs within a person’s array of feelings, desires, thoughts, fears, and actions
- Interpersonal or intergroup conflicts – situations in which two or more preferred action plans seem to be incompatible
- Situational conflicts – situations in which adverse circumstances such as illness, financial difficulties, or other factors collide with each other or with what participants want
Differences can quickly spark arguments when parties believe that the outcome will result in either winning or losing. That is why the word “conflict” usually suggests fighting. These worksheets, by contrast, teach pathways to win–win outcomes.
By guiding both conflict resolution and cooperative problem solving in the same process, solution building for any decision, issue, or dilemma becomes a combined effort. The idea of winning versus losing is removed, and a win–win outcome negates previous conflicts.
Win–Win Waltz Worksheet
The process that leads to win–win outcomes is referred to as the win–win waltz because the process involves three essential steps.
The Win–Win Waltz Worksheet explains the key terms, core concepts, and essential ingredients for using the exercise successfully.
1. Knowing when to use the win–win waltz
The win–win waltz guides the way to cooperative solution building in situations when there seems to be conflict with underlying or overt tension and a feeling that two sides feel in opposition.
Also, the win–win waltz guides the process in any situation that calls for problem solving.
In both instances, the tone needs to stay calm and cooperative. There needs to be an awareness of the dilemma that participants need to solve and a willingness on both sides to seek a solution that will be responsive to the concerns of all parties.
2. Core concepts: solutions versus underlying concerns
Solutions are potential plans of action.
Concerns, by contrast, are the factors to which the solution needs to be responsive.
For instance, a problem/conflict is that I am hungry, but at the same time, I don’t want to eat – two alternative and seemingly opposed courses of action.
My underlying concern might include wanting to lose weight, to alleviate my hunger, to minimize my intake of calories, and to find an immediate solution. The solution options may be to eat some yogurt, distract myself by phoning a friend, or to exercise as that too tends to alleviate feelings of hunger.
3. One list for both people’s concerns
Collaborative thinking, problem solving and conflict resolution are based on the premise that your concerns are immediately a concern of mine, and vice versa. To implement that principle, both participants’ concerns are added to one concern list in the worksheet.
That assumption differs significantly from the usual two-list way of thinking (e.g., my way versus your way or pros versus cons).
4. What if there are seemingly too many underlying concerns?
Paradoxically, the more concerns that have been identified, the more likely it becomes that the ultimate solution will be excellent, even though a long list of concerns may appear daunting.
The trick is for each participant to step back and reflect: “Of all of these concerns, what one or two concerns are most deeply felt?” Start the solution-building process by responding to these concerns first. Add additional elements to the solution set until all the underlying concerns have been answered.
For instance, Gil and Angela want to find a new apartment. Stepping back from their list of 20 concerns concerning what apartment to choose, they realize Angela’s primary concern is location. She wants an apartment close to her mother, while Gil’s primary concern is the price. With just two variables to attend to for starters, Angela and Gil can quickly start apartment hunting.
Once they find apartments that met their initial criteria, they add their other concerns.
5. It is for me to look at what I can do, not to tell you what to do.
Solution generating works best if each participant looks at what they can offer toward a win–win solution, and especially toward a plan of action responsive to the other person. Offering suggestions about what the other could do can undermine solution building.
Use this Conflict Resolution Checklist Worksheet to review how you have done in a given conflict resolution situation.
4 Tools for Resolving Conflicts at Work
In the workplace, conflict resolution skills enable managers to keep their work environment positive. They also enable colleagues to work together harmoniously (Johansen, 2012; Korabik, Baril, & Watson, 1993).
Whereas conflict breeds tension that erodes work quality, cooperation maximizes productivity and, at the same time, keeps employees enjoying their work.
Fortunately, the Win–Win Waltz Worksheet works wonderfully in workplace situations too.
The additional tools below also merit attention when conflicts arise in the business world.
Early intervention. It’s best to address potential tensions as soon as you become aware of them.
Participation. It is generally best to bring together all the parties involved in any given dispute and to have them learn to do the win–win waltz together.
Identify those who, even with guidance, cannot think in terms of win–win.
If one or more parties appear to be unable to look for mutually satisfying solutions, a top-down or powering-over decision may be necessary.
Some parties simply cannot get past looking out for themselves only. Others invest more in seeking to hurt the other party rather than to find benefits for both sides. They would rather create a lose–lose outcome than see the other side receive any aspect of what they want.
Keep the problem, the problem.
The vital principle comes from the work of Fisher and Ury (1991). They rightly identify that talking about people and feelings can be inappropriate in work settings.
The problem, for instance, is not that ‘she is an intrusive person.’ The problem is that roles and responsibilities may be unclear. The problem is not that ‘he is lazy.’ The problem is an unclear division of labor. The problem is not that ‘he works too slowly;’ rather, how to speed up the work process so that deadlines can be met.
Worksheets for Student Conflicts
Students can benefit from using the Win–Win Waltz Worksheet when they face conflict situations with roommates, friends, and teachers.
Students also are likely to experience conflicts within their own thoughts and preferences.
For instance, these intrapsychic conflicts can arise when they want to go out with friends but also know they need to study for an exam. The win–win waltz recipe works well for any of these situations.
2 Best Worksheets for Couples’ Conflicts
Interestingly, the same worksheets that can guide workplace and school-based conflicts offer effective pathways for resolving differences that emerge in romantic relationships.
From my way, No my way, to OUR way is for practicing win–win conflict resolutions on issues that can arise at home. The worksheet is from Susan Heitler’s (2003) book The Power of Two Workbook. (Available on Amazon.)
The Anger Exit and Re-entry Worksheet offers guidance for stepping back and calming down when anger begins to emerge.
When people become angry, they cease to be able to hear each other’s concerns. They are likely to disregard all their cooperative-talking skills and instead resort to blame, criticism, and attempts to control.
In the face of irritation or anger, it is essential to have a self-calming ability as part of the conflict resolution process.
It generally is best to begin the self-calming process by stepping back or out of the anger-inducing situation. For this reason, couples need to develop mutual exit/re-entry routines.
Teaching Conflict Resolution: 4 Lesson Plans
The lesson plans below can be adapted for business, student, friendship, or family situations. The skills are the same.
In a collaborative marriage, partners respect each other’s ideas; they avoid dismissing or steamrolling over each other’s viewpoints. But what happens when couples have differing opinions regarding a future decision? Both spouses may want the decision to go their way. Fortunately, both can win.
Exercise 1: The Win-Win Waltz
One hallmark of a true partnership is the effectiveness of two people’s shared decision making.
“Effective” means their ability to make decisions that are responsive to the full range of concerns of both partners.
These steps of the win–win waltz can be used in a group to demonstrate how to make decisions about upcoming events (shared decision making) and to change things that are not working (fix-it talk). The only difference is that fix-it talk begins with two initial steps.
- Learn the signs and costs of unilateral decision making in a partnership.
- Learn to make shared decisions.
- Practice division of labor decisions so that they do not keep re-occurring.
- Identify pitfalls to avoid and keys to success.
Cue cards – Write one step each on three separate pieces of paper:
- Express initial positions.
- Explore underlying concerns.
- Create win–win solutions.
Place the three cue cards so that they are visible to all the group members (e.g., facing the group, propped on chairs in front of the group).
Spread the cards/chairs out so there is room for two people to stand next to each.
Explain that a waltz has three steps, as does collaborative problem solving, pointing to the step on each cue card as you explain it.
Walk through the following example to be sure that everyone understands the difference between concerns (fears, values, motivations) and positions and solutions (plans of action). The leader plays both Pete and Mary.
Step 1: Express initial positions.
Peter and Mary want to buy a car. Peter says, “Let‘s buy a Ford.”
Mary says, “No. I want a Toyota.“
Step 2: Explore underlying concerns.
Ask the group what Peter’s concerns might be. Peter might say: “The prices are reasonable, and the dealership is close by, so it will be easy to take care of maintenance and repairs.“
Stress that both sides need to explore their underlying concerns, and ask then for what Mary’s might be. Mary might say: “I don’t want to have to keep taking the car back to the shop; I want as much room as we can get for passengers for our kids and their friends.“
Step 3: Create a plan of action responsive to both.
Go with the information generated by the group. Peter and Mary might say: “Let’s get a Consumer’s Report guide to cars so we have full information on repair rates, roominess, and prices. Let’s also find out which dealers have repair facilities near us.“
Hint: Encourage thinking in terms of solution sets that are multi-piece answers.
Now, invite one couple in front of the group to try the “waltz” sequence. Use the situation of a couple deciding where to go for dinner.
Emphasize the difference between concerns and positions (which are action plans or specific solutions).
Make one list of all of their concerns and a list of three possible solutions: one partner’s idea with modifications, the other partner’s idea with modifications, and at least one new solution (possible final solution).
Invite the group to look at the difference between concerns and solutions.
Have a different couple come to the front and traverse the three steps on their own to the dilemma: “What should we do for vacation this summer?”
To be sure they follow the three steps, use the Win–Win Waltz Worksheet where they can write out the three steps.
Pass out additional Situation Cards and invite other couples to try the win–win waltz in front of the group.
- Most couples have systems for making decisions together, such as taking turns on who gets their way, whoever feels most strongly about the issue gets their way, or they compromise (they both give up some). How do these three options compare to the win–win waltz?
- What was most satisfying about this style of problem solving?
- What will be the hardest part of actually using the win–win waltz?
With the win–win waltz, virtually any decision becomes easy and mutual. Both big and little choices – where to live and what to eat for lunch – become simple and shared. The more skilled a couple becomes, the faster the decision making and the more satisfied you both feel with the resulting plan of action.
Exercise 2: Win–Win Worksheet
Applying the win–win waltz successfully, even under challenging dilemmas, requires practice. It often helps to write out your process on particularly tough decisions.
Use the Win–Win Waltz Worksheet as a guide for working through the process of making collaborative decisions.
Two copies of the Win–Win Waltz Worksheet for each participant.
Couples facing each other, with some space between each couple, so that each couple will be able to work semi-privately.
- Hand out two worksheets to each participant. Explain that one is to use now, and the second is for them to take home.
- Ask participants to look at the worksheet. What do they notice about the boxes on the page?
- They start with two different boxes, then merge into one list of concerns for everyone. In other words, each individual’s interests become the concern of the partnership.
- There are four different suggestions for ways to generate solution sets. Generating multiple solution sets helps in two ways. First, it fosters creative thinking. Second, evaluating between solution set options often gives rise to identifying additional underlying concerns.
- Have each couple work together to complete the worksheet. Suggest they pick from one of the following topics:
- Saving for retirement
- If you should join a new sports club (or some other organization)
How did the worksheet help to structure your decision-making process?
Using the worksheet can help keep track of the details, emphasizing that all underlying concerns are important.
Exercise 3: Traps and Tips
People sometimes say, “I tried the win–win waltz, and it didn’t work.” Usually, that means they fell into one of several common traps.
By contrast, if they said, “The win–win waltz works great!” odds are they utilized certain techniques that facilitate success.
1. Recognize at least three potential traps (listed in Procedure, below).
2. Recognize three techniques for success (below).
Briefly explain each Trap to Avoid and Tip for Success.
- Frozen thinking (saying the same thing over and over, and not taking in new information) versus absorbing information from each other
- Attachment to a position and pushing for that solution, evident in attempts to debate, persuade, and convince
- Criticizing the other’s concerns instead of trying to understand them
Tips for success:
- Be an example to each other and listen to learn!
- Create one list for concerns, a shared data pool, so both partners’ concerns become of equal import.
- Emphasize the elephant:
Tell the story about the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man felt one part of the animal. The one who touched its side described the elephant as something like a wall. The one who felt the tail described the animal as like a hose. The trunk felt like a tree branch, the leg like a tree trunk. Putting all of their perspectives together was essential for them to be able to appreciate the whole elephant. Similarly, emphasize that both partners have legitimate views; each of them tunes into different aspects of a dilemma.
- Ask the last question—”Is there any piece of this that still feels unfinished?”
- Think out of the box and be creative when exploring possible solution sets.
- Exit now; talk later. When you get too stuck, drop the dialogue and resume later, when everyone is calmer.
Now, pick one situation from the Situation Cards. Ask for one volunteer (A) to try to be a reasonable spouse. In a way that the rest of the group can’t see, point to one of the trap for another participant (B). This participant will use this style of thinking. The group’s role is to be on the alert for recognizing each trap B demonstrates.
As soon as the group identifies a trap, B needs to let go of it and return to productive mode. A’s role is to try to be so effective that A and B reach a consensus despite the traps.
Debrief by noting what A did that was effective even if B was persisting in a trap.
Ask for two new participants to be A and B. Repeat using a different trap.
Ask participants to help you come up with a potentially tricky decision a couple might have to make. Have two participants come to the front and discuss this question with the tips in front of them. Have the rest of the group pay attention to what tips they used and the impact of them.
What would you like to be able to do if you find yourself or your partner in a trap?
With enough skills, couples can avoid slipping into an adversarial stance. If not, take a break from the discussion, and try another time. Using the tips will often make it easier to come to a consensus on complicated dilemmas.
Exercise 4: Costs of Unilateral Rather Than Shared Decision Making
Depression and anger both indicate flaws in shared decision making. Notice the connection in the following story.
- Understand the relationship between unilateral decision making, anger, and depression.
- Experience the concept “Depression is a disorder of power.“
Tell the following story:
Once upon a time, in a kingdom not far away, a lovely lady named Linda married a handsome man named Len. Linda and Len lived in Louiston, where Linda grew up and was a town she loved.
One day Len said to Linda, “I don’t seem to be able to find employment here that is as good as what I could get if we were to move.”
Linda felt crushed. “I love Louiston. I love my job here, my family, my friends. I don’t want to move, as much as I do understand that the job market is better in other areas.”
Len answered, “Linda, I’m sorry that you’re so against the idea. But I have already taken a job several states away. We need to move if we’re ever going to get ahead in life. That’s that. The decision has been made.”
Continue reading the following instructions to the group, pausing after each, but saving the answers until the visualization has been completed:
- Close your eyes and picture yourself as Linda.
- Notice what emotions you are experiencing. Notice who seems more prominent, more powerful – yourself or your partner – as you put yourself into the role of the two partners.
- What did you experience?
- Now have two participants role-play this scenario using their best win–win waltz skills. What is different?
Discussion and conclusions
What have you learned about the relationship between anger, depression, and unilateral (one-sided) decision making? The powerless person experiences either anger or depression. The more critical the decision, the more potent the anger/depression.
5 PositivePsychology.com Toolkit Resources
Our toolkit contains invaluable tools for practitioners, coaches, and other professionals.
Several of these tools are designed to assist with conflict resolution.
1. Giving Negative Feedback Positively
In any relationship, there are the inevitable ‘hard topics’ to breach, and by avoiding these topics, more harm is done to the relationship. To approach these discussions in a healthy way, our Giving Negative Feedback Positively worksheet guides you through eight constructive steps for a positive conversation and successful relationships.
2. How to Apologize
3. Hot buttons
When Hot Buttons Are Pushed is a coping exercise to help clients become aware of their ‘hot buttons’ that cause unhelpful and impulsive actions. This exercise will help them respond more effectively once they know what their hot buttons are.
4. Difficult people
Looking at Difficult People from a Strength Perspective is an exercise to guide a client’s thinking about a ‘difficult’ person. Once the client can see the strengths of that person and focus on positive aspects, they’ll be less affected by less desirable aspects.
5. Improving Expression and Understanding
6. 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 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 leads to emotional distress, turmoil, depression, unhappy relationships, and separation.
But it does not have to be that way.
Being able to manage conflict constructively can instead create opportunities to reach many mutually beneficial decisions. The conflict resolution process can bring you and your partner closer together; allow you to learn from each other; and get to know, understand, love, and respect each other even better.
As long as there are differences of opinion, there will always be conflict. But knowing how to manage it productively and turn it into a win–win situation is the key to a healthy relationship, friendship, and family.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, don’t forget to check out our Positive Relationships Masterclass©.
- Christensen, A., & Heavey, C. L. (1999). Interventions for couples. Annual Review of Psychology, 50(1), 165-190.
- Cummings, E. M., Koss, K. J., & Davies, P. T. (2015). Prospective relations between family conflict and adolescent maladjustment: Security in the family system as a mediating process. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(3), 503-515.
- Fisher, R., & Ury, W. L. (1991). Getting to yes. Penguin Books.
- Heitler, S., & Hirsch, A. H. (2003). The power of two workbook: Communication skills for a strong & loving marriage. New Harbinger.
- Johansen, M. L. (2012). Keeping the peace: Conflict management strategies for nurse managers. Nursing Management, 43(2), 50-54.
- Kellermann, P. F. (1996). Interpersonal conflict management in group psychotherapy: An integrative perspective. Group Analysis, 29(2), 257-275.
- Korabik, K., Baril, G. L., & Watson, C. (1993). Managers’ conflict management style and leadership effectiveness: The moderating effects of gender. Sex Roles, 29(5-6), 405-420.