How to Approach Conflict Resolution in 5 Steps
Conflict Resolution Process and Strategy
In the course of a week at work, at home, and at recreation we are all involved in numerous situations where conflict either exists or has the potential to arise. A conflict occurs when people have competing interests or views and few of us enjoy dealing with experience – either with bosses, peers, staff members, friends, or strangers. This is particularly true when strong feelings become involved and the conflict becomes hostile. Resolving conflict can be mentally exhausting and emotionally draining but a solution has to be found if we are not going to simply acquiesce and give in or breaking-off contact.
Conflicts arise but their outcomes don’t have to be negative. The important point is to manage the conflict, not to suppress it and not to let it escalate out of control. Many of us seek to avoid conflict when it arises but there are many times when we should use conflict as a critical aspect of creativity and motivation.
This session outlines a five-step conflict resolution process as well as techniques that can be used when faced with difficult people and situations.
Conflict resolution is inherently tied into negotiation as, by definition, a negotiation occurs when there is a gap between the requirements of different parties and it’s when this gap is difficult to bridge that conflict arises. As organisations become less hierarchical, less based on positional authority and less based on clear boundaries of responsibility, the ability to negotiate and resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise as a result will becoming increasingly important.
The 5 Step Process
Under stress, even kind, reasonable people turn into angry, intractable opponents. This five-step process helps to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement in an efficient and amicable fashion. The process is counterintuitive: it requires us to do the opposite of what we might naturally do in difficult situations and in essence focuses on ‘indirect action’. Rather than trying to break down someone’s resistance, we make it easier for them to break through it themselves.
Conflict Resolution Process
Step 1: Don't React - Go To The Balcony
The first step in dealing with a difficult person is not to control their behaviour but to control your own. Because when you ‘react-act’ without thinking, you usually neglect your own interests. ‘Going to the balcony’ means distancing yourself from your natural impulses and emotions. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict, think constructively for both sides, and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.
On the balcony, the first thing we need to do is figure out your interests and then instead of getting mad or getting even, concentrate on getting what you want. This is what going to the balcony is all about.
Step 2: Disarm Them - Step To Their Side
Before you can discuss the problem with someone, you need to disarm them. The secret of disarming is surprise. To disarm your opponent, you need to do the opposite of what they expect: step to their side, listen to them, acknowledge their point and agree wherever you can.
Listening requires patience and self-discipline. Instead of reacting immediately or plotting your next step, you have to remain focused on what your counterpart is saying. Listening gives you a chance to engage them in a cooperative task, i.e. understanding their problem which makes them more willing to listen to you. After listening, the next step is to acknowledge the other person’s point. Acknowledging the other's point does not mean agreeing with it, rather it means accepting it as one valid point of view among others.
The next step is to agree wherever you can. It’s hard to attack someone who agrees with you!
Step 3: Don't Reject - Reframe
Instead of rejecting your opponent’s position, direct their attention to the problem of meeting each side’s interests. Reframing works because every message is subject to interpretation. It means putting a problem-solving frame around your opponent's positional statements. A problem-solving question focuses attention on the interests of each side, the options for satisfying them, and the standards of fairness for resolving differences. Rather than trying to teach them yourself, let the problem be their teacher.
Step 4: Make It Easy To Say Yes - Build Them A Golden Bridge
At last you are ready to reach agreement; however, your opponent may stall but instead of pushing them toward an agreement, you need to do the opposite. Your job is to build a golden bridge across the chasm.
Building a golden bridge means making it easier for the other person to overcome the four common obstacles to agreement:
Actively involving them in devising a solution so that it becomes their idea, not just yours Satisfying their unmet interests Helping them save face Making the process of agreement as easy as possible
Step 5: Make It Hard To Say No - Bring Them To Their Senses, Not Their Knees
Once the other person still resists and thinks they can win without compromise, your natural temptation is to abandon the problem-solving game and turn it to the power game. However, unless you have a decisive power advantage, the other person usually resists and fights back. Even if you win the battle, you may lose the war and in the process you may also destroy your relationship. What’s more the other person will often find a way to renege or retaliate the next time they are in a better power position.
Overcoming the power paradox means making it easier for the other person to say yes at the same time that you make it harder for them to say no. Instead of seeking victory, you should aim for mutual satisfaction and use power to ‘educate’ the other person. You need to convince them that they are wrong by asking them reality-testing questions designed to get them to think through the impact of not reaching agreement or, as a last resort, using a direct statement of the consequences. However, be careful not to threaten them.
If the other person ignores your warning, you will need to ‘walk away’ (see developing a BATNA in Negotiation Skills) but reassure them that your goal is mutual satisfaction, not victory and remind them that the golden bridge is always open to him.
Conflict Resolution Techniques
Conflict resolution may not be easy but there are specific techniques that anyone can learn and understanding these techniques and developing your skills will be a critical component of your career and personal success.
Separate People from the Problem
It is critical to address problems, not personalities and avoid the tendency to attack the other person. If someone feels threatened, they defend their self-esteem and this makes tackling the real problem more difficult. Try to maintain a rational, goal oriented frame of mind and if someone attacks you personally, don't be hooked into an emotional reaction. Let them ‘vent’ or blow off steam without taking it personally and try to understand the problem behind the aggression.
Make sure you send signals that you know the conflict is about the issues at hand and not personal. This will help to prevent the other side from getting defensive.
Find Underlying Interests
A key to successful conflict resolution is in understanding someone’s underlying interests or ‘where they’re coming from’. We are used to identifying our own interests, but it’s also vital to understand the other person's underlying interests and underlying needs. With skilled probing and by exchanging information it’s possible to find commonalities and so minimise the differences that seem to be evident.
A key part in finding common interests is the process of problem identification, which means defining the problem in a way that is mutually acceptable to both sides. This involves depersonalising the problem so as not to raise the defensiveness of the other person. Thus, a situation where your boss rates you lower on a performance appraisal than you think you deserve, is likely to be more effectively dealt with by defining the problem as “I need to understand why you’ve given me this rating” rather than "You're not treating me fairly”.
Conflict is often a sequence of events, not a single incident
There is a tendency to think about conflict as an isolated incident. It is probably more useful to think about conflict as a process, or a complex series of events over time involving both external factors and internal social and psychological factors. Conflict episodes typically are affected by preceding events that, in turn, produce results and outcomes that affect the conflict dynamics.When dealing with people in good faith, both sides are expected to make compromises and concessions with the goal being not only to try to solve the problem at hand, but to gain information that will facilitate gaining a clearer notion of what the true issues might be and how each side sees reality. When this ‘good faith’ approach is present situations, which to an outside observer, should produce conflict may not. But when a history of bad feeling exists, people can perceive a conflict situation when in reality there is none and so react in anger perhaps resulting from this past conflict.These previous events or encounters affect the thoughts and emotions that arise in the process of conflict resolution and influence specific intentions about the strategies will be used in the current situation. These intentions are translated into behaviour, which, in turn, elicits some response from the other person, and the process recycles.So conflict is an ongoing process that occurs against a backdrop of continuing relationships and events involving the thoughts, perceptions, memories, and emotions of the people involved.
Dealing with people who won't ‘play by the rules’
There will be situations where the other person either doesn't wish to reach a collaborative solution or doesn't realise it is in their best interest to do so. In these situations it is necessary for us to open lines of communication, and try to increase trust and cooperativeness – even though this seems hard and unfair.Sometimes conflicts escalate, the atmosphere becomes charged with anger, frustration, resentment, mistrust, hostility, and a sense of futility. Communication channels close down or are used to criticise and blame the other. The focus on the next assault and the original issues become blurred and ill defined with new issues being added as the conflict becomes personalised. Even if one side is willing to make concessions, often hostility prevents agreements.In such a conflict, perceived differences become magnified, each side gets locked into their initial positions and sometimes resorts to lies, threats, distortions, and other attempts to force the other party to comply with demands. It is not easy to shift this situation but the following techniques will help:
Reduce tension through humour and let the other person ‘vent’
Avoid apparent reactions, i.e. don't take it personally (even if it was meant to hurt), maintain your composure and keep your voice at the same level
Acknowledge the other’s views; listen actively; make a small concession as a signal of good faith
Increase the accuracy of communication; listen hard in the middle of conflict; rephrase the other’s comments to make sure you hear them; mirror the other’s views; seek clarification of the parts of the message that you do not accept
Control issues: search for ways to slice the large issue into smaller pieces; depersonalise the conflict; separate the issues from the people
Establish commonalities: since conflict tends to magnify perceived differences and minimise similarities, look for greater common goals (we are in this together); agree with parts of the message that you accept; find a common enemy; focus on what you have in common
Focus less on your position and more on a clear understanding of the other’s needs and figure out ways to move toward them
Make a ‘yesable’ proposal; refine their demand; reformulate; repackage; sweeten the offer; emphasise the positive
Find legitimate or objective criteria to evaluate the solution