Conflict Resolution

Frances Picherack, UBC Department of Health, Safety and Environment and Michael Aherne , May 29, 2003

"Anyone can become angry. That is easy, but to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy."


Foundations of Conflict: Conflict is foundational

Conflict is any situation where people have a difference of values, expectations, opinions, interpretations, needs or wants. We need to recognize that:

  • Conflict is everywhere
  • Conflict is “okay” (i.e., natural and inevitable)
  • Conflict often makes people uncomfortable and defensive
  • Unresolved conflict can do significant relational harm
  • Conflict makes conversation and dialogue difficult
  • There are times when conflict may even be desirable
  • BUT, positive or negative in its effects, conflict is something that needs to be addressed
  • We can limit the opportunity for conflict escalation by engaging each other in an open and respectful way.

Conflict is part of the normal and usual backdrop for interpersonal and organizational relationships in the workplace.

Foundations of Conflict in the Workplace

Misused position, authority, or prestige tied to accomplishments in the workplace, can cause unnecessary conflict.

Principles of fairness and due process, or awareness of fairness and due process, play an increasingly important role in resolution of organizational conflict.

Unaddressed conflict in the workplace predictably frustrates important organizational goals, such as customer satisfaction, public/external confidence or acclaim, continuous quality improvement, and risk management.

We can limit the opportunity for conflict escalation by engaging each other in an open and respectful way.

Regardless of workplace setting you will experience conflict and the need for conflict management in the workplace.

Conflicts in the workplace arise from the societal level, organizational level, operational level and interpersonal level. It is increasingly likely that your workplace will have some form of policy-sanctioned conflict resolution program in place. It is increasingly likely that the other groups and organizations with whom your enterprise deals will have established approaches to conflict resolution.

Awareness of our own conflict management style is necessary for executives today.

Each of us develops our own individual conflict management style over time. It is learned through experience, and we can change it. There are five general conflict management styles, competitive, avoidant, collaborative, accommodative, and compromising. Personal dispositions, such as our general tendencies toward assertiveness and co–operation, greatly influence our conflict management style. Assertiveness is the degree to which you attempt to satisfy your own concerns. Co–operation is the degree to which you wish to satisfy others’ concerns.

No one style is better than the other for all occasions. Some particular styles, however, are less suited to conflict management or resolution (e.g. an avoidant style or a competitive style), and a collaborative style is generally considered the best way to increase the likelihood that the interests of all participants will be considered.

Organizations also develop a conflict management or resolution style over time. In the avoidant style, the organization takes no action to resolve conflicts. The “Higher Authority” style is where an organization encourages referral up the line of command, internal appeals, and formal investigations to deal with conflict. Litigation is a natural offshoot of and cousin to the higher authority style. With the power play style, conflict is dealt with through “back room” maneuverings. A collaborative style invites and allows individuals to try and work things out, or negotiate, or get assistance from a third party who can help to resolve matters considering the interests of all parties.

Individual Conflict Style

Like individuals, organizations adopt conflict management styles over time.

Organizational Conflict Styles


  • No action to resolve a conflict


  • Individual initiative
  • Negotiation by colleagues/staff
  • Intervention by a third party to the conflict

Higher Authority

  • Refferal up line of supervision, or chain of command; internal appeals; formal investigation
  • Litigation throught the courts or state/administrative agency

Power Play/Force

  • Behind the scenes maneuvering
  • Physical or psychological violence/abuse

(Adapted from KA Slaikeu. When push comes to shove: A practical guide to mediating disputes. 1996)

Our individual conflict management style and the organization’s conflict management style will influence our options for responding to conflict in the workplace.

Response Options to Conflict in the Workplace

“Eat Crow” and walk away

Fight fire with fire

  • meet the intensity of the attack with equal or greater counter force

Defend yourself

  • Provide an explanation or haul out the “activity crash cart” (e.g., we have a 97% customer satisfaction rating in this area)

Use an interest–based, relational response

  • Don't defend — acknowledge the person and be attentive to the speaker
  • Invite criticism and advice (eg., what could we do differently) and listen for interest content and not information
  • Stay in a position of curiosity and not judgment

(Adapted from KA Slaikeu. When push comes to shove: A practival guide to mediating disputes. 1996)

  • Stay in a position of curiosity and not judgment

(Adapted from ADR Education Ltd)

Conflict is a subset of communications, and as such always involves the “play” of content, process and emotion, for each individual, and among those in conflict. Conflict resolution usually involves movement to respect differences or harmonize differences among those dealing with the conflict.

In addition to the relational emphasis, the importance of not getting stuck in hard “positions” that limit options or leave little room to compromise or collaborate has lead to the Interest-based Relational (IBR) Approach to Conflict Management.

Individual Conflict Styles

An Interest–Based, Relational (IBR) Approach to Conflict

  • Addresses mutual concerns and underlying “interests” and mitigates additional harm to individuals and relationships.
  • Allows others to make constructive, ongoing contributions to jointly–solving problems that affect them.
  • Values time, money and relationships as precious resources and respects them accordingly, seeking minimal resource impact in constructively managing conflict.
  • Insists on a balance of advocacy and inquiry in advancing options for going forward.
  • Is robust and responsive to the needs of diverse, but not necessarily all, populations and situations.

Whether formally recognized for conflict management purposes, the ground rules of the Interest–based Relational (IBR) approach to conflict or dispute resolution are:

  • Keep things relational — the quality of the interaction is key!
  • Separate the person from the problem
  • Focus on underlying interests, not positions
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  • Jointly explore relevant options going forward
  • Agree on criteria that all participants can observe and see as objective, in deciding outcomes

What is “Relational” in the IBR Approach?

  • It’s the person that matters
  • The relationship, and therefore, the quality of the interaction matters
  • All persons must feel respected and heard
  • The person and their issue/concern must have standing
  • The process used to engage the issue/concern must be perceived to be fair and unbiased
  • The interpersonal treatment of the person expressing the issue/concern by persons in authority must be respectful, give full expectations, and be consistent.
  • Two kinds of fairness come into play — Procedural Fairness and Interactional Fairness

Skills Required for the Interest–Based Relational Approach to Conflict Resolution

Active and reflective Listening Skills

  • Restating
  • Paraphrasing
  • Summarizing

Empathic Responses

Framing a response empathically has three parts:

  • Tentative statement (It seems to me)
  • Define the feeling (You are frustrated)
  • Framing the situational context (e.g. …because the research director was coming for a meeting and it was important to you to be consulted and your response was missed because the memo didn't reach you in time)

Most importantly, your response must be genuine and sincere.

Open and Closed Questions

Open questions begin

  • What
  • When
  • Who
  • Where
  • Which
  • How

Closed questions begin

  • Is
  • Can
  • Do/Did
  • Will
  • Has
  • Shall

Remember — Open questions are phrased so that a full answer is encouraged to provide a full “story”.

Behaviours Observed to Elicit Resistance

Researchers at the University of Colorado have documented behaviours known to generally elicit resistance rather than co–operation. Executives today are encouraged to be aware of these behaviours for conflict resolution, and general communication purposes.

  • Negative labeling, insulting, or calling the other party offensive names. (e.g. “Liar”)
  • Minimizing or ignoring the other’s feelings. (e.g., “Frankly, I don't care if you are upset!”)
  • Lying, denying, or misrepresenting information known to the other party.
  • Blaming the other for the problem with “you” statements. (e.g., “You make me mad when you forget to lock the door when you leave the office!”
  • Communicating condescension. (e.g., “You mean to tell me that you are just now figuring that out?”)
  • Questioning the other’s honesty, integrity, intelligence, or competence. (e.g., “How do you expect me to trust you this time?”)
  • Making offensive or hostile non–verbal expressions or gestures. (e.g., rolling the eyes, loud sighs, “giving the finger,”, or groaning when the other speaks)
  • Making interpretations of what the other says based on stereotypes/ prejudicial beliefs. (e.g., “All you people ever think about is how you can avoid working!”
  • Insisting that the other party “admit to being wrong.” (e.g., “This is not about my perceptions of what happened I saw you take my floppy disk and you damn well better admit it!”).
  • Using sarcasm in addressing the other party. (e.g., “Well, how nice of you to grace us with your presence. I'm shocked!”)
  • Making moral judgments about the other party. (e.g., “The Lord will punish you for these sins!”)
  • Making threats to the other party. (e.g., “You'd better stick to your word or I'm going to talk with the boss about your behaviour!”)
  • Making demands of the other party. (e.g., “I demand that you write me a letter of apology.”)
  • Refusing to shake hands with the other party when he/she offers. (e.g., at the beginning of the mediation session)
  • Interrupting the other party when he/she is speaking.
  • Shouting at the other party.

Behaviours Observed to Elicit Cooperation

  • Using “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. (e.g., “I want to respond to your questions, but I need some time to calm down first.”)
  • Conveying that the disputant has been listening attentively. (e.g., “It sounds as if your biggest concerns are for your long–term job security and recognition for your accomplishments. Is that right?”)
  • Making “appropriate” eye–contact. Note: culturally dependent. The key issue is for Person A to make eye contact with Person B in a way that is comfortable for Person B.
  • Expressing a desire to see both get as much of what they want as possible from resolution. (e.g., “I’d like to see both of us walk out of here happy.”
  • Acknowledging responsibility for part of the problem whenever possible. (e.g., “You know, I hadn’t seen it before, but I think I did make some mistakes in the way I approached you.”)
  • Acknowledging the other party’s perceptions whenever possible. (e.g., “I haven’t considered this matter from that perspective before, but I think I can see how it looked that way to you.”)
  • Identifying areas of agreement with the other party whenever possible — especially if he/she does not recognize that such areas of agreement exist. (e.g., “You know, Conrad, I agree with you that we ought to make time management more of a priority for our office in the future.”)
  • Allowing the other to “let off steam.” Note: This requires extreme self–control, but if the other party has not expressed him/herself previously, this can be extremely valuable.
  • Avoiding assumptions. (e.g., “Could you help me understand why having these specific days off is so important to you?”)
  • Indicating that the other party “has a good point” when he/she makes a point you believe has merit. (e.g., “You're absolutely right about x.”)

Conflict in the workplace in the interests (goals, needs, hopes, fears, values) of different individuals, teams, projects, organizations, and sectors is inevitable. Conflict in the workplace cannot be prevented, but its escalation can be contained, and its negative impact on all involved can be minimized.

Managed and Out of Control Conflict

Managed Conflict Out of Control Conflict
Strengthens relationships and facilitates team building Damages relationships and discourages cooperation
Encourages open communication and cooperative problem solving Results in defensiveness and hidden agendas
Increases productivity Wastes time, money, and resources
Deals with real issues and concentrates on win–win resolutions Focuses on fault–finding and blaming
Calms and focuses towards results Is often loud, hostile and chaotic
Supports respectful workplace and client relationships and a client satisfaction/service orientation Results in considerable workplace/client dissatisfaction and missed opportunities for service recovery
Facilitates an environment of openness and permission for service recovery and improvement Creates/sustains an environment of denial and missed opportunities for continuous improvement

Executives play a key role in tipping the balance of managed conflict and conflict that runs out of control in the workplace today.