How to Make Your World a Better Place Through Conflict Resolution

A guide for executives, diplomats, families, social media pundits, and anyone else who wants to create real change while avoiding the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

‘Batman vs Superman’ image courtesy of Warner Bros.


Every semester, I teach a class where around 50 students are organized into small teams and given the task of planning and developing a software project for an external stakeholder.

Inevitably, conflicts arise as students with differing backgrounds, skills, and experience are asked to come together in agreement on complex design and technical decisions. As the plan rolls forward, students begin to run into additional conflicts regarding work distribution and perceived teammate performance.

Fortunately, we set aside time in the curriculum to learn about conflict resolution, which is arguably one of the most important skills they learn in the course.

Why Everyone Needs to Learn Conflict Resolution

You might be wondering if this conflict resolution stuff really applies to you. You might not be a student, or part of a software team, so what can you possibly learn from this?

Have you ever experienced one of these thoughts?

“I wish I could get through to <insert child’s name here>. Their behavior is out of control!”
“I wish I could get through to <spouse/coworker/boss/employee>. They never listen to me!”
“I wish I could get through to my <insert political party here> friend. It’s like their head is in the sand!”
“If <insert geopolitical adversary here> won’t listen to reason, we’ll have to invoke trade sanctions.”

Some people are born peacemakers. Conflict resolution skills come to them as naturally as breathing. But, if you’ve ever had a thought similar to any of the above, learning more about conflict resolution can help you.

Please note that these principles aren’t sequential steps. They occur in no particular order, and are repeated many times throughout the conflict resolution process.

Principle 1: Understand What Conflict Is

Captain America Civil War image courtesy Marvel

There are lots of ways we can define conflict, but my preferred definition is the one Adler et al. use in their book Interplay:

Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.

You might have your own preferred definition of conflict, but the two key points in this definition are:

  1. The parties involved are interdependent. In other words, even if they don’t realize it, the parties involved need one another to realize their full potential.
  2. There is a perception of incompatible goals. It is rare that the true interests of parties in conflict are actually incompatible, but the nature of conflict makes it difficult to see this possibility.

Principle 2: Be Willing to Engage in Conflict Resolution

Agent Cater image courtesy of ABC

Conflict itself isn’t a negative thing. Conflict can lead to growth, change, and collaborative synergy. It’s when conflict goes unresolved and escalates into destructive patterns that it becomes problematic.

For some people, being willing to engage in conflict is the hardest part. This is especially true when students are the minority in a situation, whether the demographic in question is one of gender, race, political affiliation, status, or religion.

Consider this scenario:

Mary believes using a certain technology would be beneficial to her team’s project, but her teammate Bob hasn’t been receptive of her suggestions in the past.

If Mary chooses not to mention her idea in order to prevent potential conflict, she is choosing the strategy of avoidance.

If Mary chooses to make the suggestion, there are several possibilities that could occur. Let’s imagine that, following the suggestion, Bob counters in an aggressive way and Mary decides not to press the issue. Mary is now choosing the strategy of accommodation.

While avoidance and accommodation are technically different, they usually have the same long-term effects. In our situation, Mary will feel marginalized and unheard, which will eventually lead to resentment, either towards herself, her team, or both.

There are times when accommodation seems to be the right choice, such as when one party cares deeply about a topic that the other doesn’t care that much about. But, this is one of the reasons the above definition of conflict is so useful. If two parties don’t perceive an incompatible goal, there isn’t a conflict.

Principle 3: Seek Collaboration, Not Compromise

The goal of conflict resolution is neither accommodation nor compromise. The goal is collaboration, what Stephen R. Covey refers to as Synergy, or “The win-win”.

In the musical My Fair Lady, professor Henry Higgins gives this example of compromise:

…make a plan and you will find
she has something else in mind
and so rather than do either 
you do something else that neither likes at all.

While we certainly don’t applaud Higgins’ brutish misogyny, we must give him credit for this definition of compromise. Often, compromise is considered a “win-win” strategy, but it is really a “lose-lose”. Neither side comes away from compromise feeling wholly satisfied.

In the long run, compromise often leads to the same feelings of resentment as the accommodation and avoidance strategies.

Canadian psychotherapist Karen Grierson distinguishes between accommodation (which she refers to as capitulation), compromise, and collaboration in this way:

Unlike Capitulation or Compromise, the result of collaborative solutions is all parties feeling like they have achieved what they wanted, that their individual needs have been met, and the results support and sustain the relationship.

Though difficult, it is essential to strive for collaboration rather than compromise. Of all the conflict resolutions strategies, only collaboration brings with it the promise of strengthened relationships.

In his book, Collaborative Public Diplomacy, Ali Fisher explains the details of the collaborative process this way:

Collaborative actors are results or outcome oriented, but in a very different way to those using assertive strategies. They do not determine a specific policy or message and then seek to make it sounds attractive so that others will follow when it is presented…Instead, collaborative actors value the input of others at all levels of decision making. The result is a collective refinement of objective, consideration of all relationships within the relevant network, and subsequent co-creation of message
Through collaboration, new solutions can enter an information horizon. Through greater diversity, a decision-making process can become more likely to be innovative, relevant to a wider community, and less likely to be the result of a narrow political perspective.

When compared with compromise, decisions based on collaboration will provide better solutions, stronger relationships, and a greater willingness for parties to continue working together.

Principle 4: Listen Respectively to the Other Viewpoint

In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey lists habit five as:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The biggest impediment to this principle is pride.

Most people have a strong, natural desire to be heard, but very few people have a strong, natural desire to listen.

Showing others that you’re sincerely listening can be as simple as admitting the validity of their feelings:

“I can see why you feel that way. That must be frustrating.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“That’s an interesting idea, I hadn’t considered that before.”
“Thank you for telling me how you feel, let me make sure I understand you correctly…”

These kinds of statements must, of course, be sincere in order to have any real effect. But, by showing the other party that you are sincerely listening to their concerns and considering them on equal ground, you are signaling to them that you are willing to engage in conflict resolution rather than a fruitless shouting match.

Principle 5: Differentiate Between Positions and Interests

Aside from showing mutual respect, truly listening to an opposing viewpoint provides another important benefit. Truly listening allows you to separate someone’s position from their interests. Understanding this difference is essential to resolving conflict.

Consider this situation:

Mark posts on Facebook that he supports a certain political candidate. Jackson supports an opposing candidate, and is appalled at what he views as intolerant views expressed by Mark’s candidate.
Jackson feels so strongly about this, that he chooses to comment on Mark’s post, calling him out on racism.

There are a few ways this conflict could play out. If Jackson immediately assumes that he and Mark have different positions on the same issue, he could easily be tempted to belittle Mark for supporting what he views as intolerant views on immigration.

On the other hand, if Jackson first seeks to understand Mark’s interest, rather than assuming it is the same as his own, he might discover that Mark lives with a worldview where race isn’t a major concern. Instead, as Mark approaches his retirement years, he’s most concerned with social security benefits, something that his chosen candidate has promised to address.

With this understanding, Jackson could teach Mark about Candidate B’s position on social security benefits. Feeling understood rather than belittled, Mark would be much more likely to more openly consider Jackson’s position about immigration.

This is obviously a contrived example. However, the key point is that the latter exchange strengthens the relationship and promotes future dialogue, while the former does not.

This idea is also illustrated in the U.S. State Department’s guide to diplomacy:

The two most important skills to get to ‘yes’ are a thorough understanding of the U.S. perspective on the issue and an appreciation of the culture and interests of the foreign diplomats sitting across the table.

We almost always have a foreknowledge of every party’s position when the conflict resolution process begins, but very rarely do we start out with a real appreciation of the true interests of the other party. In fact, sometimes we haven’t even taken adequate time to identify the underlying interests behind our own position.

If you’ve ever been in a discussion with someone who seems to flounder for a logical argument, you might be tempted to call them out for waffling. But often, this is a sign that they are trying to self-analyze their original position.

When we’re confronted with incongruities about a position we’ve taken, our mind has several options for dealing with the “cognitive dissonance”. Most of the strategies boil down to deciding how much cognitive weight to assign to conflicting pieces of information, a process that psychologists call “dissonance reduction”.

Our ability to rationally consider and assign weight to new information depends largely on how much we trust its source. This is another reason why building trust through true listening is such a vital part of conflict resolution.

If the other party doesn’t trust you, or feels that you don’t respect their point of view, how much weight can you expect them to assign to your arguments?

Principle 6: Avoid Destructive Conflict Resolution

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Death, Famine, War & Conquest, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

John Gottman lists four destructive conflict resolution strategies, which he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Each of these behaviors is rooted in pride and show evidence that the speaker’s main concern is self-validation, or in Adler’s words “high concern for self and low concern for others”.

  1. Personal attacks.
  2. Denials of responsibility.
  3. Showing contempt.
  4. Stonewalling by shutting down dialog.

Employment of these attacks often results in a cascade effect. As one side engages in personal attacks, the other may employ denial. This often leads to stonewalling by one or both parties, which prevents further dialog and thereby ends (at least temporarily) any hope of conflict resolution.

Consider two diplomats negotiating a trade agreement. If one diplomat insults or otherwise shows contempt for the culture or beliefs of the other, no matter how contemptible she might find that culture to be, trade negotiations are unlikely to move forward.

Similarly, in a post-mortem discussion regarding a failed project, as the project manager seeks to understand what went wrong, if at any time he attempts to place personal blame (a form of contempt), it is likely that the other parties will engage in denials of responsibility.

In political discussions on social-media outlets, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are often employed to great effect, shutting down constructive dialog on a variety of topics.

Consider this imaginary, but all-too-common conversation between two social media users:

Sam: “I can’t believe you’re supporting that idiot candidate for election, have you totally drunk the kool-aid?”
Wendy: “Don’t tell me you’re supporting the other candidate? Do you believe everything you read on CrazyRightWingPreppersUSA? What about Immigration and LGBT Rights?”
Sam: “It’s not my fault immigrants and gays are in that situation. They should go back to their own countries. I’ve got my own problems.”
Wendy: “Dude, check your privilege.”

Sam begins the conversation with a personal attack mixed with contempt. Wendy counters with another personal attack and contempt, along with a token attempt to discuss an underlying issue. Feeling threatened, Sam engages in denial of responsibility, and an exasperated Wendy resorts to stonewalling, thus ending the discussion.

To be clear, Sam might very well be viewing things from a position of extreme privilege. In our previous examples, one of the team members might clearly be at fault for a failed project, and one of the diplomats might really come from a culture with deplorable human rights violations. However, none of these points matter within the scope of conflict resolution.

If your real goal is to bring about unity and collaboration rather than just proving to the world how much better your position is compared to everyone else’s, you must avoid calling in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Principle 7: Take A Deep Breath

Kung Fu Panda image courtesy DreamWorks Animation

As Syrian writer Publilius Syrus said, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”

Even though I’ve been reading, analyzing, and teaching principles of conflict resolution for some time, I still fail at this quite often.

In the heat of the moment, it’s often difficult to choose to listen respectfully when you’re struggling to choke down the contempt you feel for a particular point-of-view.

When it starts to become more than you can bare, when you feel that you have no other recourse than to call in one (or perhaps all four) of the apocalyptic horsemen, that’s when it’s time to call a recess.

In diplomatic negotiations, calling a recess is a formal procedure. When engaged with a project team, you can table an issue temporarily while everyone takes a break. Family members can go for a walk, or take time to reflect on the situation.

While it’s important not to delay conflict resolution to the point where a relationship becomes toxic, it also isn’t necessary (or wise) to attempt to resolve years of conflict in as short a meeting as possible.

Be expeditious, not hasty. If at all possible, don’t begin or continue with conflict resolution when one or more of the parties is hungry, tired, or in any other way mentally or physically compromised.

When my student project teams successfully engage in the process of conflict resolution, their teams grow stronger, and the projects are more successful.

These principles can work for everyone: families, businesses, diplomats, and even people that like to discuss politics on social media.

Successful conflict resolution takes time, humility, and a willingness to respectively listen to viewpoints that you might consider abhorrent without invoking the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Always remember that the goal of conflict resolution is not compromise, but a collaborative win-win situation. One that results in a mutually beneficial solution, greater buy-in from all parties, and a strengthened relationship.