Conflict Resolution: Comprehensive Guide for Conscious Individuals & Organizations
Whenever there’s more than one human on the planet…there will be conflict.
Whenever there’s more than one human in the same family, the same town, working in the same organization, or serving on the same committee… there will be conflict.
If there isn’t, someone’s not sharing their ideas or expressing their opinions. (and yes, it’s true in intimate relationships as well. Except for the first few months, if there’s no conflict, one partner is not expressing their needs…)
Conflict is simply disagreement — a difference of opinion, perspective, point of view or vision. And sometimes conflict arises from someone’s negative judgment of something.
More extreme conflict might stem from incompatible values, divergent beliefs, opposing ideologies, dissimilar philosophies, contrasting approaches, or mismatched personality traits.
While dissenting opinions can make us nervous, if we keep an open mind without getting defensive, conflict provides the opportunity to see an issue from a different perspective. When we sincerely consider another person’s point of view we’ll have an increased ability to work out differences.
“We Value Diversity, except…”
Except when it comes to opinions! This is (somewhat of) a joke, but can be true in any organization. Even organizations that value diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. can sometimes be less open to a diversity of opinions or approaches. There are any number of reasons for this.
Leaders assume their people are all on the same page with the organization’s mission. But when disagreement arises, some can become fearful that with differing opinions the team might stray from its mission or not be able to work together.
Or maybe a community has a vision of themselves that doesn’t include engaging in heated arguments.
In The Lost Interview,” Apple founder, Steve Jobs shares a metaphor of polished rocks, explaining the necessity of an effective team bumping up against each other. (The fascinating video was on Netflix but has been removed. It may return at a later date: “The Lost Interview”)
Here’s what Steve Job’s said:
“That’s always been my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”
The Value of “Conflict”
Research shows that divergent opinions help groups make their best decisions. In the book In Defense of Troublemakers, an eminent psychologist explains why dissenting opinions should be cherished and not feared.
The author explains the importance of having team members who don’t just “go along with” the popular opinion — who aren’t afraid to rock the boat with a creative or seemingly hairbrained idea, even if they are frowned upon for not being in harmony with the group…someone who won’t shy away from questioning the status quo or pointing out something that’s been missed.
“Left unchallenged, the majority opinion is often biased, unoriginal, or false. It leads planes and markets to crash, causes juries to convict innocent people, and can quite literally make people think blue is green. Lone objectors who make people question their assumptions bring groups far closer to truth — regardless of whether they are right or wrong.” — Charlan Nemeth, author of In Defense of Troublemakers
In Defense of Troublemakers
"Good decision-making, at its heart, is divergent thinking. When we think divergently, we think in multiple directions…
When Conflict Does Becomes a Problem
While a range of perspectives and opinions are an asset, long-standing unresolved conflicts in an organization can lower morale, be a productivity buster and become an obstacle to carrying out its mission.
It’s often not the conflict itself that’s the problem but rather the avoidance of it, or the lack of skills to handle conflict effectively. Most times acknowledging the need for interpersonal skills training and dispute settlement procedures is a good start. Implementation of both can get the team back on track.
There may be times when a conflict is so large or complex that it requires bringing in a consultant/mediator who can address the situation before the team hits rock bottom.
The Bad Hire — A Different Issue
There are also times when an organization has made a bad hire. That issue will need to be handled differently, though starting with skills-building and conflict resolution can be worth trying in appropriate situations.
However, extremely disruptive, abusive or illegal behavior must be addressed without hesitation.
It’s important that leadership be able to make the distinction between a bad hire and a situation where that person and the team need communication skills training. Don’t move too quickly to get rid of the mischief-maker. Giving them the boot might not solve the problem. That “difficult” person may just need guidance, interpersonal skills training and a bit of compassion.
Good Hiring and Best Practices
- Hiring Decisions — Learning how to hire mature, emotionally healthy adults can help you avoid a large percentage of difficult-to-handle workplace conflicts. Mature adults will have the capacity to be self-reflective. That virtue often means that small skirmishes or differences of opinion are handled well or addressed using conflict resolution procedures without resistance. Learn how to recognize the red flags of job applicants, and don’t ignore them.
- Skills Building — Providing resources for interpersonal skills building is the second aspect that contributes to a sustainable work environment.
- If you make effective hiring decisions, the skills-building aspect will dovetail nicely. But if you miss the mark and hire an immature or troubled individual, you may end up with unresolvable conflicts that fester and grow as that person will not have the capacity to learn effective communication or to participate in a conflict resolution session.
Developing Conflict Resolution Policies and Procedures
As with other aspects of organizational life, it’s a good idea to develop policies and procedures for resolving conflict, providing all levels of staff with the resources they need.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, taking preemptive measures like offering training in communication skills and emotional self-management can be quite valuable.
When those in your organization develop the ability to communicate assertively and directly, are able to recognize their triggers, and manage their emotions, it’s likely there will be fewer conflicts…or at least fewer aggressive outbursts or passive-aggressive behavior.
And hopefully greater comfort with differing opinions.
Here are a few thoughts about your organization’s
Conflict Resolution Policy:
- Values human diversity and appreciates the individuality of all its members and staff.
- Understands that conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships and life in an organization.
- Views any conflict as an opportunity to consider a different perspective and to learn and grow both individually and as an organization.
- Commits to assisting its staff in resolving conflicts and challenges as promptly, and effectively as possible.
- Encourages and provides opportunities for staff to develop communication skills, increase empathy and learn conflict resolution techniques for the benefit of themselves and the team as a whole.
- Encourages all levels of staff to take personal responsibility for feelings, responses, and reactions in any given situation, adopting a “No Blame” approach.
- Encourages all staff to seek resources for developing self-awareness and self-responsibility.
Guidelines for Individuals
- An essential component of conflict resolution is a willingness and ability to identify, name and own one’s feelings and to communicate those feelings without hostility or blame. This process alone involves the commitment and capacity for self-awareness and honesty.
- All levels of staff are encouraged to attend communication skills training days, to assist in the growth and evolution of the organization. These trainings can provide a common language to use when dealing with conflict (resolving a simple disagreement or participation in a formal conflict resolution session).
- The conflict resolution process can occur between two parties or any number of people. This policy document exists to provide a framework for resolution between or among the parties involved.
- Confidentiality is essential for trust and safety. Participants are asked to not repeat anything specific and personal unless they receive permission from the person(s) involved.
- All feelings are acceptable when owned and expressed responsibly. (see Anger 101 below)
- The process of resolving conflict is not always pretty. It can get a little messy. Trusting the process itself and accepting that it is unpredictable, allows participants to experience the “magic in the messiness.”
- When the concerns of all parties are fully heard (using active listening), underlying needs are identified, and participants can empathize with that person’s experience…that often opens the door for the possibility of resolution.
- When there is clear difficulty between two or more staff and one person states “This is not my problem…you’re on your own” — that is not acceptable. Each party is expected to ask themselves “What is my part in this?” and to agree to participate.
Anger 101: Beginning to Understand the Mysterious Emotion
This section only scratches the surface but it’s important to include a crash course on anger since so many conflicts either arise from or provoke some level of anger.
Is Anger Bad?
There are misunderstandings about the nature of anger and even human behavior professionals disagree about whether it is “bad.”
It’s my perspective that anger is not bad, but simply one of our emotions.
“There isn’t any such thing as a negative emotion. There are negative things that we do with our emotions, but our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive.” — Robert Agustus Masters, From Spiritual Bypassing
Hostility & Aggression
Anger is an emotion, but hostility and aggression are behaviors.
Most of us express hostility now and then. But anything more than mild aggression that is quickly reined-in can become a problem.
Hostility can be:
- Verbal (a raised voice, a threatening tone, pointing the finger)
- Nonverbal (eye-rolling, a dramatic sigh, drumming fingers)
“When we are angry, we might express it as hostility — emitting unmistakable negativity, bristly and mean-spirited, tight and heartless. Yes, we are angry, but we are filtering — and forcing — it through a darkly twisted lens, so that it is expressed not as clean anger (that is, anger free of aggression, blaming, and shaming) but as hostility.”
— Robert Agustus Masters, From Spiritual Bypassing
Anger is a powerful emotion that many of us struggle to handle responsibly.
Displacement of Anger and Aggression
“Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which negative feelings are transferred from the original source of the emotion to a less threatening person or object. The negative emotions elicited toward the source of the feelings are instead redirected toward a more powerless substitute. This target may take the form of a person or even an object.”
— Kendra Cherry, What is Displacement in Psychology
Those who engage the displacement defense mechanism in an aggressive manner, get away with their hostility by directing it onto someone who doesn’t have the power or will to fight back. It’s classic Bully behavior. In its extreme is also a key characteristic of abusers and authoritarians.
A disturbing but common example of displacement is when incidents of domestic violence spike in the city of a losing football team.
Resources for Handling Your Anger:
Start with a book. Communication Skills Training is also recommended. And if your anger is significantly impacting your personal and professional life find a therapist who specializes in anger management.
The 16 Best Anger Management Books (to Read in 2020)
Get inspired by the following best books on anger management; arm yourself with tools to conquer your anger and move up…
Anger’s Role in Conflict
First and foremost, you are 100% responsible for your emotions and your reactions. No one “makes” you angry.
“People or events may spark your anger, but your own judgments are its cause.” -Marshall B. Rosenberg, The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger management — Finding the Gift
If your buttons get pushed easily and often, that’s something worth exploring.
Anger Can Be Expressed Calmly and Respectfully — Who Knew?
Anger can be expressed in a matter-of-fact way without hostile energy. That’s the “clean anger” Robert Agustus Masters is referring to in his quote above.
When we keep the focus on our own feelings without blaming others, then calmly and respectfully state our case and ask for what we need…we are handling our anger responsibly. This is a high-level skill that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
The key skills to refine are:
- Recognizing our feelings
- Tuning-in to the underlying unmet need that triggered our anger
- Calmly and respectfully asking for what we need
- Being willing to hear “no” as a response to our request
Once we refine these skills we can to do this “in the moment,” but until we really “get” this and have time to practice, it’s much easier to recognize our feelings and identify unmet needs once we are out of the situation and have had time to reflect.
Learning to handle your anger more effectively will help immensely with your ability to participate in conflict resolution.
Start with a high-quality Communication Skills Training, and you’ll learn the necessary social and communication skills that can help with your anger.
That might be all you need. However, if you often “fly off the handle,” and struggle to manage your aggressive behavior, find a good therapist who specializes in anger management.
One-to-One or a Group Conflict Resolution Session?
One-to-One Session: A conflict resolution session between two people might be the most common but it depends on the organizational structure and how decisions are made as a group. If there is a difficulty or dispute between two people and an official conflict resolution session is needed, the use of a mediator is recommended. Having a skilled neutral party present to witness the process, offer guidance and to assist with exercises and procedures is helpful. Having a mediator also helps to create an emotionally safe space for both parties.
“You Two Work it Out” — Not Always a Good Policy
Two people can always try to talk through their conflict. The two parties are encouraged to be self-reflective and use communication skills that they have (hopefully) learned. Organizations often require this as a first step when there’s difficulty between two people.
While it can be successful for two people on their own to come to a place of resolution without participation by others, there can be significant problems and even damage done using this model.
With the requirement to “go it alone,” many people will simply opt-out, saying to themselves or to their boss: “Never mind. I’ll just live with it.” or “I’ll just try to ignore them.” If that happens the issue may fester and surface later in other ways that are destructive.
When the “go it alone” model should NOT be used:
- When there’s a power imbalance
- When one person is not comfortable meeting alone with the other person
- When a certain personality type is involved — those who are skilled at exploiting a situation without a third party present. (Gaslighting)
A Group Session: Conflict resolution in a group session is needed either to address conflict that involves more than two or three people or is the appropriate choice when the two-person conflict actually involves the whole group or surfaced in the group context. Personal issues are often a microcosm of organizational issues and an issue appearing to be only between two people, may indeed impact the whole department, committee or organization and involve a wider range of issues. It’s a powerful experience for a group to work together and witness the resolution of a difficult conflict. The positive results often extend beyond the resolution of that one issue. A group session also has the option of using a mediator, though if the group members are skilled communicators or have previously participated in group sessions, having a mediator may be unnecessary. That decision can be left to the person initiating the meeting or the group as a whole.
The Case for Group Sessions
Group work provides the most opportunity for learning, practicing considerate communication, and experiencing transformation. There is nothing more powerful than sharing an “aha” moment with others.
The Process & Procedure
- Time Heals…or at least it cools. Waiting a day or two before scheduling a conflict resolution session is recommended. This allows “the dust to settle” from a heated exchange. It also allows time for reflection on the topic, a chance to gain clarity and enough time to understanding feelings (our own and possibly those of the other party).
- Not using an experienced mediator is a missed opportunity for all involved…When a skilled person serves as a mediator, employing resolution techniques and facilitates communication exercises, much can be learned and the process will likely be more successful. It’s important that all participants agree upon the mediator.
- At times, a conflict may not be easily defined. While the issue may feel connected strongly to one person, it may also be a “group issue,” in which case the person or persons with the issue should participate with others in a Group Conflict Resolution Session. This group might consist of a specific staff group (such as members of one department or work team)
- The conflict resolution process continues (possibly in a series of sessions) until some form of resolution is achieved. If a conflict is unresolvable and negatively impacts the organizational culture, other alternatives should be explored, including external facilitation and/or arbitration.
- Those new to the conflict resolution process may fear that it will take forever…but it doesn’t.
- During participation in a conflict resolution meeting, participants are asked to keep an open heart and mind. This may sound non-business-like but it’s not. Organizations are made up of people and all people feel their best and work their best when they are heard and received with empathy and compassion. An open heart and open mind is the prerequisite for the deep listening and understanding that leads to the resolution of disputes. (see The Empathy Requirement below)
- Willingness to consider changing one’s perspective on an issue is especially helpful.
Understanding the Parameters (What Conflict Resolution is NOT)
While all parties will have the time to share their perspective and experience of the conflict, it’s important to understand that a conflict resolution session is not a place to air every grievance — it’s not a platform for long-winded venting.
If one needs a venting environment, they can do that with a willing friend, a therapist or a stuffed animal…before the conflict resolution session. They should not plan on using the conflict resolution session as a dumping ground.
The focus is on the identified area of conflict and all parties should come prepared to succinctly express their side of it. There will be an opportunity to share feelings but not your endless stream of consciousness.
Indulging one person by allowing them a rant fest will only muddy the waters and cause confusion. A good mediator will keep this in check.
Participants-You will be heard…but if you ramble, you will be herded. 🙂
The Format: a simple example
- The person who initiated the session speaks first without interruption.
- The second person then speaks without interruption.
- Both parties have the opportunity to respond to each other.
- Conflict resolution techniques and exercises are used
(see the CR Toolkit below)
Things to Remember During a Conflict Resolution Session
- This is a self-responsible conversation that works best when it includes patience and respect.
- Progress will likely be stalled if participants are defensive and closed.
- Digging in your heels is not generally conducive to making peace.
- Listen deeply — try to hear the issue from the other person’s perspective
- Practice empathy — try to get a sense of what the other person experienced
- Be willing to open your heart open and willing to open your mind
- Try to identify your triggers (the comments or behaviors of others that “push your buttons” causing a strong emotional reaction in you)
- Own your stuff! Feel your feelings without blaming another person for your reaction (take responsibility for yourself and your triggers)
- Don’t take up more than your share of airtime
“As we struggle to find solutions, conflict leads to new ways of thinking. Nothing ever changes in a world without discord.” — Marcelo Gleiser
Without Conflict There Is No Growth
Where do values come from? Culture? Life experience? Family traditions? Upbringing? Religion? How do we decide what is…
Conflict Resolution Toolkit
Participants in a one-to-one or small group conflict resolution process may want to utilize these helpful processes and tools.
Trusted Mediator: A mediator may not always be necessary but is a valuable resource. For many conflicts, the mediator can be a trusted colleague who may play the role of a witness whose presence creates a safe space for dialogue. At other times an outside professional mediator may be necessary to assist the conflicted parties. All parties must agree on the mediator if it is a colleague.
Support Person: If the issue is particularly complex or charged and the conflict resolution session is between two or three people, it’s often wise to have not only a mediator but also a support person for each participant. The role of the support person is to help the participant prepare for the session by helping them clarify the issue from their perspective, organize their thoughts and stay calm and grounded. During the session, the support person is there for moral support and possibly brief sidebar consultations similar to what an attorney provides for a client when in a courtroom.
Silence and Attunement: A few minutes of quiet reflection is an excellent way to get grounded and gather the participants together at the beginning of the session. Taking time during the conflict resolution session for getting quiet is also a great way to settle the energy if needed, and to allow for “inner guidance.” This may sound a bit “woo woo” but it can be seen as a simple way to collect one’s thoughts. It can be called a “reflection moment.” Most people have at one time or another had a “flash of insight” that provides an answer or an expanded view of a situation. Those insights come more often during a quiet reflective time.
Talking Stick: The “Talking Stick” has become popular as a modern group process tool. It was originally used by tribes of indigenous people of the Northwest Coast in North America as a tool for assisting the group communication process. It can be used in a two-party conflict or with a group. In a Group Conflict Resolution Session, using the talking stick assures that each party has the opportunity to speak uninterrupted. A Talking Stick is used as follows: the person who initiated the meeting holds the stick or object and speaks first. As long as someone holds the stick they are not interrupted. When that person is finished speaking they place the talking stick in the center of the group. The stick is then picked up by whoever feels moved to speak next. (with two people the stick is simply handed to the other person)
Process and Session Exercises
The Empathy Requirement: Empathy is not a concept often mentioned in a business-type setting. Perhaps considered too “touchy/feely” yet it’s one of the most important aspects of human relationships. And whether we’re talking about a social justice nonprofit or a huge corporation, relationships hold the same level of importance to its functioning. Until robots take over, human interaction will be required to run an organization. One of the most destructive forces an organization or government can experience is a leader who lacks empathy. Authoritarians and dictators tend to have sociopathic personality traits which means they suffer from a severe deficiency of empathy. In plain language, they lack the ability to understand another person’s experience — and lack compassion. An “all-business” leader might seem effective initially but the short-term “wins” for shareholders never pay off when the price is human suffering. There’s much to say on this topic but having the ability to empathize with another person is an absolute requirement for resolving conflict. It’s impossible for someone with little or no empathy to resolve a conflict. That type of person only knows how to dominate till they “get their way.” They experience others only as objects to be used for their own purposes. With them, it’s always “my way or the highway.”
Reflective Listening/Paraphrasing: This is when you ask the other party to repeat back to you in their own words what you just said. This is an excellent practice for shedding light on miscommunications. If they are unable to accurately express what you tried to communicate, you can repeat what you said and ask them to paraphrase back to you again. It’s simple to do and offers immediate results — You will know instantly if the other person has misunderstood what you were trying to say. When the conflict resolution session uses a mediator, they usually decide when to ask one person to paraphrase back to the other. However, any participant at any time can request that the other person repeat back what they just said. Practicing paraphrasing will fine-tune your listening skills and increases empathy. It’s especially useful if the two parties have reached an impasse and resolution seems unlikely.
Role Reversal: Switch roles and “play-act” as if you were the other person and speak from their perspective. This technique is similar to paraphrasing mentioned above but takes it a step farther. Moving to the other person’s seat when switching roles helps increase the effectiveness of role reversal because the process uses more senses. The movement of a shift in physical location can help you get “unstuck” and shift your perspective. What’s great is that both parties switch roles. After the first person speaks in the role of the second person, the second person “pretends” to be the first person and expresses what they perceive to be the first person’s thoughts and feelings. This is when you test how well you can put yourself in another person’s shoes. Play-acting can also “lighten” the mood and even be fun. It is often eye-opening.
Additional Considerations and Approach
Is the Session Complete?
The resolution process can sometimes seem “complete” or “good enough,” yet one or more participants may sense that there is more. More to be aired; more information needed; more paraphrasing and mirroring back for clarity. It is therefore suggested that wrapping up a session not be rushed, or that ending and scheduling another session not be decided too quickly…because often a breakthrough is right around the corner.
A Word About Spiritual Bypassing
The term spiritual bypass was introduced in the 1980s by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He defined it as:
“a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Spiritual bypassing deserves a mention in this piece because many of us who are part of a faith community may not see the importance of learning communication skills and developing emotional self-management.
We either think “we already know that stuff” or that “those psychological aspects don’t belong in a spiritual setting.” That “if we are loving, we’ll all get along.” But we don’t always get along. Does that mean we’re not loving?
Some of us didn’t learn how to communicate cleanly…without hostility or passive-aggressive behavior. Some of us learned to be submissive and keep quiet. Neither our family or our school taught us or modeled interpersonal skills — good communication and how to manage our emotions. These skills only come “naturally” to those who had good role models. The rest of us have to work at it — we need to learn it. It’s my observation that many spiritual communities miss this. They may feel concerned about the squabbles and dysfunction in their community but they often think the solution is more contemplative time or doing more good in the world.
Spiritual bypassing is something to keep an eye out for.
My take in a nutshell:
The skills-building that facilitates emotional growth is fundamental for a rich spiritual life and essential for the success of community life.
The “Shift” is an epiphany that often happens at some point in the conflict resolution process, to one or more participants and in an instant can dramatically change the situation and even resolve the conflict. It’s a profound “aha” experience that shifts one’s perspective and provides an opening for a resolution.
It’s the reward that makes it all worthwhile. The unexpected experience that brings two people or a group closer together than they could have imagined when the process began.
The Shift often happens, but sometimes it doesn’t — and that’s okay. When it doesn’t I believe that’s because there’s still an obstacle, still a stone unturned. And that’s okay too. Perhaps something unsaid that needs to be said. But no worries — it may not be the right time for that obstacle to be removed.
I’ve personally experienced the Shift mostly in Group Conflict Resolution Sessions, but that might be because I’ve participated in more group sessions. Experiencing The Shift in a group is deeply moving because of the palpable positive energy that instantly runs through the entire group.
It’s the moment of one big exhale. Everyone softens.
The same Shift also happens in one-to-one sessions. It’s a little different but is the moment when one person “gets it” and therefore shifts the dynamic.
Darkest Before Dawn
Right before “the shift,” participants often feel that the issue is unresolvable or that there is “so much more to work through.”
It may be those moments of frustration and fatigue that help facilitate it…that the weariness of trying to understand another’s point of view or the frustrated feeling that someone is not “getting you” or caring about what’s important to you…one or both let down their guard…or one person finally cuts to the chase and makes a statement that succinctly expresses their underlying truth.
And it lands.
It lands and there’s an “aha!” of understanding what the other person is experiencing and feeling. It’s the empathy moment that results in a feeling of compassion and connection. You “get” it.
The uncanny aspect of this process is that the “resolution” of the conflict often doesn’t look like what either person originally envisioned…it probably doesn’t turn out to be a choice between Door #1 or Door #2 that you thought it was.
But maybe it’s Door #3…or Door #12…
Or no door at all…
The Shift can dissolve the separateness of individual agendas. And without those agendas, we can move beyond the paradigm of duality (where we have only two choices) we can find a possibility that works for everyone involved.
There you have it —
the basic principles, processes, and techniques of conflict resolution.
Use this article as a reference to amend or develop your organization’s conflict resolution procedure. Or send the link to this article to the key people in your company or organization.
Books That Teach Communication Skills & Conflict Resolution:
I’m not familiar with every book listed below but I’ve chosen ones that look promising and have linked them to the web pages with reviews which can help you decide which might be most appropriate.
Here’s to messy magical conflicts, open minds, clean communication, and powerful peacemaking! ☮
Christine Green:* Coaches individuals and business owners to develop the skills mentioned in this piece * Consults with organizations creating policies and procedures for conflict resolution and helping them make better hiring decisionsPublished Jan. 16, 2020, updated from original Jan. 17, 2010 post.