Bringing together content from the fields of psychology, communications and negotiation I have just produced a 15 page booklet on conflict management for clients involved in my training and coaching programmes. At the risk of incurring the wrath of my litigation and mediation clients, I thought I’d share some of the key elements:

What is conflict?

Conflict is “an expressed struggle between at least two independent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scares resources and interference from others in achieving their goals” (William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker).

There are five elements to each conflict:

  1. Interdependence
  2. Difference
  3. Opposition
  4. Expression
  5. Emotion

After the adversarial system dominating since the time of the Greek philosophers, in the 20th Century psychologists Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch developed a theory of human behaviour and motivation in groups called field theory and went on to outline the four possible outcomes from conflict and the idea of “win-win” came into common use.

1. Take different perspectives

In a conflict situation, the parties usually have different perceptions about what is happening and punctuate differently – they see different start (cause) and end (effect) points. To bolster empathy skills, Wilmot and Hocker, in their work “Interpersonal Conflict”, suggest a tool called the lens model of conflict interaction. This means looking at the conflict as if through a lens – from different angles, with zooms, from the other person’s perspective.

The key here is to use person-centred communications instead of position centred (taking a stand and defending it) or rule centred (focus on asserting the facts) communication.

2. Identify goals

The key to conflict resolution is to be clear about your goals and those of your party. This can be difficult as goals can be complex, contradictory and changing.

3. Manage emotions

There are five requirements for deciding when you can usefully express emotion in a conflict situation:

1. Access – the ability to recognise that you are feeling something and to gauge the intensity of the feeling

2. Appropriate verbal communication skills – so that you can talk about the emotion

3. Self-esteem – the feeling that you have a right to feel certain emotions and pursue your own good

4. An environment in which it’s safe to talk about emotions

5. A willing partner who is willing to listen and work out the conflict

Managing your emotions is one of the main skills of emotional intelligence.

4. Use power (carefully)

John French and Bertram Raven identified five bases of power (power currencies):

1. Reward power – what we get from our ability to give reward

2. Coercive power – the ability to punish

3. Legitimate power – explicit given cultural roles

4. Referent power – from people we are associated with

5. Expert power – based on expertise or knowledge

Conflict resolution is most effective when there is an equal distribution of power.

5. Know your conflict style

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five conflict strategies and arranged them in a model depending on the degree to which reflected “concern for self” and “concern for the other person” and the degree to which each was co-operative:.

1. Avoidance – Acting as if the conflict isn’t present (Lose-Lose)

2. Competition – One party trying getting what they want at other’s expense (Win-Lose)

3. Compromise – Both parties give something up (No Win-No Lose)

4. Accommodation – One party gives something up but doesn’t gain (Lose-Win)

5. Collaboration – Working together (Win-Win)

6. Be principled

Roger Fisher and William Ury, two researchers in the Harvard Negotiation Project, developed four principles for win-win negotiations.

1. Separate people from the problem – focus on events and behaviours

2. Focus on interests, not positions – interests are the reasons for the position

3. Generate options for mutual gain – brainstorm multiple options for mutual gain

4. Base choice on some kind of objective criteria – find measureable ways to assess the value of suggestions

They also developed the idea of BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Arrangement.

7. Use a framework for negotiation

There are numerous negotiation frameworks available – depending on your preference, the nature and complexity of the problem and the other party. Personally, I prefer the seven step process for applying the four principles of negotiation.

8. Listen carefully

Deploy active listening skills to really pay attention when the other party speaks. Not only does this show respect but you may learn something that alters the nature of the conflict or points to alternative solutions. See the FAQ

9. Manage the aftermath

The aftermath of conflict may leave emotional residues, damaged trust and psychological distance. Sometimes differences that can’t be bridged lead to resentment and new conflicts. So action is needed to return to a healthy relationship by acceptance, apology, amends, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

The following book review from April 2012 may also be useful: