How to man­age con­flicts?


Ken­neth Kaye, Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist, said, “Con­flict is nei­ther good nor bad. Prop­erly man­aged, it is ab­so­lutely vi­tal.” Or­ga­ni­za­tions should iden­tify, un­der­stand, and de­velop ef­fec­tive res­o­lu­tions to work­place con­flicts lest it cre­ates a stressed work­ing at­mos­phere and hin­ders pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Afraid of con­flict? You wouldn’t be hu­man if you weren’t. How­ever, if you train your brain to openly face con­flict and ne­go­ti­ate win-win out­comes, you will grow your lead­er­ship ef­fec­tive­ness enor­mously. Manag­ing con­flict will cre­ate stronger bonds in a team, en­cour­age ben­e­fi­cial busi­ness part­ner­ships and im­prove your abil­ity to in­spire and en­gage. It is also a key to gen­er­at­ing the cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion nec­es­sary to lead in to­day’s of­ten tur­bu­lent mar­kets.

As a hostage ne­go­tia­tor of over 45 years, my ex­pe­ri­ence has taught me that what works in an ex­treme sit­u­a­tion like a hostage-tak­ing also works in a busi­ness set­ting. Hostage sit­u­a­tions can be dra­matic and in­tense, but you don’t hear about most of them in the news. That’s be­cause more than 95% are re­solved peace­fully, with­out ca­su­al­ties, and with the hostage-tak­ers ac­cept­ing the con­se­quences. Wouldn’t you like to en­joy this suc­cess rate in busi­ness?

mas­ter th­ese six es­sen­tial skills to turn con­flict into a con­struc­tive tool for in­di­vid­ual and com­pany suc­cess

01 cre­ate and main­tain a bond with your ad­ver­sary Con­flict, by def­i­ni­tion, is when a dif­fer­ence of per­spec­tives is char­ac­ter­ized by ten­sion, emo­tion and po­lar­iza­tion. It arises when hu­man bonds are bro­ken and peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence feel­ings such as loss, frus­tra­tion and grief—real or an­tic­i­pated. In a cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment, emo­tional pain may come at an in­di­vid­ual level from, for ex­am­ple, a missed pro­mo­tion; or a loss might be felt through­out an or­ga­ni­za­tion when a ma­jor con­tract is lost.

Cre­at­ing a bond will en­able you to avoid get­ting caught up in per­sonal feel­ings about the other—the Achilles heel for many. Bond­ing de­fuses con­flict, even in the most dev­as­tat­ing cir­cum­stances. One ex­am­ple from my ex­pe­ri­ence is a grand­mother who cre­ated a bond with a night-time in­truder, sav­ing her own and her grand­daugh­ter’s lives. Or, less dra­mat­i­cally, you may bond with a col­league to suc­cess­fully lever­age your dif­fer­ing view­points in a joint work as­sign­ment.

You don’t have to like the other per­son to cre­ate or re-es­tab­lish a bond. You only need what the em­i­nent psy­chol­o­gist Carl Rogers called “un­con­di­tional pos­i­tive re­gard.” This is a fun­da­men­tal skill of be­ing able to ac­cept any­thing as a start­ing point even if you do not agree. Ac­cep­tance and agree­ment are two very dif­fer­ent things that are of­ten con­fused. Treat the other party as an ally, not an en­emy, and find ground for mu­tual re­spect, pos­i­tive re­gard and co­op­er­a­tion. Be­ing able to sep­a­rate the per­son from the prob­lem is a fun­da­men­tal lead­er­ship skill—com­pletely learn­able—that makes it pos­si­ble to avoid re­spond­ing neg­a­tively to per­sonal at­tacks. Main­tain­ing this aware­ness makes it pos­si­ble to fo­cus on real is­sues and com­mon goals. You will find your­self col­lab­o­rat­ing with

1, 2 the other party and gen­uinely want­ing to help them as well as your­self to­wards a true so­lu­tion to the con­flict.

02 es­tab­lish a di­a­logue for con­flict ne­go­ti­a­tion

Di­a­logue re­quires self-aware­ness and self-man­age­ment. Your mind’s eye will help you over­come your nat­u­ral fear of con­flict and see it in a dif­fer­ent light. The mind’s eye forms the way you view a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion and de­ter­mines how you will act or re­act. The fear you feel to­wards con­flict is real: It is shaped by ex­pe­ri­ence. Many lead­ers fac­ing con­flict can be­come “hostages” to their in­ner fears, but it doesn’t have to be so. Re­search sug­gests that we can change the way we per­ceive and be­have in a sit­u­a­tion.


Just as an ath­lete can en­vi­sion win­ning a race, you can train your­self, by cre­at­ing an in­ner di­a­logue, to see some­thing as an op­por­tu­nity, not as an ob­sta­cle, or to see the “ad­ver­sary” as a po­ten­tial ally. You can change your state of be­ing from fear to courage and do what is coun­ter­in­tu­itive: Go to­wards the per­son with whom you are in con­flict and es­tab­lish a di­a­logue.

Talk­ing, di­a­logue and ne­go­ti­a­tion cre­ate gen­uine, en­gag­ing and pro­duc­tive two-way trans­ac­tions fo­cused on the com­mon goal. You can har­ness the en­ergy from the fear­ful sit­u­a­tion and re­di­rect it into di­a­logue. This means talk­ing—and lis­ten­ing—with­out hos­til­ity or ag­gres­sion.

This may seem like a tall order in some par­tic­u­larly in­tense sit­u­a­tions. In hostage-tak­ings, for ex­am­ple, ne­go­tia­tors are typ­i­cally deal­ing with some­one who is ex­tremely hos­tile at the out­set. How­ever re­spond­ing to ag­gres­sion with ag­gres­sion will not serve any­one’s in­ter­est. Con­nect with the hu­man­ness of the other per­son and they will be in­flu­enced to en­ter a di­a­logue, cre­at­ing an ef­fec­tive dy­namic for con­flict man­age­ment.

03 “put the fish on the table”

Con­flict is of­ten messy. How­ever, when you cre­ate a bond with the other per­son, you can face the dif­fer­ence to­gether head-on. The ex­pres­sion “put the fish on the table” comes from a rit­ual I ob­served in Si­cily, where the fish­er­men put their fresh catch on a large table and work to­gether in a smelly and bloody mess to clean their fish. Their deep bonds and a clear goal make col­lab­o­ra­tion easy and en­joy­able, even over this dif­fi­cult task. I’ve ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced this rit­ual my­self, in­vited by a group of fish­er­men to join them one morn­ing. Af­ter get­ting through the bloody, messy job, we were re­warded by the ex­cel­lent fish din­ner we shared. We have to clean ev­ery fish to en­joy that great fish din­ner.

Imag­ine if, in­stead, the fish­er­men left the fish un­der the table—no one will­ing to do their part. The stench would soon take hold. Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens when a con­flict (a fish) is kept un­der the table rather than be­ing put on it. There’s no op­por­tu­nity to work through the mess of sort­ing it out for a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial out­come. And to take this anal­ogy a step fur­ther, you’ll get ab­so­lutely nowhere if you go slap­ping the other party in the face with the fish!

Know­ing when and how to “put the fish on the table” is a lead­er­ship skill that bor­ders on an art. If you can ac­cu­rately judge the cir­cum­stances and your ad­ver­sary’s state of mind, you will max­i­mize your suc­cess in a con­flict man­age­ment strat­egy.

04 keep in mind the cause of the con­flict

The fish is on the table, you are ready to di­a­logue, but about what? What are the roots of the dis­agree­ment? Not only do you need to un­der­stand your own per­cep­tion, you need to be aware of the other party’s. Of­ten a dis­agree­ment stems from peo­ple hav­ing a dif­fer­ent set of goals, in­ter­ests or val­ues. There could be dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of the prob­lem, such as “It’s a qual­ity con­trol prob­lem” or “It’s a pro­duc­tion prob­lem,” and this is of­ten ex­ac­er­bated by dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles. And, let’s face it, there are sim­ply some dif­fi­cult peo­ple out there. If an in­di­vid­ual is mo­ti­vated prin­ci­pally by their own ego and thirst for power, con­flict is likely to swirl around them. With such a per­son, your con­flict man­age­ment skills be­come all the more crit­i­cal.

To ad­dress the con­flict you are fac­ing, it is help­ful to ask your­self whether it stems from an in­ter­est or a need. An in­ter­est is tran­si­tory and more su­per­fi­cial, such as land, money or a job. A need runs deeper—iden­tity, se­cu­rity, re­spect, for ex­am­ple. Many con­flicts ap­pear to be about in­ter­ests, but in fact the be­hav­ior of the peo­ple in­volved is driven by needs. For ex­am­ple, a col­league passed over for a pro­mo­tion may say they are up­set about lost in­come, but the real wound is a feel­ing of lost re­spect or iden­tity. When

you know what is re­ally bug­ging the other per­son, you can re­spond to that—in­stead of the words they may use—in order to re­solve the con­flict. Re­mem­ber that loss, whether real, an­tic­i­pated or imag­ined, is ul­ti­mately the root cause of any con­flict.

05 rec­i­proc­ity works

The law of rec­i­proc­ity is the foun­da­tion of co­op­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. You’re likely to get back what you give. Rec­i­proc­ity is a fac­tor in em­pa­thy—the abil­ity to recre­ate and un­der­stand oth­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence, in­ten­tion and feel­ing within our­selves. This isn’t just so­cial con­ven­tion; re­searchers have shown that mir­ror neu­rons in the brain es­tab­lish em­pa­thy and there­fore rec­i­proc­ity.

4, 5, 6

Mu­tual ex­change and in­ter­nal adap­ta­tion al­low two in­di­vid­u­als or more to be­come at­tuned and em­pa­thetic to each other’s in­ner states. You will be most ef­fec­tive at us­ing rec­i­proc­ity if you mas­ter the tech­nique of em­pathiz­ing and manag­ing how you ex­press that em­pa­thy—both ver­bally and non-ver­bally. This so­cial aware­ness al­lows you to make the right con­ces­sions at the right time. Once you have made a con­ces­sion, it is likely that the other party will re­spond in kind—in other words, re­cip­ro­cate. And when you rec­og­nize a con­ces­sion has been made, re­cip­ro­cate with one of your own to move the ne­go­ti­a­tion for­ward.

06 nur­ture a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship through­out con­flict Main­tain­ing a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship means un­der­stand­ing, re­spect­ing and stay­ing aware of the other per­son’s per­spec­tive. Even—or es­pe­cially—when you don’t agree with a spe­cific point or be­hav­ior, demon­strate your ac­cep­tance of them as a per­son. You will need to bal­ance rea­son and emo­tion—be­cause emo­tions such as fear, anger, frus­tra­tion and even love may dis­rupt other­wise thought­ful ac­tions.

As hostage ne­go­tia­tors know, it is more pro­duc­tive to per­suade than to co­erce. Com­mu­ni­cate to the other per­son your own per­spec­tive, and re­flect back your un­der­stand­ing of theirs. Th­ese are com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills for con­flict man­age­ment that you can learn, prac­tice and per­fect.

If you are able to help the other party main­tain feel­ings of ac­cep­tance, value and worth—all ba­sic psy­cho­log­i­cal needs—through­out a con­flict ne­go­ti­a­tion, you will help them also to stay fo­cused on the goal of a mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able out­come to the con­flict.

cap­i­tal­ize on the con­flict man­age­ment op­por­tu­nity

Busi­ness man­agers and com­pa­nies that use th­ese six es­sen­tial skills for con­flict man­age­ment lever­age great op­por­tu­nity. The most im­por­tant con­flicts—the ones that lead to pos­i­tive re­sults when man­aged well—are the ones in which peo­ple feel per­son­ally in­vested in their po­si­tions or are bring­ing some­thing of them­selves as hu­man be­ings into the in­ter­ac­tion. As di­ver­sity and in­ter­de­pen­dency in or­ga­ni­za­tions in­creases, there is op­por­tu­nity in the po­ten­tial con­flict. Deal­ing ef­fec­tively with th­ese con­flicts en­ables a com­pany to lever­age the rich­ness of di­verse per­spec­tives for in­no­va­tive out­comes. In fact, con­flicts are the lifeblood of high-per­form­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions. Dis­putes, dis­agree­ments and di­verse points of view about strat­egy and im­ple­men­ta­tion cre­ate en­ergy, stim­u­late cre­ativ­ity, help form strongly bonded teams, and bring about change. An or­ga­ni­za­tion will reap the ben­e­fits when the or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture fos­ters will­ing­ness to take the risk of em­brac­ing con­flict. ■


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Spell­ing has been pre­served.

© 2017 In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Man­age­ment De­vel­op­ment. No part of this pub­li­ca­tion may be re­pro­duced, stored in a re­trieval sys­tem or trans­mit­ted in any form or by any means with­out the per­mis­sion of IMD.

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