An Introduction to Conflict Resolution
Interpersonal conflict is a fact of life and can arise in almost any sphere, from organisations through to personal relationships. Learning to resolve it effectively, in a way that does not increase your stress levels, is therefore important for everyone. Those with good conflict resolution skills generally help organisations and groups to work more effectively.
This page defines interpersonal conflict and explains the different types of conflict that may arise. Finally, it sets out some strategies that can be used separately or together to try to resolve conflicts.
What is Interpersonal Conflict?
Interpersonal conflict is broadly defined as a conflict between two or more people.
Chambers English Dictionary defines conflict as “a violent collision: a struggle or contest: a battle: a mental struggle”.
Interpersonal conflict may therefore start with a simple disagreement. To become ‘conflict’, however, those involved must escalate it beyond that disagreement to something considerably more.
In a work situation, interpersonal conflict is generally defined as what happens when one person or group of people prevents, or attempts to prevent, another person or group from achieving their goals.
Types of Interpersonal Conflict
The first step to conflict resolution is to decide what strategy you are going to use to address it. However before you can do that, you need to identify the root source of the conflict, and therefore its type.
There are three main types of conflict.
Types of Conflict
There are three types of conflict, personal or relational conflicts, instrumental conflicts and conflicts of interest:
Personal or relational conflicts are usually about identity or self-image, or important aspects of a relationship such as loyalty, breach of confidence, perceived betrayal or lack of respect.
Instrumental conflicts are about goals, structures, procedures and means: something fairly tangible and structural within the organisation or for an individual.
Conflicts of interest concern the ways in which the means of achieving goals are distributed, such as time, money, space and staff. They may also be about factors related to these, such as relative importance, or knowledge and expertise. An example would be a couple disagreeing over whether to spend a bonus on a holiday or to repair the roof.
It is important to emphasise that dealing with conflict early is usually easier, because positions are not so entrenched, others are less likely to have started to take sides, and the negative emotions are not so extreme. The best way to address a conflict in its early stages is through negotiation between the participants.
Later on, those in conflict are likely to need the support of mediation, or even arbitration or a court judgement, so it is much better to resolve things early.
There are five main strategies for dealing with conflicts, all of which can be considered in terms of who wins and who loses.
As our page Transactional Analysis makes clear, a win-win situation is always going to be better for everyone. It should therefore be clear that some strategies will be significantly more successful in the longer term.
5 Strategies for Dealing with Conflict
1. Compete or Fight
This is the classic win/lose situation, where the strength and power of one person wins the conflict.
It has its place, but anyone using it needs to be aware that it will create a loser and, if that loser has no outlet for expressing their concerns, then it will lead to bad feeling. This strategy is probably best only used where little or no further contact is necessary between the individuals or groups concerned.
This is the ideal outcome: a win/win situation.
However, it requires input of time from those involved to work through the difficulties, and find a way to solve the problem that is agreeable to all. This may be hard work, especially if the positions have already become entrenched, but it is also likely to be the best possible starting point early in a conflict situation.
3. Compromise or Negotiation
This is likely to result in a better result than win/lose, but it’s not quite win/win. You could call it a no-score draw.
Both parties give up something in favour of an agreed mid-point solution. This effectively results in a solution that pleases nobody very much, but hopefully will not offend or upset anyone too much. It takes less time than collaboration, but is likely to result in less commitment to the outcome because it is nobody’s preferred option.
4. Denial or Avoidance
This is where everyone pretends there is no problem.
This strategy is used surprisingly often and can be quite effective. It is particularly helpful if those in conflict need time to ‘cool down’ before any discussion, or if the conflict is unimportant and will simply resolve itself given time.
However, it cannot be used if the conflict won’t just die down. Under these circumstances, using this strategy will create a lose/lose situation: there will still be bad feeling, but no clearing the air through discussion. It results, in Transactional Analysis terms, in ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK’. This can result in serious stress for those involved.
5. Smoothing Over the Problem
On the surface, harmony is maintained but, underneath, there is still conflict.
This is similar to the situation above, except that one person is probably OK with this smoothing, while the other remains in conflict, creating a win/lose situation again. It can work where preserving a relationship is more important than dealing with the conflict right now. It is, however, not very useful if one person, or others outside the conflict, feel that the situation must be resolved.
These five behaviours can be shown in terms of a balance between concern for self and concern for others:
Essential Skills for Handling Conflict
There are a wide range of useful skills for handling conflict. Possibly the most important is assertiveness.
You need to be able to express your views clearly and firmly, but without aggression. One model to use is ‘Describe the situation, Express your feelings and Specify what you want done’, but for more information, and ideas for developing your assertiveness, see our Assertiveness section.
It is also helpful to think about how you communicate about the situation. When you want to talk about the effect of the conflict or the other person’s behaviour, it is most effective to use ‘I’ statements. In other words, you should explain the effect of particular behaviours or actions on you. For example:
“When you said x, it made me feel y.”
This is much easier to hear than “Your behaviour is horrible”, or even “You are a bad person”. It can therefore make it easier to discuss problem areas without creating further conflict.
Our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback explains more about this approach, and contains some useful ideas to help you communicate in ways that are more likely to be heard.
You also need to practise active listening to ensure that you fully understand the position of those involved in the conflict. This is true whether you are an active participant or a potential mediator. Check out our page on Active Listening for more information.
It is also helpful to understand and recognise emotion in both yourself and others.
Emotions are never good or bad, but simply appropriate or inappropriate. A useful skill in managing conflict is to be able to help others recognise when particular emotions are inappropriate, and when it is likely to be fine to express them. For more, look at our pages on Managing Emotions and Understanding Others. You might also find it helpful to read our pages on Emotional Intelligence.
One particular part of emotional intelligence which is likely to be particularly useful is empathy. This is the skill of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and supporting those involved to do the same.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about how to effectively resolve conflict and mediate personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
In handling conflict both as a direct participant and as a potential mediator, it is important to know your limitations.
If you reach a point where you don’t feel confident that your intervention is going to help, then it’s OK to step back and ask for help. Sometimes you might need to involve someone else, such as a trained mediator, and that’s fine. It is much better to ask for help than to step in and make matters worse.