26 January 2022

2.3 Conflict management skills

Conflict management
Author/Compiled by
Elysa Vaillancourt (ISW)

Executive Summary

Whether it be at the office with our colleagues or on the field with partners, we face different types of conflicts every day. Conflicts may arise when competing over scarce resources, when you have different preferences and ideologies or when competing for power.  Sometimes conflicts are necessary and can be beneficial, but if not well managed, they can be destructive for the organisation and the people within the organisation. Because we might come from different countries, speak a different language, have lived different experiences, have different values, ideas, or motivations, you and I might naturally manage conflicts in a different way. In this Module, you will be brought to reflect on your own style of conflict management as well as the different types of conflicts.

At the end of this Module, you will be able to:

  • Identify the advantages and disadvantages of conflicts.
  • Identify the levels of conflict.
  • Identify your most dominant interpersonal style of conflict management.

Self assessment

Factsheet Block Body

Identify which of the following statements you relate to (adapted from . If you relate to a statement, write down on a piece of paper the letter associated to the given statement.

  1. You love debates and will always try to defend your point of view. (A)
  2. If your boss asks you to do something which you judge is not the right thing to do, you will do it without arguing with them. (E)
  3. If you disagree with a situation, you will rather keep your opinion to yourself rather than start a debate (D).
  4. If you are in a conflict with your colleague, you will try and find a solution that will benefit both yourself and your colleague (B)
  5. If you are in a conflict, you are willing to compromise on some elements to find a solution (C).
  6. If you are faced with a situation which you believe is unjust, you will not be afraid to speak-up about it. (A)
  7. When dealing with a conflictual issue during a team meeting, it is important for you that everyone gets the chance to say their opinion (B).  
  8. If your boss assigns you and your colleague a task which you both believe does not fit within your job description, you will agree to take on half of the task to avoid conflict. (C)
  9. If a colleague asks to have a meeting to address a conflictual issue, you will repeatedly try and postpone the meeting. (D)
  10. To protect your relationship with your colleagues, you will go along with their suggestions even if you don’t agree with them. (E)

Count your number of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and E’s. In the next section, we will analyze your results. This exercise, based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, will help you identify your most dominant style of conflict-management. We each have our own way of instinctively dealing with and responding to conflict. Even though there is no right or wrong way, some styles of conflict-management might be more appropriate and effective for certain types of situations.

Factsheet Block Body

What is a conflict?

According to Wilmot & Hocker, “conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scare resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals” (WILMOT & HOCKER, 2010).

According to Daniel Katz, an American psychologist, conflict may arise when parties compete over scarce resources (economic conflict), when parties have different preferences and ideologies (value conflict) or when parties compete for power (power conflict) (KATZ, 1965). In the workplace, conflicts can also arise from the perception of unfair or unequal treatment. Conflict can arise between people, groups and nations.

To help us better define conflict, we will explore 3 different levels of conflict (EVANS, 2013):

  1. Intrapersonal conflict occurs when you are in a conflict with yourself and your own thoughts. Such a conflict can lead to anxiety or depression. If not delt with, intrapersonal conflict can eventually lead to interpersonal conflict.
  2. Interpersonal conflict occurs when two individuals have differing choices or opinions. In this Module, we will dive deeper into interpersonal conflict as this is the type which you will most likely face as you embark on your professional journey.
  3. Intergroup Conflict occurs when different groups are either competing for resources, power or have differences in preferences and ideologies. Intergroup conflict is omnipresent in the water and climate sector. For example, in 2021, dozens of people died in a water dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  Water is a common good which has the potential to be either a powerful peace building tool or the root cause of intergroup conflicts. According to the United Nations (UN), approximately 60% of global freshwater flow are basins shared by two or more countries. The tools and reflections presented in this module can also be used when dealing with intergroup conflict (UNESCO et al., 2015).

Even though conflict is often perceived as a negative process, conflict also has the potential to create positive opportunities and can help a group of individuals advance towards a common goal. If we manage to learn from conflicts and effectively manage conflict, potentially with the help of an independent consultant or mediator, we can turn conflict into something positive and even improve our working atmosphere.  

 

What is conflict management?

Conflict management can be defined as the “process of reducing negative outcomes of conflict while increasing the positive” (SMILEY, 2018).

We each have our way of instinctively dealing with conflict. There is no right or wrong conflict-management style, each style has its own benefits. Being aware of your most dominant conflict-management style and knowing that other styles do exist is an important step in optimizing your response to conflict. In this next section, we will explore the different types of conflict-management styles and identify situations for which the use of each type is most appropriate. We will also explore signs of overuse and underuse of each style.

To help you better understand how you instinctively respond to conflict, we will us the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument to analyse the results of your self-assessment.  This instrument characterizes five different conflict-handling modes along two dimensions: assertiveness (extent to which you try to achieve your own objectives) and cooperativeness (extent to which you try to fulfil other’s concerns) (see Figure 1.1). You might have more than one dominant conflict-management response.

 

1. If you have mostly A’s: Competing

You are willing to pursue your own objectives at the other person’s expense. You are not afraid to stand-up for your rights, and you will strongly defend your position and point of view. You are not scared to hurt other people’s feelings and to take part in heated discussions.

Using a competitive approach to conflict management is useful in situations in which you need to take a quick and decisive decision or when an unpopular decision must be taken on an important issue.

Are you overusing or underusing this style of conflict-management? Answer the following questions to help you better assess this.

Signs of overuse:

  • Do you feel like people around you are scared to disagree with you?
  • Are others afraid to admit ignorance and uncertainties around you?

Signs of underuse:

  • Do you often feel powerless in situations? As if your opinion is not heard?
  • Do you have trouble taking a firm stand even when you believe this is necessary?

If you are overusing this style of management, you might want to try to adopt other styles of management when a competitive response is not suitable. Overusing a competitive style of conflict management can hinder the quality of your relationships with your colleagues and partners.

If you are underusing this style of management, you might want to try and be more competitive when necessary to help you get your message across and not let other people step on your toes.

 

2. If you have mostly B’s: Collaborating

You like to try to find a solution that satisfies both yourself and the other party. You see conflicts as an opportunity to learn from the other person’s insights and you try to find creative solutions. You believe in the power of consensus, and you are a good listener.

Using a collaborative approach is useful when you need to find an integrative and long-lasting solution and when you want to merge insights from people with different perspectives.

Signs of overuse:

  • Do you sometimes feel like you spend too much time trying to establish a consensus on an issue that might not be worth it?
  • Do you feel like other people sometimes take advantage of your collaborative approach?

Signs of underuse:

  • Do you have difficulty to see conflicts as an opportunity for learning and problem solving?

Are you overusing or underusing the collaborative approach?

If you are overusing this style of management, you might end up spending a lot of time trying to establish consensus when the stakes might to be that high.

If you are underusing this style of management, you might be missing an opportunity to maximize the potential benefits associated to a conflictual situation.

 

3. If you have mostly C’s: Compromising

You are willing to give up some of what you were aiming to achieve to find a solution. In the end, neither you or the other parties dealing with the conflict will be perceived as having lost or won. You will try and seek the middle ground.

Compromising is useful when you want to find a temporary solution to a complex problem or when you need to find a solution quickly.

Signs of overuse:

  • Do you feel like you sometimes concentrate so much on the practicalities and tactics of compromise that you lose sight of the bigger picture?

Signs of underuse:

  • Do you sometimes find it difficult to make concessions?

If you are overusing this style, you might put yourself in a situation where people around might start taking advantage of you if they know that you will always be open to compromising.

 

4. If you have mostly D’s: Avoiding

You do not like to address conflicts. You try and withdraw from difficult situations, and you have the tendency to postpone difficult conversations. You hope that the conflict will resolve itself.

Avoiding is useful when you are dealing with an issue that is not important, when you think you have absolutely no chance of getting your point across or when everyone needs some time and space to cool down before dealing with the issue.

Signs of overuse:

  • Do you tend to avoid difficult conversations regarding important issues because you do not like to address conflicts?

Signs of underuse:

  • Do you sometimes feel like people around you are constantly walking on eggshells around you?
  • Do you tend to get fired up on small unimportant issues?

If you are overusing this style of conflict-management, it may prevent important issues from being solved which can then escalate.

If you are underusing this style of conflict-management, you may be spending too much time and energy on managing conflicts related to unimportant issues and creating a tense environment.     

 

5. If you have mostly E’s: Accommodating

You are willing to sacrifice your own needs to avoid conflict and keep the peace in your team. You are willing to concede to the other person’s need and put your own objectives aside.

Accommodating is useful when you realize you are wrong and that the other party has a better solution, when the issue is much more important to the other person than it is to you or when the most important thing it to preserve harmony and avoid disruption.

Signs of overuse:

  • Do you feel like your ideas and concerns don’t get enough  attention?
  • Do you often come out of conflicts feeling as though you did not reach your objective and that only the other parties needs were addressed?

If you are overusing this style, you might be seen as someone who is incapable of defending the needs and objectives of his own team.

Signs of underuse:

  • Do you sometimes have trouble building good relationships with others?
  • Do you occasionally have trouble admitting when you are wrong?

As you reflect on your dominant conflict-management style, I invite you to go back to Factsheet 2.2 to see how your conflict-management style relates to your leadership style. Ultimately, recognizing your style of leadership will also help you determine how you handle conflict. Effective conflict-management is a key element of impactful leadership. Zhang et al. found that “transformational leaders who used conflict management methods were able to influence their teams to establish stronger identities, discuss their disagreements and frustrations outwardly (ZHANG et al., 2011). Factsheets 2.6 and 2.7 will guide you towards the key aspect of how to build a team that will work well together.

Figure 1.1 

Types of conflict management

 

Intercultural conflict management

As water and climate are issues that affect every community worldwide, your field of work will bring you to interact with groups of people from various countries. It is thus important to be aware of the cultural dimension to conflict management. Michelle LeBaron (2003) states that “culture affect the ways we name, frame, blame, and attempt to tame conflicts” (LEBARON, 2003).

For example, Western countries such as Canada or the United States tend to adopt a conflict management approach based on labelling and analysing the details of an issue before proposing a resolution. Whereas the Eastern approach often favours reinforcing the relationship between parties before discussing the problem itself (KRUMREY-FULKS, 2018).

There is also a distinction between conflict-management approaches of people from individualistic cultures and people from collectivistic cultures. People from individualistic cultures tend to use more direct and competitive conflict management styles and are comfortable engaging in heated discussions (KRUMREY-FULKS, 2018).

People from collectivistic cultures tend to be more concerned with “preserving group harmony, making use of a less direct conversation style to protect the other” (KRUMREY-FULKS, 2018). They prefer using avoidance or accommodation to deal with a conflict.

If you are in a conflict with someone that might come from a different culture than you, here are a few questions that you can ask yourself (KRUMREY-FULKS, 2018):

  • What is my cultural and personal assessment of the problem?
  • What is the cultural and personal assessment of the problem by the other party?
  • What are the underlying assumptions or values that drive my assessment?
Factsheet Block Body

How can I optimize my response to conflict?

To optimize your response to conflict, it is important to learn to juggle with the above-mentioned conflict-management styles and learn when and how to learn each one of them. By identifying your most and least dominant styles, this will help you be more aware of your blind spots and implement strategies.

Furthermore, being able to have important but difficult conversations is also an essential element to help optimize your response to conflict.

Overton and Lowry present 10 steps that can help guide your response to conflict (OVERTON & LOWRY, 2013):

  1. Analyze whether the conflict is worth addressing.
  2. Determine the nature of the conflict.
  3. Recognize your emotional response to the situation and take note of how your emotions are influencing your view of the situation.

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” -Ambrose Bierce

  1. Prepare a safe environment to hold the conversation (private, neutral, enough time for the discussion)
  2. Start the discussion by asking permission to discuss a topic or by presenting the facts from your perspective. You can try asking open-ended questions and using “I” statements. Avoid trying to soften the message or mixing it with compliments.
  3. Allow all parties to state their opinions and their perspectives on the conflict. Listen respectively to each participant and avoid judgmental behavior.
  4. Establish a consensus on the problem at hand. To find a proper solution, you first need to agree on what the problem is.
  5. Brainstorm possible solutions that address the needs of all parties involved. Be respectful and actively listen to other people’s suggestions. Ask questions to better understand other people’s solution.
  6. Listen to the preferred solution of each party and find commonality between proposed solutions.
  7. Determine a plan with timelines which clearly outlines roles and responsibilities of all parties and reflect on ways to prevent similar conflicts in the future.

How can we prevent conflict?

As we discussed previously, conflicts can sometimes be unavoidable and when well-managed, they have the potential to create positive opportunities and can help a group of individuals advance towards a common goal. That said, there are a number of mechanisms and practices that can be implemented in an organisation or in a team to help prevent conflicts or the escalation of conflicts which might have the potential of having  negative impacts.

  • Creating a healthy culture

By creating a healthy environment in which people are free to express themselves without fear of reprisals and in which people are valued and feel safe, you can help prevent conflicts. Managers must also get to know the members of their team and take an authentic and sincere interest in them. It is important to give them the tools and opportunities to learn and evolve.

  • Establish regular feedback mechanisms

It is important to create mechanisms which allow employees or members of your team to give regular feedback. These mechanisms can take the form of surveys, weekly or monthly talks with members of your team, a suggestion box, etc. Be creative! Feedback mechanisms are useful to prevent conflict. This can allow you to deal with issues as soon as they arise and prevent them from escalating. They can also be fun tools to increase the level of involvement and the sense of belonging of members of your team!

Being able to communicate your ideas clearly and effectively to people around you and being an active and empathetic listener are also  key skills that will help you prevent and better manage conflict. Factsheet 2.4 will help you further develop your communication skills. 

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