Conflict resolution skills can turn a good consultant into a great one. You might think the keys to becoming a successful consultant are analytical horsepower, project management capabilities, or strong business acumen. Those skills are essential. You want and need those. But you may be surprised to realize that conflict resolution skills are also very important to the aspiring management consultant. Arriving at a conflict resolution definition, conflict resolution strategies and steps, and ultimately becoming a boss in conflict resolution in the workplace will set you apart as you rise up the ranks.
The consulting profession involves long days and nights in high stress environments with tight deadlines. There is always more than one way to solve a problem. Oftentimes, multiple people must be aligned before the team heads down a certain path. Disagreements arise, and conflict is inevitable.
The effective consultant has several conflict resolution strategies to employ in any given “heated” situation. But before we delve further into key conflict resolution steps, let’s define our topic. What is conflict resolution?
Conflict Resolution Definition
A reasonable conflict resolution definition is almost painfully simple. Conflict resolution is nothing more than to resolve an issue or problem that involves multiple people. This can mean two people, or a large group of 20 people who must all agree on a specific decision. People have a wide variety of personalities, areas of expertise, opinions, and goals. Conflicts will arise as individuals with varying perspectives on the nature of a given situation, task, or problem try to decide what to do to address an issue. Put differently, conflict management is the art and science of finding solutions and building alignment when faced with conflict within a group.
Conflict Resolution in the Workplace
People address conflict in a variety of ways. Conflict resolution in the workplace can be particularly tricky if the hierarchy is unclear. (e.g., if there is no business leader or manager in the room) or when individuals are coming at a situation from completely different functional perspectives. (e.g., The finance department vs. the customer service team). On the other hand, if the conflict involves a group of people who are all members of the marketing department and all have the same boss, it’s often easier to manage the conflict because everyone is starting from a place of commonality.
When Conflict Isn’t Conflict
If you read our article on Mental Models, you understand that anytime more than one person is involved, you probably have more than one mental model in play. Remember, a mental model is a way of seeing something (one’s perspective). Mental models can be colored by everything from culture to professional training. They can also be used as a conflict resolution tactic. Here’s an example.
You’re working on a project with another team member. Seemingly out of nowhere, a conflict arises. There’s tension and a lack of productivity. After a couple days of awkward emails, you agree to meet. In the meeting you realize that you don’t actually disagree, you just understood things (requirements, end user intent, budget, etc) differently. So in actuality, you didn’t have conflict, you just had different mental models at play. Once you build a shared mental model, you can again move forward on the project, even realizing that nobody may have even been at fault. This is especially true in today’s world of dispersed teams.
So call mental models a “pre-step” in conflict resolution. You may not even have a conflict to resolve! Make sure you clearly define the problem before solving it.
9 Conflict Resolution Strategies
Let’s review a list of 9 ways individuals tend to approach conflict. Many of these conflict resolution strategies are adapted from Making Business Matter, a UK consultancy. These strategies are also not 100% “MECE,” or mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. For example, haggling and negotiating are similar ideas. But, if you think about conflict resolution examples from your own experiences, you can often see how one of these approaches was used to address the issue.
Conflict Resolution Strategies:
Here, one simply makes the decision without accommodating others’ opinions. This can “work” if you are in a position of authority to do this and happen to have a good approach to the problem. But it will probably burn some bridges.
With this conflict resolution strategy, you convince the other party of your way of thinking. It’s a fine idea, but as we all know, this can be very difficult to execute.
Haggling / Bartering
Resolving a conflict this way can seem like a form of collaboration, but it really means you simply make a trade. It’s not really a “win-win,” which is more likely with true collaboration. You will not get everything you want out of the situation, but you’ll get something.
When conflict arises, two or more parties can ask for someone else’s opinion. This is a reasonable approach, but any given party might be surprised by what the third party concludes about the situation and end up very unhappy.
Postponement / Avoidance
You might address conflict by avoiding the issue or returning to it later. This might not seem like the best strategy, but for minor areas of disagreement that may not be worth the time and emotion of those involved, it’s worth considering.
Problem Solve / Collaborate
This is one of the better options. You work together. You listen and understand the other’s perspective and try to design solutions that both parties find agreeable. This approach creates the opportunity to resolve the conflict in the best way possible.
If the emotions involved are running high and the actual issue itself is not very important, it might make sense to just surrender to the other person’s point of view.
Negotiation requires trade-offs, so you won’t resolve the conflict in your ideal manner. However, you’ll arrive at a place that’s in the direction of where you’d like to head, and you may create a win-win solution.
If approach a conflict from a competitive perspective, you treat it like a zero-sum game. You assume that you’ll either win or lose. This tends to result in somewhat aggressive, non-cooperative behavior that does not work well for group problem solving. But, if you’ve decided that this particular conflict must get resolved in your ideal manner, it’s a strategy to consider pursuing.
Clearly, as a consulting project manager or business leader, you are likely to want to lean towards strategies that create win-win outcomes. Your goal will be to engender positive emotions and motivate individuals involved in a conflict by considering their perspective. Most of the time, people will remember how they felt in a situation, even more than the actual details of the conflict. Understanding how to pay attention to our own emotions, and that of others is emotional intelligence. The best leaders understand how to care for others. In our next section, we’ll focus on how to go about finding those win-win solutions.
Key Conflict Resolution Steps
The American Management Association suggests that five conflict resolution steps can be used to enable conflict resolution in the workplace. These steps are clearly intended to guide one towards a more collaborative, win-win type resolution to the conflict.
Recommend Conflict Resolution Steps:
Defining The Source Of The Conflict
Step one is to understand if the conflict is about personal relationships, severe differences in opinion about a business problem, legitimately different perspectives, or something else. (Remember the mental models spoken about above? Yeah, this is where that comes in.)
Looking Beyond The Incident
Often, conflict arises not because of the specific issue immediately at hand, but because of old, unresolved issues. Perhaps there is personal animosity involved due to a minor issue from months or years ago. Perhaps one department at this company almost always “gets its way” and now, regardless of the issue, there is a tendency for conflict to arise. In any case, it’s prudent to look beyond the incident to consider whether longer term or indirect factors are at play.
It’s important to get the relevant parties to move beyond the conflict and start brainstorming and debating solutions. OK, so the current budget suggests a severe cut in funding to your department. This is happening because of x, y, and z. Now, let’s discuss other alternatives.
Finding Mutually Agreeable Solutions
A critical step in the process of resolving a conflict is beginning to align around options that the parties involved in the conflict seem to be able to support. Perhaps there are some “solutions” suggested that don’t have enough buy-in. That’s fine. But can you find two or three options that seem to have enough support to form the skeleton of an ultimate win-win solution? That’s the objective in this step.
Agreement and alignment
Ultimately, you resolve a conflict by getting each party to agree that yes, they can accept this solution. Will everyone be perfectly “happy?” Probably not. But if you’ve designed a solution that everyone finds palatable, the conflict can reasonably be considered “resolved.”
Critical Conflict Resolution Skills
To support the conflict resolution processes described above, a series of conflict resolution skills are critical. Here are the key conflict management capabilities that enable successful execution of some of the strategies described above:
Active listening is critical
Each party involved in a conflict will need to feel like their perspective has been heard and accounted for. If you start to define solutions that clearly don’t address a key concern (i.e., because you haven’t listened well), the path towards conflict resolution will be difficult.
Solid communication skills are also very important as you seek to resolve a conflict. You may have, in your head, each party’s perspective in mind and have designed a solution that addresses most everyone’s concerns. But when conflict arises, emotions run high, and crystal-clear communication is important.
General Problem Solving And, Perhaps More Importantly, Creativity
These often under utilized skills are important when seeking to resolve conflicts in the workplace. Many conflicts may, at first blush, appear to be insurmountable and/or not lend themselves to win-win solutions. But if you look at the issue from a different angle, or take a longer-term view, options reveal themselves. Perhaps the funding for this project must be cut, but if we can agree that funding for this other project will not be, the affected party can live with today’s decision.
Many conflicts are fundamentally driven by emotion. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they are thinking and feeling can be invaluable in being able to resolve a conflict. In fact, sometimes simply acknowledging the other’s perspective is disarming enough for a person to allow the group to decide on a path that they don’t prefer, but can accept. Sometimes people just want their perspective to be acknowledged and considered.
Conflict resolution skills may not get as much “airtime” as analytical expertise, but they are no less important. It behooves every consultant to think about becoming better at conflict resolution in the workplace. Being intentional about growing one’s emotional intelligence, listening skills, and effective communication go a long way in becoming skilled in conflict resolution. Understanding a conflict resolution definition, conflict resolution strategies, and conflict resolution steps will equip you to carry out conflict resolution in the workplace!