A study conducted by The Myers-Briggs Company found 85 percent of employees throughout businesses experience conflict. In total, they spend about 2.8 hours a week engaged in it, which shows their leaders lack conflict resolution skills. Profit losses associated with this problem are estimated at around $359 billion. In regards to the report, Jeff Hayes, the CEO of the business that wrote it said, “The question for management, therefore, is not whether it can be avoided or mitigated; the real concern is how conflict is dealt with. If managed improperly, businesses’ productivity, operational effectiveness, and morale take a major hit.” He adds that almost 30 percent of unresolved conflict turns into personal attacks, while 25 percent of conflict can escalate into employees avoiding showing up to work.
Hayes’s points are valid. With varying personalities, beliefs, interests, thought processes, and values, workplace conflict is an inevitable part of business. However, it doesn’t always have to be a costly one. In fact, leaders with conflict resolution skills can use points of contention as opportunities for growth and development.
Learn how to prevent conflict from taking a financial, emotional, and cultural toll on the business and those who work there. Additionally, learn the leadership qualities all leaders need to handle conflict, plus several strategies for navigating heated moments or disagreements with ease.
What is Conflict?
Conflict is a process that unfolds when two or more people’s interests are not in alignment with each other. It can also occur due to an individual’s biases, cultural beliefs, social status, and other factors determining which values they prioritize above the ones others might not. However, conflict resolution is not the same as “agreeing to disagree.” It is a more severe event that unfolds in several stages: latent, perceived and felt, conflict approach, stalemate or negotiate, and aftermath. How a person navigates these stages determines whether or not the conflict escalates.
What is Conflict in the Workplace and Why Does it Happen?
In workplaces, conflicts of interests, desires, opinions, and beliefs can boil over into serious arguments that harm team bonds if they are not dealt with appropriately. These problems mainly occur when people with conflicting points of view must reach an agreement. This is because individuals on teams have different goals and needs that don’t always align.
Conflict also occurs due to poor communication in the workplace. Crossed boundaries and unfulfilled expectations happen when teams don’t make open communication an organizational priority. This leads to hurt feelings, resentment, and festering problems, all of which damage interpersonal relationships. As a result, teams don’t work together in a functional, cohesive, or productive manner. It is much better to create a team culture where people communicate their needs, interests, feelings, thoughts, opinions, and emotions with emotional intelligence, honesty, and transparency.
What are Conflict Resolution Skills?
Conflict resolution skills are the tools that help people handle different types of conflict. Usually, this involves one person leading a discussion that diffuses the situation instead of allowing it to blow up. As they do this, they maintain emotional control during moments of disagreement and lead people toward mediation, negotiation, or compromise. People who deploy conflict resolution skills keep teams unified, ensuring that debate doesn’t turn into division.
Examples of conflict resolution skills include:
- Asking thoughtful questions.
- Responding to anger with emotional intelligence.
- Being flexible and coming up with solutions that work for everyone.
- Remaining objective in tense situations.
- Treating others with integrity and respect.
- Being patient and not rushing into conclusions.
- Showing forgiveness.
- Maintaining a positive attitude.
- Using humor when it’s appropriate.
- Creating a culture of open communication.
- Being clear, transparent, and honest.
- Practicing active listening.
- Working through stress management tactics.
- Encouraging collaboration.
- Finding a compromise.
- Negotiating with the opposing side.
- Teaching employees how to problem solve.
- Establishing a team culture founded on accountability and trust.
- Eliminating language that blames or shames others.
Why Leaders Need Conflict Resolution Skills
When no one on the team knows how to handle conflict, it’s a guarantee it’ll only get worse. A leader must step up and mitigate stressful situations that could cause damage and harm to the team and the individuals on it. Doing so provides an example of how to navigate conflict as it occurs and ensure it doesn’t lead to a full-fledged fight. In addition to this, leaders are responsible for teaching their team members how to conduct themselves and lead others during the moments they’re not around.
Teaching employees conflict resolution skills creates leaders at every level and constructs a work environment where people treat one another with respect, kindness, and empathy. These types of work cultures strengthen interpersonal relationships by developing increased feelings of security and trust among workers. This can lead to higher job satisfaction, increased employee retention, greater productivity levels, and unbreakable team bonds (even when conflict occurs).
Conflict Resolution Leadership Qualities
Deploying conflict resolution skills isn’t as simple as following a few strategies that dissolve problems. In fact, it takes particular leadership skills and qualities for a person to diffuse heated or challenging situations. Listed below are a few personal characteristics leaders need to work on first to better succeed at conflict resolution.
As mentioned above, conflict often occurs when communication lines break. Instead of shutting down or allowing others to, leaders get curious about problems and find a way to connect. One way to do this is by asking clarifying or engaging questions that enable people to describe their opinions, emotions, beliefs, or thought processes. This helps individuals better understand and empathize with the place others are coming from.
2. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI) is one of the most important leadership qualities. EI consists of four different quadrants: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Without knowledge in these particular areas, relationships break down, especially during times of conflict. People who lack emotional intelligence don’t understand how their thoughts, words, and actions affect others. Because of this, they cannot gain emotional control during sensitive situations that require personal qualities that diffuse rather than instigate conflict. For this reason, EI is a crucial skill leaders can’t brush aside.
Learn more about how to gain more emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Studying various leadership styles and traits equip leaders to handle teams of people. No two employees are exactly alike, which means that leaders need a diverse skill set to lead a group effectively. Practicing Situational Leadership is one advantageous way to do this because it pushes leaders to meet an employees’ specific needs. For instance, leaders can avoid conflict by knowing, “This person needs more direction, so I’ll use the telling approach when explaining a project. Otherwise, they’ll feel frustrated when their work isn’t approved.”
Adaptability is not only necessary in preventing conflict—it’s also needed when handling it, too. For instance, leaders must think on their feet and quickly determine what each person engaged in conflict needs to reach a satisfactory resolution. This requires emotional intelligence, the skill listed above.
Leaders who handle conflict must remain objective and not participate in fueling one side of a disagreement. While they might agree with one party over another, they should never join in and heighten tensions between two or more people. Their job is to stop the conflict from getting worse. As referenced above, asking questions and digging deeper into a person’s point of view is one of the best ways to remain neutral during the decision making process. If you make a choice others don’t agree with, outline the facts and communicate the “why” behind the decision in an informative, emotionally controlled manner.
5. Integrity and Respect
Aligning personal and organizational values with conflict management ensures leaders act with integrity as they handle uncomfortable situations. This might look like not engaging with a person who gets heated and asking them to meet the following day. Doing so gives everyone time to reflect on what was said, how they’re feeling, and where to go next. The point of demonstrating these qualities and using conflict resolution skills is to lead yourself and others in ways that build and maintain strong interpersonal relationships.
As the old saying goes, “Patience is a virtue.” This is because patience is a rare but valuable ability. When handling conflict, those with patience can set their frustration, anger, or feelings of suffering aside so that the common good prevails. When demonstrating and teaching patience, leaders should be willing to listen to all angles of a conflict, provide a calming presence, and help pull people closer together instead of letting their opposing viewpoints tear them apart.
Forgiveness is an act of acceptance that stops conflict from festering and growing. Leaders should model forgiveness and show what it looks like to lead with humility and kindness. Forgiving a person is the same as saying, “I see you, I understand you, and while I might not agree with you or how you acted, I still care about you and want to keep working on building a strong relationship together.”
Forgiveness is important because it also stops negative thought patterns from turning into negative actions. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” When a person feels resentment over the way a person treated them, conflict escalates. The act of forgiveness prevents this from occurring. It allows teammates to move forward instead of dwelling on what happened in the past.
Leaders are positive thinkers because they know negativity doesn’t help stressful situations. As Zig Ziglar once said, “Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.” During times of conflict, it can be easy to let your emotions get the best of you, assume people’s intentions, or make a vow in your mind to never mend a relationship with someone opposing you. However, leaders know these types of thoughts aren’t helpful. That’s why they dismiss them and refocus on what they can do to make the situation better.
While it isn’t always an appropriate strategy when dealing with conflict, sometimes humor can break the ice between people. As cited by The Mayo Clinic, laughing helps reduce tension, anxiety, and stress by “firing up and cooling down” a person’s stress response. This process slows down a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, calming the mind and body. It can also help teams openly communicate in a friendly yet direct manner.
How to Resolve Conflict
After a leader gets a firm grasp of the leadership qualities above, they will be ready to start implementing different conflict resolution skills. The suggestions below are some of the top ways to prevent conflict from escalating and causing rifts among team members. Find out more about each strategy listed below.
10. Open Communication
Open communication is a great conflict resolution skill that prompts people to explain their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and solutions honestly and directly. Speaking this way requires workplace conditions where leaders foster a sense of trust and safety, though. This means executives must ingrain it into the team culture. For example, a CEO might model leadership by asking team members to voice their opinions during a meeting. At the same time, everyone actively listens to each other, so the group hears and understands each person’s thoughts.
To use open communication during conflict:
- Ask the people involved in the conflict clarifying questions like, “Can you be more specific about what is frustrating you?” or “What concerns do you have that aren’t being addressed?”
- Encourage them to listen and try to understand the other person’s point of view.
- Get people to take a break from the situation if it’s too heated.
- Follow this by asking them to meet back up the next day once they’ve had more time to reflect on what was said. As they’re thinking about how they want to reenter the conversation, tell them to bring back three written points they wish to discuss. This gives the following conversation more focus and eliminates emotional reactions like accusations and assumptions.
Get more tips on open communication.
11. Assertive Communication
Assertive communication and open communication go hand in hand. This is because open communication can turn into lengthy diatribes that don’t resolve problems if a person’s thoughts aren’t clearly communicated. Assertive communication prevents this from happening because it forces people to be more direct. When used as a conflict resolution skill, assertive communication should also include proposing solutions and pushing the conversation forward to reach a satisfying end goal.
When assertively communicating to resolve conflict:
- Set the terms for discussions that could cause conflict during team meetings. This might look like saying, “Everyone has five minutes to discuss their concerns, and then we will take a democratic vote to see which solutions will be implemented.”
- Don’t let problems fester. When people express they’re upset, offended, or in disagreement, encourage them to pinpoint what’s bothering them.
- Address nonverbal cues. For instance, when you notice someone’s body language shift or the temperature of the room change, ask people about their thoughts and feelings.
- Have tough conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable.
- When group members get heated, remind them of the terms established at the beginning of the meeting.
- Redirect people toward making “I feel like” statements when discussing how they perceive others’ words, thoughts, and actions.
Find out more about assertive communication.
12. Active Listening
Active listening is listening with the intent to understand. When it comes to conflict, heightened emotions often prevent effective communication from happening. This is because when people feel threatened, they become defensive as a means to protect themselves. As a result, they stop listening and begin mentally formulating their next attack while the other person speaks. Acting in this manner doesn’t resolve problems—it just drives a wedge further in between people.
To get conflicting team members to listen to one another:
- Request that each person pauses for a moment to think about what is being said. Then, ask them to repeat back what they feel was communicated to them.
- Stop people from speaking over one another.
- Present questions that help untangle conflicting viewpoints. This might look like saying, “Okay, so what do you think you can agree on?” or “What end goal do you both want to achieve?”
- Get people first to find something positive about what was said, then allow them to say, “from my point of view,” “the way I see it,” or “my understanding is…” Demonstrating this practice as a leader is a great way to get your team to start doing this naturally.
13. Stress Management
When a person engages in conflict, their body naturally produces stress hormones that cause a “fight-or-flight” response. This can significantly alter a person’s mood, make them avoidant, or create a large amount of stress and anxiety in the mind and body. Practicing stress management techniques helps limit the impact these bodily responses have on tense situations. As a result, there’s a greater likelihood for a positive outcome rather than allowing the conflict to continue growing.
To manage stress, Harvard Health Publishing suggests:
- Exercising, which might include working out or taking a walk.
- Practicing yoga, tai chi, or qi gong (which all help calm the mind by having a person focus on fluid movement).
- Doing breathing exercises like box breathing. To do this, hold your breath for four seconds and then exhale for four seconds. Repeat four times.
- Talking to your social support group, which might include your friends, family members, therapist, life coach, or mentor.
Collaboration is a conflict resolution skill that prevents conflict from occurring or further developing. Too often, disputes arise when group members aren’t in agreement over where to go next. As a leader, it’s your job to communicate the vision and how different objectives fulfill this endeavor. For a business to be impactful, leaders should step in and point the team in the right direction by initiating a discussion on whether or not the group’s decisions and ideas can fulfill this purpose.
The key to conflict resolution skills is shifting people’s mindset from “me” to “we.” Inviting people to collaborate and make choices together, instead of in silos, helps organizations fulfill their full potential. It also eliminates competitive attitudes that harm work cultures and cause additional conflict. Using characteristics from the democratic leadership style and practicing group decision making techniques are two ways to do this.
Another conflict resolution skill all leaders should have is the ability to compromise. As the former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany once stated, “A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.” While people engaged in conflict might feel like they didn’t receive the exact outcome they desired, a leader’s job is to make sure they are satisfied with the result. During bouts of conflict, a leader needs to redirect attention toward what the group does agree on, rather than what they don’t.
While negotiation is similar to compromise, they aren’t the same thing. Compromise is collaborating to reach an agreement while negotiating is an exchange of wants and desires. For example, this might look like two business owners discussing the terms of a deal. One might want a one-year contract, while the other demands a three-year one. They might settle for a one-year contract but at a higher price than the three-year plan offers. This way, both business owners get the terms they want.
To negotiate fairly:
- Ask those involved in a decision making process what their “non-negotiables” are.” These are the terms they must have to move forward.
- Use assertive communication to clearly state what you want and how you think you can achieve this result.
- Be flexible and willing to concede things that don’t impact the overall outcome you desire.
- Treat the negotiation as a problem that needs to be solved. Invite those with opposing views to collaborate with you to find a solution everyone can agree upon.
Businesses form to solve customers’, clients’, and the world’s problems. This exudes the internal issues that arise when attempting to do the latter. Naturally, conflict occurs when it comes to decision making because leaders and employees all have varying opinions and ideas about the best way to solve these problems. Nevertheless, teams must develop a mindset of collaborating as they make decisions that affect the company and its people. Tackling problems together reduces conflict by making employees feel like they have a say in how the business’s mission gets fulfilled.
Accountability is accepting full responsibility for your words, thoughts, and actions. During conflict, accountability can translate into owning lapses in judgment or emotional control. As referenced above, leading with integrity maintains and grows interpersonal relationships.
Giving a sincere apology for not attempting to understand someone’s point of view or acting out of character shows you have emotional intelligence as well. This is because EI requires self-awareness and social awareness. It is also a way to manage relationships. With that said, modeling accountability is an excellent method of creating a team culture where employees demonstrate humility and mutual respect.
To be accountable and hold people responsible:
- Set firm behavioral expectations as soon as someone is hired by having them agree to sign off on these guidelines.
- Own your mistakes, and don’t point the finger at others when you’ve said or done something wrong. Demonstrating accountability is the best way to teach it.
- Normalize failure.
- Take time to reflect on your words and actions when tensions rise. Ask others to do the same when you’re navigating conflict.
- Remind people of the boundaries established for communicating with team members.
Examples of Conflict and Resolutions
The situations below demonstrate conflict and resolutions for solving issues similar to these. In the following examples, you’ll get an overview of each scenario, what conflict resolution skills to use, and how to use them.
An Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback Well
During a one-on-one meeting, a team member becomes irritated with their supervisor while they’re giving them feedback on how to improve the first iteration of their work. The employee crosses their arms, tightens their jaws, and goes silent. When the supervisor asks them what’s wrong, the employee gets defensive and says, “You tell me. You’re the one who seems to have an issue with my work.”
Conflict Resolution Skills to Use
- Open communication
- Assertive communication
First, use open communication to let the employee know this type of negative attitude isn’t tolerated. A part of assertive communication is setting firm boundaries to ensure expectations get fulfilled. Provide a gentle reminder that speaking to one another with respect is one of the top values they agreed to uphold when onboarded. Finally, discuss why feedback is necessary, and talk about how owning your work makes a difference in reaching personal, professional, and company-wide goals.
Two Team Members Get Into a Fight During a Meeting
A graphic designer presents an idea that will require a significant amount of time from the team’s lead copywriter during a brainstorming session. “I don’t have the capacity to take this on,” the copywriter asserts, immediately writing off the idea. “This project could really help us drive more of an impact within the company. And you’re always adding to my workload—this is completely unfair!” the graphic designer responds.
Conflict Resolution Skills to Use
- Stress management
- Shifting away from blame and shame
During heated situations, asking the team to reconvene the next day is likely the best option. Before this meeting, request a quick chat with the two employees embroiled in conflict. Begin asking questions to get to the bottom of their feelings and emotions and gain a larger perspective on the issue. In addition to this, discuss the importance of not blaming and shaming others when emotionally triggered. It causes a serious breakdown in work relationships. Partner the two together for the rest of the workday and have them develop a compromise for what work needs to be done that fulfills the company’s vision and mission. Then ask them to meet back up with you the next day to let you know what they decided.
Leaders Can’t Seem to Agree
When discussing the terms of a business proposal, the CEO of a company feels like the deal they’re being offered isn’t favorable to them. In addition to this, the person handling the negotiation is too pushy and won’t budge on the terms. “Look, this is the best we can do, and we wouldn’t present this to you if we didn’t feel like it wasn’t on fair terms,” they tell the CEO.
Conflict Resolution Skills to Use
- Assertive communication
- Problem Solving
The best way to handle this situation is to clarify that the current terms will not work for you. However, let them know you’re interested in collaborating and negotiating. Outline the problems you have with the terms and ask them, in their opinion, how they would go about solving it. This will help the representative from the other business begin shifting toward the mindset of “they need to say yes right now” to “let’s find a solution that works for everyone.”
Teach Your Team Conflict Resolution Skills
It’s important to remember that when leaders handle conflict appropriately, it serves a greater purpose. Often, it causes teams to have conversations that, while challenging, result in immense personal and professional growth. As Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, the authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, write, “The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict, rather than be leveled by it.”
As you continue your leadership journey, pass on these conflict resolution skills to your employees. It grows leaders at every level. As a result, this helps the business operate more smoothly by increasing the bonds between team members who must work together and maintain strong relationships to fulfill the company’s mission.