Even the best teams go through periods of conflict. Cracks can begin to form when the stakes are high and everyone’s trying to crush their goals. Someone says something that upsets someone else, disagreements erupt over what should be descoped, and so on. These conflicts can fester and break a team, or they can be resolved and create stronger bonds. That’s why every team needs conflict resolution skills.
There’s no silver bullet for fixing conflict, but there is common wisdom. We went out and read 50 articles on conflict resolution to pick out the best 10 tips — common and less so — for dealing with conflict.
6 go-to conflict resolution skills
Read 50 articles about anything, and you’ll find enough advice to fill a book. That said, there are places where all these tips converge. Here are the most popular conflict resolution skills across the pieces we read.
Few people truly love conflict; most want to avoid it. But, often, conflict is just a symptom of a deeper issue. It might come up because of a crucial misunderstanding between you and another collaborator, a superior’s lack of visibility on your work, or a wider issue in the organization as a whole. That’s why assertiveness is the first conflict resolution skill on this list.
Conflict resolution isn’t about “winning,” but you don’t want to always give in, either. If conflict arises because your needs aren’t being met or someone fundamentally misunderstands something you know to be true, you need to stand your ground. This can be difficult, especially when there’s an imbalance of power between two parties.
Assertiveness isn’t the same as stubbornness. Being stubborn means holding on to your position come hell or high water, despite the evidence. Assertiveness is keeping to your values, your needs, and the facts. It’s how you can keep “all-or-nothing” types in check as you look for a solution that’s good for everyone.
Empathy encompasses all the ways you can put yourself in the other party’s shoes. It’s asking yourself why someone thinks the way they do rather than just trying to poke holes in their arguments and forcing yourself to think of the problem from another perspective.
No matter what kind of conflict you’re dealing with, you’ll find that the other person thinks they’re right, just like you do. Try to convince them that they’re wrong and you’re more likely to solidify their position than to bring them over to your side. That’s what makes this conflict resolution skill so essential.
One of the best ways to become more empathetic is to foster your critical thinking skills. With critical thinking, you can go beyond the surface of an argument, a position, or an emotion. It forces you to think carefully about someone’s position and find the reasons behind it. Critical thinking is also useful for examining your own biases and how they might be contributing to conflict.
You’ve probably seen enough statistics about communication to know how important it is. As much as 93% of communication is nonverbal, 92% of people have to repeat themselves in their organization, a third of employees believe a lack of communication is the worst thing for employee morale, and so on.
It’s no surprise, then, that good communication is key for conflict resolution.
Conflict happens for a number of reasons but ultimately comes down to a difference between two parties. That can be a difference in opinion, understanding, or position. No matter what conflict resolution method you choose, it requires strong communication.
How can you understand another party’s position? By paying attention when they communicate it. How do you make sure they understand yours? By articulating it clearly. There’s not much you can do when you’re struggling to understand why there’s conflict in the first place.
Active listening (21/50)
That’s right, communication is such an important conflict resolution skill that it cheated its way onto this list twice. The term “communication” can refer broadly to any of the methods used to articulate a point, an idea, or a topic between two or more parties. In contrast, active listening means doing the most with the information you’re getting back.
It’s all too easy to think better communication depends on articulating your point more effectively. This is especially true in conflict, where you’re pretty likely to think you’re on the right side, and you just have to bring the other party into the fold. That’s where active listening comes in; it forces you to consider the other person’s point of view more carefully.
An active listener asks questions, seeks clarity where necessary, and makes sure they’re accurately understanding what the other person is saying. The simple act of saying “let me see if I understand” before summarizing what you think the other person just said can do more for resolving conflict than just having the most eloquent argument.
Compromise and mediation (24/50)
You’re probably not surprised to find this one here. The prevalence of this skill in the pieces we read shows that conflict resolution isn’t a zero-sum game. In most situations, it’s far better to meet somewhere in the middle than it is to try and find out who’s “right.”
So what’s the right way to compromise?
Entire books have been written on the subject, but the general consensus is that you should pursue that ever-elusive win-win situation.
Some differences are irreconcilable. In these cases, it’s best to make a quick decision for the best of two options and move on. But in most situations, there’s a happy medium that can be reached between two parties. No one gets everything they want, but everybody gets something.
If you’re finding yourself in a situation where you must come up with a compromise for a conflict you’re a part of, pay close attention to your bias. It’s easy to feel like you’re losing more than you’re gaining, but odds are the other party feels that way too. Try to come up with the best solution, not just the one that’s best for you.
Emotional awareness and intelligence (28/50)
This conflict resolution skill was so common it went by a dozen different names. But, generally speaking, more than half of the pieces we read suggested that resolving a conflict hinged on being in tune with one’s own emotions as well as those of others.
It makes sense. Conflict can make people emotional, and emotion is one of the biggest hurdles between you and a potential resolution. With emotional intelligence, you get better at identifying the emotions that affect your judgment as they come up. “Do I really think this is true or is my anger talking?” is the kind of question an emotionally intelligent person might ask of themselves.
But emotional intelligence doesn’t stop at your own feelings. It’s also about picking up on what someone else is feeling and understanding how it’s affecting their position — and not just blurting it out. No conflict was ever solved by telling the other person they’re overreacting.
4 uncommon conflict resolution skills (and why they’re important)
Popularity isn’t everything. Some of the best bits of advice we came across were like diamonds in the rough. These skills weren’t as popular, but they’re still just as important.
Many of the skills mentioned above relied on understanding that there are two sides to every conflict. This knowledge fosters better communication, collaboration, and compromise. But you can do so much more when you foster accountability within yourself.
Accountability means being able to identify the things you’re personally responsible for. It means seeing past your own emotions and resisting the reflex to defend yourself when you’re accused of wrongdoing. It’s about recognizing what you’ve done wrong and communicating it.
When you go out of your way to show accountability, you’re helping defuse a potentially tense situation. Instead of escalating by flipping things around and pointing out what the other party did wrong, you’re showing that you’re taking in what they’re saying. Making the other party feel heard — and being willing to take a few hits to the ego — is a great conflict resolution skill.
When facing conflict, your instinct might be to keep your cards close to your chest. After all, you don’t want to reveal everything you know right away. How else are you supposed to get the upper hand?
Hopefully, the skills listed above have shown why that’s the wrong way to approach conflict. If you’re experiencing conflict in the workplace, you should be trying to find a solution that improves your working relationship with the other party. Sure, you could get your way with a couple of “gotchas,” but what happens when you have to work with that person again?
Transparency keeps you honest, accountable, and shows that you’re open to a mutually beneficial situation. It means not hiding information that could potentially damage your position. It also means answering questions accurately and honestly. Show that you have nothing to hide, and the other party won’t worry about digging for answers.
This conflict resolution skill might be a little less common because it comes from psychology rather than business seminars, but it’s just as important. Reframing is taking something that might feel true and shifting your perspective on it, or approaching a situation, thought, or feeling from another angle.
Practicing reframing is a great way to avoid misunderstandings that can escalate conflict. It also keeps you flexible when trying to find solutions that work for everyone.
You can reframe things you believe, such as “this person wants to get me fired.” In that situation, shifting your perspective might be as simple as asking yourself “is there another reason this person is doing this, besides trying to get me fired?” Often, just doing that is enough.
Reframing also works with things you’re hearing from the other party. It’s easy to stop at the surface level, especially when someone says something hurtful. But with reframing, you can take even the most hurtful statement and ask yourself “why is this person saying this?” Doing this can help you understand where the other person is coming from and get to the source of the problem.
An all-hands meeting is usually not the best time to try and fix a conflict with the CEO. Even if the conflict feels fresh — and you want it resolved then and there — you’re probably not likely to reach an understanding.
Timing goes beyond just knowing not to settle the score with the CEO at the all-hands. It involves finding the best time for both parties to come together and work on their conflict. It can also mean realizing a discussion isn’t working out and stepping aside until cooler heads prevail.
Another important aspect of this skill is that conflict shouldn’t be left alone for too long. There should be a sense of urgency and immediacy. Otherwise, a conflict that might have been easily solved a week ago might fester and create resentment between both parties.
Conflict resolution skills mean less conflict
No one likes conflict, but everyone goes through it. By identifying and developing your conflict resolution skills, you turn conflict from something that should be avoided into a chance to foster greater understanding between two parties. You might not necessarily all come out of it as friends in the end, but you can find solutions that work for everyone.