Managing Conflict Effectively for Individuals and Organizations

Craig E. Runde,

Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College Co-author of

Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader

When we ask managers and employees in organizations whether conflict is inevitable, they always agree that it is. Once you acknowledge the inevitability of conflict, the questions about it change. It is no longer a matter of whether you will experience but rather what you will get out of it.

Most people we talk with describe conflict as something negative and use words like

“stressful” or “frustrating” to describe it. They also describe their principal way of managing conflict as avoidance. Yet, they agree that avoiding it rarely works. Instead, it allows conflict to fester and eventually come back with even more force.

On the organizational level these types of approaches become expensive. When conflict is not managed effectively managers are required to spend more of their time addressing it, good employees leave, people are distracted from their work, and occasionally complaints, violence, and even lawsuits can ensue.

Poorly managed conflict can also stifle creativity because people tend to pull back when

they are in conflict. When people communicate less about issues, innovation and the quality of decision-making can suffer for lack of sufficient input. Implementation is also degraded because people tend not to buy in to decisions when they have held back from discussion that led to them.

If conflict is inevitable and poorly managed conflict is costly, what should individuals and organizations do? We advocate the development of conflict competence – the ability to use awareness and skills to address conflicts in ways that lead to positive outcomes. This is challenging because conflict itself is complex and our human condition does not naturally prepare us to address it in modern organizational contexts. It is possible though to improve both individual and organizational conflict competence as we will see in this white paper.

Developing Individual Conflict Competence

From an individual perspective conflict competence involves developing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that enable you to be able to manage your own emotions, clarify what is happening in the situation, and engage constructively with the other person to find solutions to issues arising from the conflict.


Cognitive skills

It is important to understand the personal value of improving your conflict competence.

Adults rarely change their approaches unless it is important and valuable to do so. To this

end we ask people to reflect on the personal costs of poorly managed conflicts. We also

have them think about the potential benefits that can come from dealing with it effectively.

We also encourage people to look at how they currently address conflict to see how effective they are at managing it. This can be done by asking yourself questions about how you respond now when faced with conflict. We also use the Conflict Dynamics Profile assessment instrument to provide a more systematic review of the behavioral patterns people use in conflict contexts. By understanding areas of strength as well as developmental opportunities, an individual can have a better sense of how to improve their ability to manage conflict.

Emotional skills

Conflict is all about emotions. Anger, fear, or other emotions can cloud your thinking and

make it difficult to respond effectively. We believe managing emotions is an essential part of becoming conflict competent. This involves both understanding what triggers your emotions in the first place and developing strategies for regulating them.

People frequently find their emotions triggered by the actions of others, particularly when

these actions don’t meet up with our expectations. When this comes as a surprise it can

cause frustration and lead to ineffective responses. Understanding what pushes your “hot

buttons” can lessen both the surprise and irritation associated with them. We use a section of the Conflict Dynamics Profile to help people uncover these hot button triggers.

Once you understand what causes upset in the first place, the next step involves developing strategies to cool down and regain emotional balance. We recommend two approaches to regulate emotions. The first involves a process called attentional deployment. It involves taking your mind off of the thoughts that are causing the upset.

One technique for this is to turn your mind to something more pleasant such as a beautiful, natural setting or something else that evokes positive feelings for you. Another approach that we use in our Becoming Conflict Competent course involves relaxing your body and taking deep, calming breaths. As you breathe we encourage focusing on the sensations associated with breathing. These processes which are sometimes called centering and mindfulness take your focus off of disturbing feelings and help you cool down. This emotional reset allows you to return to the issue in a more balanced way.

In a second approach to cooling down, called cognitive reappraisal, you look at the same

facts that have been getting you upset with fresh eyes. You ask yourself whether there is

some other way of interpreting the situation that does not involve a hostile or bad intention on the part of the other person. This approach is very effective in conflicts that are being caused by misinterpretations. If you feel the other person is out to get you or is trying to do something at your expense, it is very easy to become upset. Many times though the other person is simply doing something because they think it is right and not as a means of causing you anguish. If you are able to consider other non-hostile explanations of the situation, it will cause your emotional tensions to recede.

Behavioral skills

Once you have addressed your emotions, you are in a better position to engage with the

other person. At that point we recommend using a number of constructive communications behaviors including: reaching out, listening for understanding, expressing thoughts and feelings, and creating solutions.

When we ask people who are in conflict whether they talk more or less with their conflict partner, they inevitably say less. When we ask whether this makes it more or less likely that they will find a solutions, they generally laugh – knowing that it will not lead to answers. So, one constructive behavior we recommend is reaching out to the other person to try to get communications started again. This might include an apology where appropriate and certainly involves trying to get the other person to find a time when you can both meet to discuss the issue.

Once you are talking again, the first thing we recommend is to listen. Communications

involves talking and listening and we think the most important component in conflict

situations is listening for understanding. Listening is a challenging process and most often people listen to respond or evaluate what the other person is saying. We are not truly interested in what they have to say as much as in telling them what the real truth of the matter is – namely, our version of the truth. Yet, a lot can be learned by carefully listening to the other person. In addition, good listening can also bring down tensions by demonstrating a sense of respect.

After you have listened carefully to the other person, you will have a better chance of getting heard by them. At this point it is important to share your own perspectives on the conflict. We also recommend sharing your feelings about it so that they will understand its importance to you. Some people are reluctant to share feelings because they think it can make you look weak. We find that suppressing emotions is even worst though, because the emotions do not go away and often will fester and come out in unproductive ways.

Once you and the other person have been able to share your perspective on the conflict,

you will reach a point where it is possible to explore possible solutions to it. At this point we recommend looking for outcomes that meet your needs and also meet those of the other person. This takes some creativity, but keep in mind that resolutions that work for both parties are typically ones that can be sustained and built upon.

Creating Organizational Conflict Competence

Developing individual conflict competence is an important step in improving an organization’s capabilities to manage conflict. Creation of organizational norms to support constructive responses to conflict can enhance individual competence and provide legitimacy for responding in effective manners.

On a team level we describe these normative functions as creating the right climate for

managing conflict. In addition to using constructive behaviors, this also involves creating a sense of trust and safety so that team members feel confident in being open and honest with one another when discussing issues. Building stronger bonds by making decisions together, sharing information broadly, and supporting team rewards also helps people build a sense of “teamwork” which leads to people being willing to give one another the benefit of the doubt when differences arise. Teams also need to improve their emotional intelligence so they can more effectively manage emotions that can naturally arise in conflicts.

On an organizational level the process requires the support of leaders who believe in the

value of conflict competence. To foster this we ask leaders about the strategic goals of their organization. We then have them reflect on how managing conflict poorly can detract from achieving those goals and how enhancing conflict competence can improve the chances of achieving them. When leaders see the relevance of effective conflict management, it becomes easier for them to support efforts to change the organizational culture to support the development and implementation of conflict competence.

We all realize that conflict is inevitable. What we need to do now is prepare ourselves and our organizations to be able to manage it more effectively so we can get good outcomes from it. This is the essence of becoming conflict competent.