Nail those strategies for resolving conflict in the workplace time and time again

Have you ever had to bite your lip on occasion when a colleague pipes up with something divisive in a meeting? Maybe you've sent a text which was completely misinterpreted, sending bad vibes from the receiver to you, even though you're unaware of why they're upset? Or have there been times when you've been close to explosion in the staff room, but held on to your emotions because you're a professional through and through?

In an ideal world, everyone would get on with everyone else in an organisation - but it never quite works out that way, does it? There are always going to be those types of people who get your back up, or seem to disagree with everything you say, no matter what. Conflict is a part of everyday life and work, and the sooner you possess the most effective tools to handle it, the better.

So ask yourself this - when dealing with any type of conflict, which of the below categories do you fall into?

  • Running away and hiding, acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand, hoping it will all go away eventually without any sort of confrontation on your part

  • Finding ways and means in which to deal with it in an unflappable and professional manner

  • Quarrelling with the people involved to such an extent that the atmosphere in the office could be cut with a knife

Not surprisingly, it's the second category that should be adopted every time. You want to be seen as the type of worker who faces up to challenges and comes out stronger on the other side. When faced with a bolshy customer, it should be you that everyone's seeking out to deal with them, as you've built up a reputation for calming situations down and coming to satisfactory conclusions - even down to engaging so well with the customer that they go away content with the result.

Remember that in some cases, conflict can be viewed as a positive thing. If we're all the same, all doing the same thing, we're not moving forward or improving. Conflict that shakes things up and is resolved can prove to be beneficial in the long run.

What is conflict and what is conflict resolution?

Conflict is defined as being a struggle or clash between opposing views, issues, or principles. It's not just about being criticised and it goes a bit deeper than a mere disagreement, as it's a more deep-rooted and protracted issue, dictating the attitude of the parties involved towards each other.

So it makes sense that conflict resolution is the process by which the conflict is to be overcome. Conflict resolution is often seen as a skill that only leaders can possess. You need to be able to identify when a conflict is on the rise, acknowledge the different opinions that relate to it, and build a consensus about how to manage and resolve it. But that doesn't mean you have to be a leader in order to do this.

A few of the most common reasons why conflict erupts at work include:

  • A lack of good communication 

  • A history of unresolved problems

  • Clashing perspectives or personalities

  • That feeling of competition with one another

  • An uncertainty of role responsibilities 

Explaining conflict management

Managing conflict is not the same as resolving it. Managing maintains the status quo, whereas resolution, the favoured stage, moves the process forward to, hopefully, a mutually beneficial outcome. Yet, managing conflict can still be useful as an interim stage of the whole process.

The five most common strategies used during conflict resolution

Different people will have differing approaches towards resolving conflict, depending on preferences and personalities. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument was named after two researchers, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, who came up with a tool, in the 1970s, that measures an individual's response to conflict. According to the model, the term “conflict” is the condition in which people's concerns can't be compared with others.

This method pinpoints two basic dimensions of conflict behaviour:

  1. Assertiveness - this explains how far someone will go to satisfy their own concerns during a conflict, which relates to how you'd meet your own needs or receive support for your ideas

  2. Cooperativeness - this is where the focus is on meeting the needs of others, and relates to how you'd help the other person as much as possible in meeting their requirements or showing how receptive you are to the ideas of colleagues

The five most common strategies used during conflict resolution in the workplace, according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, include:1. Competition 

Competing is seen as uncooperative and is an overly assertive method used by those who insist on winning at all costs. It's a win-lose strategy; a win for the person in the driver's seat and a loss for everyone else. It's really saying, “I'm right and you're wrong” - an approach that's not going to result in bringing about any satisfactory resolutions, as it doesn't allow for any collaborative problem solving.2. Accommodation

Being accommodating is putting others' needs ahead of your own, ending up with a lose-win outcome. The strategy is also called “smoothing” and it means one party acquiesces and hands over the reins to the opposing party to do exactly what it wants to resolve the problem. It's sacrificing your own needs and saying, “You're right and I'm wrong.” This can work as a short-term solution or an appropriate resolution, especially if your opinion on the conflict isn't that strong.3. Collaboration

Collaborating is a way of fully getting everything you want and enabling the other person to achieve the same. It's a win-win all round. It's also entirely assertive and entirely cooperative at the same time. It's saying, “Let's work together on this,” and then reaching a mutually agreeable solution that's perfect for both parties.4. Compromise 

This is when you partially meet your own needs as well as partially meeting those of others, to secure a mutual agreement that settles the conflict. It's assertive and cooperative, but can be seen as both a win-win and a lose-lose scenario. It's a win because a resolution has been arrived at, but also a loss as both parties have had to forfeit some of their needs in the interests of reaching an agreement, albeit willingly. It's a perfect way of resolving a conflict quickly, of finding that middle ground, without it growing into a bigger issue. It might not be totally successful, but it can be applied temporarily until both parties find a more permanent solution.5. Avoidance 

This is probably the least proactive strategy of these most common methods. It basically involves ignoring the fact that there might be a conflict. It's neither assertive nor cooperative, and usually ends up with a lose-lose scenario where nothing is resolved. It's an easy way out by side stepping or postponing the handling of any conflict. And yet, there might be good reasons for applying it in certain circumstances, such as when there's no obvious solution to an issue, or when a frustrated individual or group needs to calm down before a confrontation. On the other hand, avoiding the issue means it could escalate into a bigger problem when nipping it in the bud would've actually been an easier option in the first place.

The key steps to adopt in order to reach conflict resolution

Follow the below steps to reach agreeable solutions to any conflict in the work environment.

Acknowledge that there is a conflict

Avoiding the issue isn't going to help, as we've already seen, so first off the conflict must be acknowledged and addressed, otherwise it can grow into a more volatile situation which will be more complicated to resolve.

Define the issue

Pinning down the actual cause of the conflict will help you to understand the background to the problem and its progress. You'll need both parties to agree on what the issue is and then discuss any needs that aren't being met. Gather as much information as you can from both sides to form a balanced view. Carry on with asking questions until you're certain that all conflicting parties understand the actual issue. Try to keep each party focused on the issue, while steering clear of bringing any personal emotions into the space. Talking the problem through in a professional manner, without attaching a particular person or group to it, will make for a clearer picture of how to move forward.

Discuss the issue on neutral territory

Clarifying the problem and discussing how to progress toward a resolution should be conducted in an environment that feels safe and neutral for all concerned. Selecting someone's office or a location that's nearer to one than the other of the parties could lead to implying that one side exerts more influence over the other, so choose a place where there is room for honest communication and discussion.

Let everyone speak

Giving equal time for each party to have their say and express their views is a must. There should be a positive vibe during the meetings, with no blame laid at anyone's door, and an encouraging atmosphere so that all of those involved can share their thoughts openly without fear of being lambasted. Once each party hears the opposing side, hopefully there'll be room to start finding solutions, which will lead to easier interactions due to a better understanding of each other.

Agree on a solution

Take the time to fully investigate the case without prejudging or arriving at a final verdict purely based on what was said. Dig a little deeper to find out more about the happenings, the involved parties, the issues, and how people feel about the whole situation. Talking to third parties might help here. If you can discover underlying conflict sources that might not have been evident at first, all the better. Once you've considered all the possible options, select the one which will be the most favourable for everyone involved. Once that's achieved, each party needs to provide an acknowledgment that the proposed solution is the best one.

Involve all sides in the solution

By now, all sides should've had an input into negotiating a reasonable solution. But, for it to be effective, each party must feel the solution is fair and just. Ideally, opposing parties will understand the other's side. Often, a conflict can be resolved simply by facilitating open and transparent dialogue. While this requires time and effort, with parties working to set aside differences and preferences, it can be worth it to find common ground and work towards resolution. The last step is to work with the parties to come up with a list of objectives that will go towards achieving the agreed resolution.

The difference between conflict resolution and problem resolution

Conflicts tend to be between co-workers, whereas problems arise out of what is happening in the workplace. Both need to be resolved and often include teamwork and effective communication, along with refined interpersonal qualities, to reach a satisfactory conclusion with which everyone can agree.

What's so important about conflict resolution?

We all want an easy life, don't we? It's exhausting if we're constantly battling each other in the workplace or bickering about ways to perform certain tasks. For one thing, it's such a time waster, when we could be being more productive and actually getting the work done!

It's true to say though, there are always going to be some disparate personalities in an organisation that love to start an argument or wind others up for seemingly no reason.

So resolving any niggles or disputes is key to having a cohesive and smoothly run business. It boosts employee satisfaction, can heighten productivity, and, in turn, may result in increased revenue.

Emotional intelligence and empathy are considered to be important skills nowadays, as two of the soft skills that are vital to display in any work environment, as you can relate easier to each other when employing these strengths. Learn about people's different communication styles early on, so you can fully understand where they're coming from in a conflict situation.

The benefits of conflict resolution

Cultivates robust working relationships

When conflicts are resolved effectively, it can have the knock on effect of reducing discontent that could damage relationships, facilitating improved collaboration between colleagues and building stronger partnerships between employees.

Sustains morale

Resolving conflicts can prevent the tension between disagreeing employees from spreading to other employees who've got nothing to do with the dispute. A swift, amicable solution can maintain peace and morale in the workplace, preventing disruptions to productivity.

Achieves goals

Once a resolution has been achieved, the opposing parties can work together more efficiently by focusing on company goals rather than the conflict.

Reduces stress levels

Coming to an agreeable solution can reduce the stress of the conflicting parties and everyone else they interact with, including managers, colleagues, and customers. This is vital for physical and mental wellbeing as workers with lower stress levels find it easier to focus and engage with their roles.

Provides a true insight

It's a way of understanding a different perspective, as new insights into how someone else views a particular situation will make you more accepting and can help you to solve issues in a different way.

Improves staff retention

If there's conflict in the office, employees might well look around for somewhere else to work. If the issue is resolved, they might reconsider their options on leaving, with the company then retaining the knowledge and skills of experienced employees.

The top skills required to achieve conflict resolution

Just like you want to improve on your problem solving skills, it's a great idea to focus on conflict resolution skills too.

Listening: Be an active listener by focusing your attention on what the other person is actually saying, not what you think they are saying. Reply with the same phrases they use, as this shows you're listening and it clarifies the points they're trying to get across.

Emotional intelligence: Apply emotional intelligence to prevent the problem tripling in size. By interpreting the opposition's emotions, you can communicate with them better without provocation. Keeping a lid on confusion, frustration, and anger will leave room for logically and creatively arriving at a solution.

Patience: Remain patient, as conflicts can take time to be solved. Take the time to listen to each side and weigh up the pros and cons of each argument. Rushing towards a resolution can make others feel that their needs haven't been fully met.

Impartiality: Keep impartial throughout the process, by treating all rivals equally, as this will be beneficial in the long run. Then you can concentrate on the problem itself and pour all your energy into finding a mutually beneficial result.

Positivity: Stay positive during conflict management, as this is a sure-fire way of keeping the conversation moving forward. Obstacles might appear out of nowhere. Work towards overcoming them by adopting a positive attitude so that other participants feel more at ease.

Communication: Communicate continually once the issue is resolved. Relations between people involved in conflict often take a while to get back to normal once a problem is solved. Nurture this relationship by creating an open line of communication between the parties to prevent issues from bubbling up again in the future.

Key steps to take in order to prevent conflict in the first place

When the police force in England was formed back in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary at the time, the aim was to prevent crime, not to necessarily deal with crime once it had occurred. The Police Officers patrolled the street, their presence designed to prevent any wrong doing. It made sense. “Prevention is better than cure,” as the saying goes. So surely it's the same with conflict. It's better to prevent a conflict than to have to resolve one.

Recognising where there might be personality clashes, and taking the right steps to either minimise contact between volatile types or accepting different opinions, can go a long way to preventing problems.

Communicating respectfully with team members will prevent workplace conflicts; treating others as you'd like to be treated. So rather than barking out orders or sending emails full of capital letters, request that co-workers cooperate when completing a task.

Knowing who to turn to if things do start getting out of hand can nip problems in the bud. A quiet chat with a trusted colleague or your line manager can help, as they can offer their opinion on your issue and give you a different perspective.

Recognising what's important and what can be let go is vital to office cohesion. There are always going to be niggles throughout the day that annoy you, minor disagreements that can trigger unnecessary arguments and accusations. Rise above them, don't take them personally, and move on.

Conflict resolution case studies

  1. A Project Manager, fairly new to a construction company, is promoted to Director of the South East over the Business Development Manager who's been there for donkey's years. The BDM is really miffed, as he thinks he should've been the one to secure the promotion - and he shows it, by refusing to engage with his new boss and disrupting meetings. The new Director remains professional and calm when dealing with the BDM. Over time, he uses his robust communication and interpersonal qualities to get the BDM on his side, paying special attention to him, though not to the detriment of other members of staff. It takes a few months, but in the end the BDM is won over by the strong capability and obvious strengths of the new Director, so much so that they become firm friends and start socialising outside of work.

  2. A well-established IT firm, which is expanding exponentially, has welcomed a new batch of staff, mostly fresh out of university. They settle in with the existing staff who are rather set in their ways and comfortable in how they approach daily duties. Conflicts and disruptions start bubbling up as the new recruits suggest innovative approaches to certain tasks. The established staff take affront to this and push back. But the senior management team realise that this conflict has a positive effect, as these new pairs of eyes have identified outdated processes and come up with different approaches that haven't been considered before.

  3. A manager in a marketing department has a reputation for being a bully. His thinly-veiled threats to deliver the goals he wants, while failing to recognise the strengths of others, means that the team is treading on eggshells all the time and are wary of offering up their own opinions. The bully controls the room in a dictatorial manner and surrounds himself with “yes men” who are at his beck and call. A younger colleague has been on an assertiveness training course and decides it's time to right the wrongs by standing up for the team as a whole and not letting individual team members be pushed around anymore. Her tactics are:
      • Performing all her tasks to the best of her ability, so she isn't laid open to any criticism, and encouraging others to do the same

      • Refusing to let the bully see that he's getting to her

      • Exerting a deep-seated belief in herself and her capabilities

      • Showing sympathy towards the bully, which puts the bully at a disadvantage as he comes to realise that his dominant behaviour has failed to control her

In the end, the bully backs off and is eventually removed from his position.

How to show conflict resolution strategies on your CV

Ensuring your CV stands out is vital when applying for new roles. Does it pass the seven-second test for instance? This is roughly the amount of time that a hiring manager or prospective employer spends on initially scanning your CV. Not long, is it? Hence why your CV needs to make an impact straightaway and make a great first impression that will stick in the mind of whoever's looking at it.

Selecting the right type of CV for your purposes is a good start, as that'll give you an idea of how to approach it.

Will your CV get through the particular Applicant Tracking System (ATS) that the company uses? ATS is computer software designed to “score” CVs on certain aspects. That means the formatting must be appropriate, which means no fancy tables, logos, or boxes, as the ATS can't “read” them correctly and will inevitably give your CV a lower score.

There are many ways of showing your skills on a CV. Firstly, an overview of your attributes should be displayed in the professional profile section - three or four sentences in a paragraph, positioned under your contact details. It should be the first section that the hiring manager sees. In order to include your conflict resolution capabilities within this part of your CV, below are some ideas of how to word this skill while expanding on it and including other attributes alongside.

          • Quick to grasp new concepts while dealing confidently with ever shifting and conflicting priorities

          • Motivates and supervises a dedicated team comprising of 20 members, while resolving any arising conflicts immediately to prevent further issues

          • Continually improves the culture within a workplace through effective communication and by taking a consultative, collaborative approach to avoid any conflicts

          • Demonstrates communication and leadership skills along with team work, critical thinking, and conflict resolution

          • Builds productive working partnerships with students and parents by arranging regular meetings to resolve conflict 

          • Received numerous awards for resolving conflict and easing tension within the local community

          • Adopts a calm and professional approach when resolving conflict, to reach a rapid and satisfactory outcome for all concerned, in order to maintain excellent customer and staff relations

          • Provides coaching and training to junior staff and explains / defends company policies and SLAs when conflicts arise with customers, maintaining a calm, courteous approach at all times

          • Committed, focused, and the go to person for conflict resolution

          • Maximises the potential and contribution of 40 members of staff using a bespoke management style while galvanising teams towards a common vision

          • Minimises staff attrition by building a motivating work environment 

Below your professional profile, consider incorporating a list of skills using keywords that will help to boost your ATS score. This can include “conflict resolution” or “conflict management,” as well as “problem resolution.” As long as you can back these up in an interview, they should certainly be on there. 

If you've got examples of when you resolved conflicts in a particular role, include this in the key achievement section for that position. State your role in the resolution process and what the outcome was. This will then show your value and experience in this area, which will certainly count in your favour at interview as you'll be able to expand on it.

Highlighting your conflict resolution strengths within a cover letter

While not regarded as quite as important as the CV, a well written and impactful cover letter can make or break your chances of getting through to the next stage of the recruitment process. If the job you're applying for requires conflict resolution strategies, make sure that you include them in your letter - but don't just copy and paste from your CV. Take time to reword your conflict resolution achievements so that they stand out and grab the reader's attention.

Examples of conflict resolution interview questions

Talking of interviews, this is your chance to shine and really showcase you conflict resolution skills. An absolute classic question in an interview is "what is your greatest strength?". If conflict resolution is one, then really go for it with examples and the difference that your input made.

The types of questions that you might be asked in an interview that relate to conflict resolution include:

          • What is your strategy for resolving conflicts?

          • How do you deal with conflict?

          • Can you tell me about a conflict that you resolved in the company that you work for currently?

          • We have a conflict issue with XYZ at the moment. How would you go about resolving this?

          • Tell me how you handle clashes of personality within the work environment

          • Can you talk about a major conflict at work and how you specifically dealt with it?

          • How would you cope if a colleague became difficult and displayed bullying tactics to get their own way all the time?

          • What would your strategies be to resolve a disagreement between yourself and your manager?

How to answer “what is your strategy for resolving conflicts?”

Conflicts are inevitable, no matter what line of work you're in. The interviewer probably isn't that interested in the actual conflict. What they're looking out for, and want to discover, is how you resolved it - what actions you took and what the outcomes of those actions were. Employers don't want conflict, they want solutions - and they rely on their workforce to provide those solutions. So the employer is trying to ascertain if you're the type of employee who would be able to do that.

If you can offer up actual examples of when and how you resolved a conflict, all the better. If it isn't something you've come across, you'll have to hypothesise and come up with a theoretical answer.

Example one

"Before going in all guns blazing and laying the blame at a particular colleague's door, I like to take the time to listen to all parties involved and get their side of the story before taking any further action. If it concerns myself in disagreement with my line manager, I'd never openly disagree with her in front of the rest of the team. However, I'd query any issues in private, as there might be factors that I'm unaware of that have led her to a certain decision. Once we've discussed the issue, it might be a case of agreeing to disagree. I've got to respect that. It's her prerogative to take that stance, so it's my job to then support her in that particular course of action to the best of my ability."

Example two

"My strategy for dealing with difficult colleagues, such as those who don't pull their weight, are disruptive to the process, blame others for their failings, or are, quite simply, rather unpleasant and unprofessional, is to capitalise on my very strong communication abilities. This is essential to developing beneficial working relations. While conflict is inevitable, it's not my way to clash head-on with those tricky personalities. I prefer getting to understand them, reasoning with them, and finding ways of working through the difficulties. It often works out that, once you show that interest and concern, you come to a better understanding of each other and the co-worker who had once caused such misery can transform into a valued colleague."

Example three

"Generally, I feel I handle conflict well, resolving issues before they get too out of hand. I understand that different people will have different ideas and values, which can lead to conflict. When it does, I use collaboration as a way in which to resolve these issues. I know I can become defensive on occasion, and to combat this, I take time to pause and consider what I'm about to say before responding appropriately."

The next steps to take

If you're part of the conflict, one way forward to resolving the issue is to keep in mind all of the similarities you might have with the colleague you're in dispute with. Don't let the one part that's resulted in conflict cloud your overall judgement or be the reason why the team doesn't gel.

Conflict is often a by-product of interaction with other people, therefore responding appropriately to it in a professional manner will form the basis with which to kick start conflict resolution strategies.

When a dispute arises, applying negotiation skills initially is often the best course of action to resolve the problem.

Now that you've considered the strategies on how to deal confidently with conflict resolution, it's time to digest all the information for potential future use. It's great if you've never had to use these strategies, but the longer you're in employment, the higher the chances are that you'll need them. It's a true, and well sought after, skill to be able to calm situations down and see what could be on the other side, so don't lose sight of the importance of this trait.

Keen to boast about your conflict resolution strategies on your CV but not sure of the right way to go about it? Check out TopCV's free CV review, as this will give you an idea of how your current CV shapes up.

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