5. Relationship Management

5.5 Conflict Management

Conflict management is an attribute of Relationship Management. People with this competence:

  • Handle difficult people and tense situations with diplomacy and tact
  • Spot potential conflict, bring disagreements into the open and help de-escalate
  • Encourage debate and open discussion
  • Orchestrate win-win solutions.

What is Conflict?

When two or more values, points of view, or opinions clash, conflict arises. Conflict can occur:

  • When your values and standpoints are threatened
  • When you fear the unknown or lack fulfilment
  • Within yourself when you're not behaving in alignment with your values.

Despite being regarded as destructive, uncomfortable, hostile, exasperating, and “win or lose” in its outcomes, conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction and is not always bad. It can even be beneficial by:

  • Raising and addressing problems
  • Highlighting the most appropriate issues
  • Motivating people to participate
  • Inspiring creativity
  • Contributing to social change
  • Helping us learn about and benefit from our differences.

Conflict isn't problematic. This only occurs when conflict is poorly managed. Conflict is a problem when it:

  • Hinders productivity
  • Lowers morale
  • Causes more and/or continued conflicts
  • Leads to inappropriate behaviour.

While conflict management is a term most often used in the corporate world, the theory can be applied to all aspects of your life. For example, the reasons for conflict:

Poor communication –  ? employees don’t understand the reason for decisions and rely instead on the rumour mill –  ? expecting your significant other to instinctively know what you want to do this weekend.

Insufficient resources –  ? disagreements about passing the buck –  ? having to wait for ages while a sibling takes forever in the bathroom.

Personal chemistry –  ? a colleague who rubs you up the wrong way –  ? a child who behaves as badly as you would if you weren’t trying to be polite.

By far the best way to handle conflict is spot potential conflict, bring disagreements into the open, and de-escalate the battle. There are various stages of conflict to watch out for:

Potential conflict – where possible causes for conflict have been recognised and conflict could arise if action is not taken.

Latent conflict – in competitive situations such as a political rally or a meeting about retrenchments.

Open conflict – triggered by something and could become much more serious.

Aftermath conflict – where a problem may have been resolved but the potential for new conflict may still exist – especially if one party feels like the “loser”.

In order to minimise the escalation of conflict into something negative, debate and open discussion should be encouraged. This can be done by:

  • Sharing information and keeping everyone up to date with current issues
  • Expressing positive expectations and empowering others
  • Building strong relationships
  • Being aware of potential conflict and nipping it in the bud.

Approaches to Conflict

How you handle conflict is affected by past experiences, your communication style, and your personal triggers. Knowing yourself gives you greater control over your emotions and, in turn, more appropriate responses to conflict. While we don’t all fit into a box, here are the five recognised approaches to conflict:

1. Avoiding

No winners, no losers. Avoid conflict by withdrawing, sidestepping, or postponing.

Appropriate when:

The conflict is small and relationships are at stake

You're cooling off

More important issues are pressing and you feel you don't have time to deal with this one

The issue is unrelated to key issues.

You are powerless and there is no chance of having your concerns met

Others can solve the conflict more successfully / less emotionally than you can

Additional information is needed.


Important decisions may be made by default

Inaction may make matters worse.

2. Competing

I win, you lose. Take a firm stand.

Appropriate when:

There is an emergency or crisis

Time is of the essence and a quick decision is needed

You don't want to be steamrollered or taken advantage of

You need to stand up for your rights.


Can escalate conflict

Losers may retaliate.

3. Accommodating

I lose, you win. Appease others by downplaying conflict, with a greater emphasis on relationships, harmony, and goodwill.

Appropriate when:

An issue is not as important to you as it is to the other person

You realize you are wrong

You are willing to let others learn from their mistakes

You know you cannot win

A peaceable solution now will pave the way for future gains

Harmony is important and what the parties have in common is far more important than their differences.


Your ideas don't get attention

Credibility and influence can be lost.

4. Compromising

You bend, I bend. Accept that outcomes will be partially satisfying for all but not fully satisfying to anyone.

Appropriate when:

Going around in circles with others of equal authority and equally strong commitment to mutually exclusive goals.

Time can be saved by reaching intermediate settlements on individual parts of complex issues

Goals are moderately important.


Important values and long-term objectives can be derailed in the process

May not work if initial demands are too great

Can spawn cynicism, especially if there's no commitment to honour the compromise solutions

5. Collaborating

I win, you win. Work through differences to generate new and creative solutions are satisfactory to both sides. Open to the positive possibilities conflict creates.

Teamwork and cooperation help everyone achieve their goals while also maintaining relationships.

Appropriate when:

There is a high level of trust

Time is available to find a consensus solution

Others need to also have "ownership" of solutions

The people involved are willing to change their thinking as more information is found and new options are suggested

There is a need to work through animosity and hard feelings.


The process takes lots of time and energy

Some may take advantage of other people's trust and openness.

Not sure which approach to conflict you favour? Download and complete THIS QUIZ to find out.

Resolving Conflict

This may sound obvious, but the first step to resolving a conflict is to identify its source. It is easy to get caught up in identifying the symptoms (a sign or indication) of a conflict rather than focusing your attention on the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Clues to the source of a conflict can be found in the emotional reactions of the parties involved.

  • Be sincere.
  • Avoid placing blame.
  • Take responsibility for resolving the problem.
  • Be empathetic.
  • Listen non-defensively.
  • Confirm understanding.

Only once the source has been accurately identified can you move on to find a solution to the conflict.

  • Start by brainstorming ideas for actions that may resolve the conflict.
  • Take into consideration any deadlines and time constraints.
  • Weigh up the facts and emotions against each solution idea.
  • Stay focused on the issue.
  • The best solution may not satisfy all parties, but it does the least harm, damage, or discomfort and is the most balanced.

Finally, create an action plan to implement the solution.

  • Clearly communicate the plan to all parties.
  • Clarify what the ideal solution will look like once it has been implemented.
  • Include a way to monitor progress.
  • Schedule a follow up to tweak the plan.


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