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Conflict Management Skills: How to Manage Conflict Like a Pro

When approached right, conflict can provide healthy learning and growth opportunities. Here is how to manage conflict like an expert.

We often perceive conflict as undesirable, if not flat-out scary, but real-life conflicts are typically much less bombastic than TV and movies make them out to be. In fact, when approached right, conflict can even provide healthy learning and growth opportunities. Conflict management skills are the key to unlocking this complex door. Whether your team’s conflicts are this small or much bigger, you can use the below conflict management guide to effectively problem-solve.

What are conflict management skills?

Conflict management skills help minimize the negative impacts of workplace conflicts on you, the people involved, and your whole team. They’re basically what you would do when you sense a disagreement coming on with a friend or partner, but applied to the workplace. On less fortunate occasions, they might be skills you use once the conflict has already gotten out of hand.

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to have a structured, collaborative meeting agenda to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak.

What are the 5 conflict management strategies?

When you think of conflict, do you tense up and get anxious, or do you view it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and work better together? Different approaches work better for different people, and all these approaches can be loosely grouped into the below strategies. 

1 Collaborating

Just as teams that work together create better products, people who resolve conflicts together achieve better outcomes. This is the premise of collaborative conflict management skills. Under this method, you’ll guide the conflicting parties to a mutually agreeable resolution. Maybe no one person in the conflict will have all their boxes checked, but they’ll certainly reach a more agreeable point than before.

2 Competing

In conflict management, a competing strategy typically results in one party “winning” and the other “losing.” For obvious reasons, you might want to avoid competitive conflict management approaches unless absolutely necessary. Reserve it solely for when the person against whom a grievance is aired has flagrantly violated your workplace’s terms.

3 Avoiding

Conflict avoidance can get a bad rap – it might make you feel meek or unconfident. Sometimes, though, avoiding conflict is precisely the right call. For example, instead of raising an issue over a tiny edit you made to someone’s work, just make the edit yourself. Save your feedback for larger issues. Simultaneously, make a note to watch for that tiny mistake again in future work, and consider gently calling it out if you continue seeing it.

4 Accommodating

Even the tiniest, most pedantic requests can be a source of conflict. As an example, let’s say one of your team members is overall pleased with another team member’s contributions but wants one minor change made. That’s a minor change, not a major change. In other words, it’s likely not worth any squabbling. Applying your accommodating conflict management skills here would mean that the one team member accepts these changes instead of objecting, or a team member refrains from bringing up very minor irks altogether.

5 Compromising

Compromising may be the best of both worlds, as it combines assertion with cooperation. It typically follows the flow of, What do you want? Here’s what I want. Here’s an alternative that works for us both. It’s a great approach when you need to resolve a conflict quickly so an urgent decision can be made. Plus, you can always come back to the conflict after the decision is made. You can’t quite do that if you let the conflict bubble over without compromise.

8 examples of conflict management skills 

While the above explanations may read simply, these basic descriptions mask the fact that actually resolving your conflicts can be tough. You’ll need the below conflict management skills for best results.

1 Communication

Picture this: You task two team members with completing a project, but as the project progresses, the team members realize they just can’t get along. But it’s not like you’re asking them to be friends. You’re just asking them to complete this assignment. Two people who don’t vibe still need to work together sometimes, but poor communication can exacerbate any preexisting negative feelings toward their work partner. Remind your team members that they need to be on the same page when it comes to their work, and find ways to minimize their interactions outside of what’s needed to complete good work.

2 Emotional intelligence

Conflict can stem from you and your team members not being on the same page emotionally. That comes into play a lot in conflict management. If you can’t tell when someone is frustrated, you won’t know when to put your conflict management skills to work. 

Likewise, if you can’t perceive that your management style is stressing your team out, you might wonder why their motivation is in the gutter. The thing is, you’re the problem in this case. But if a lack of emotional intelligence causes you to blame the employee instead, you’ve now worsened the conflict. Always read the room and encourage emotional openness from which to hold empathetic problem-solving conversations (or maybe try a problem-solving activity).

3 Active listening

Our minds run at a mile a minute. That makes it pretty easy to get distracted when someone is speaking to you. And that’s a surefire way to face conflict later when you don’t follow through on what you and the person discussed. Active listening can help you avoid this struggle.

When you listen actively, you notice someone’s exact phrasing and points made. You might then respond with similar phrasing or ask questions to clarify. This way, the person with whom you’re speaking will know you’re on the same page as them. 

4 Open discussion

When conflicts are serious enough, you might want to take steps to address them the moment you sense them. A great way to do so is to invite all the people involved to a meeting. At this meeting, the conflicting parties can openly discuss the circumstances and how they feel about them. 

As a team leader, you can use this moment as a springboard for conflict resolution. When everyone’s thoughts are out in the open, problem-solving conversations might flow naturally, and everyone might walk away happy. Try out Fellow’s problem-solving meeting template below to ensure a great conversation.

5 Patience

Some conflicts are simple to overcome, while others can take time to resolve and make people pretty angry. That’s why patience is such an important conflict management skill.

For example, conflicts stemming from stubbornness might test your patience. You may also feel challenged by rushing impatiently to a solution, which may inadvertently leave someone out of the resolution. 

No matter how, or by how much, a conflict tests your patience, you should never get angry. You can be firm and stern, but obvious frustration will always worsen the problem. And if you do deliver what’s seemingly a “final verdict” angrily, you’ll likely upset your team enough that resentment builds. And resentment is a perfect breeding ground for future conflicts.

6 Impartiality

While having a favorite team member is frowned upon, it’s inevitable that you’ll grow closer with some people than others. Yet the team members with whom you’re close can make mistakes too. If you resolve conflicts in ways partial to them, then you’re not really solving conflicts. You’re just playing favorites.

Impartiality is the key here. No matter who’s involved in a conflict, take a step back from it and figure out who’s done what. Then, figure out how those actions affected the other parties. Then, make a call: Who needs to do what to resolve this conflict? When you step back like this, better outcomes are possible for everyone.

7 Guidance

Think back to your childhood. When people yelled at you when you made mistakes, you didn’t like that, did you? Now imagine castigating someone on your team for making a mistake that’s led to conflict. Imagine yourself insulting their work quality, or worse yet, their intelligence. That’s pushing them away when you should be calling them in. Instead, take a guidance-based conflict resolution approach.

Even if you do think a conflict is the result of someone’s terrible work, you don’t need to say so. That would be pretty harsh! Instead, show the person where their errors lie, how these errors affected other people, and how they can avoid these mistakes in the future. Do so constructively without any signs of anger or disappointment to keep things positive and encouraging. Speaking of which…

8 Positivity

Negative emotions only beget more negative emotions. It’s entirely possible to resolve most conflicts while staying positive. And positive emotions beget more positive emotions!

For positive conflict resolution, make sure all discussions are at least neutral in tone. Encourage participants to go into the conversation with an open mind and perhaps even excitement about resolving the problem. Working from this mindset makes finding a meaningful solution far more likely.

7 conflict resolution skills 

Ready to keep an open ear and mind as you positively, patiently resolve conflicts? Start with the below conflict management skills. Your team will thank you, and so will your stress levels.

1 Avoid the blame game

Nobody likes to feel blamed. If anything, blaming someone will lead to them feeling defensive, and that’s not a great mind state from which to solve problems. Instead, make sure that everyone in the conflict gets open space to share concerns without interruption. Then, work from everything that’s been said to identify the most serious pain points. Shift the conversation to those and how everyone present can contribute to addressing them.

2 Be explanatory, not accusatory

Imagine if someone said, “You did this wrong.” That wouldn’t feel great. But what if that person said “I don’t have what I need” instead? You might then be inclined to ask what the person needs instead of going on the defensive. From that position, you can solve problems much more easily. 

Notice that the better statement for problem-solving begins with “I.” A conflict narrated through how each participant feels rather than whom they blame is much healthier. Most people are empathetic and will strive to help other team members’ negative emotions disappear. In other words, they’ll resolve the conflict.

3 Keep calm and carry on

Big conflicts might make you want to tear your hair out. They might make you want to scream. You obviously know not to do the former, but don’t do the latter, either! Even the most intense of conflicts are better resolved when everyone is calm.

Instead of approaching a conflict with exasperation, frame your concerns in a neutral tone. “I’m tired of having this client treat me like this” can always be “When this client treats me this way, it causes me to…” Notice how much less intense the latter phrase sounds. That calmer approach is much less likely to make someone feel too frazzled to dig their feet in and get to work solving the problem.

4 Keep it all within the conflict

Any time you discuss a conflict with someone outside it, you risk bringing them into the conflict. Sometimes, doing so is inevitable: When two of your team members aren’t seeing eye to eye, they might ask for your help. That’s natural and a good thing. But if one of those team members complains about the other to someone else on the team, that’s a problem. Suddenly, that third person is involved in the conflict. 

Remind your team members to keep what’s said in the room. And if someone in the conflict feels truly angry, suggest that they vent somewhere no one else can see or hear. Maybe that means journaling or speaking to a friend outside work who doesn’t know the other people involved. Getting that anger out now can lead to better conflict resolution later.

5 Make sure everyone knows not to take things personally

When you started at your first job, criticism may have felt like the end of the world. But that’s all anxiety speaking – rarely is criticism delivered with a personal agenda. So when it comes time to manage conflicts, make sure everyone knows not to take things personally.

That said, if the source of conflict is insults or offensive comments, then there’s indeed something to be taken personally. But if the issue at hand solely pertains to work, you can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. Just have everyone separate their emotions from the tasks and learn to objectively see what went wrong and why. 

6 Observe body language

You know how sometimes people will say “I’m fine” but clearly show that they’re not? That’s the power of body language. When team members in a conflict say they’re OK with a solution but still appear unhappy, that might indeed be the case. 

Of course, you can’t call someone out for looking like they don’t mean what they say, but you can encourage more, honest conversation. If someone says they’re OK with something but doesn’t appear to be, you can say, “I’m glad to hear that. Is there anything more you want to add?” This way, you can get additional input that all sides can use to approach a solution that works for everyone.

7 Don’t burn bridges

Relationships are important, and rarely is a conflict significant enough to be worth burning that bridge. Do all you can to encourage apologies and a mindset of resolution rather than proving one side right or wrong. You should also promote a focus on the current conflict rather than old ones that, when brought up out of nowhere, can incite anger. Calm conversations preserve relationships — the precise point of conflict management.

Conflict is inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be bad

If groups of people always saw eye to eye, the world would look a lot different, and so would your workplace. Conflict is indeed inevitable, but you and your team can learn and grow from it. Doing so requires conflict management skills, teamwork, and a space in which both can develop. Meetings are often that space, and with Fellow’s highly versatile meeting tools, you can easily plan and take actions to resolve conflicts.

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