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Interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Rarely do two people simultaneously recognize a difference in positions or interests. Usually, it is one person who first realizes a potential conflict, and this person has the greatest opportunity to influence whether the conflict will escalate and harden. A lot happens in those first few moments when one person realizes the possibility of loss—every conflict represents a perceived potential loss of some kind. Some apparent differences can be resolved even before the other person realizes there is a conflict. The second person in the situation can also use that pivotal point to stay open, even if the first person has already acted, but the second person’s actions will have less effect in the situation.


Wherever choices exist, there is potential for disagreement. Such differences, when handled properly, can result in richer, more effective, and creative solutions and interactions. However, it is challenging to consistently turn differences into opportunities. When disagreement is poorly managed, the outcome can be contention. Contention creates a sense of psychological distance between people, such as feelings of dislike, bitter antagonism, competition, alienation, and disregard.


The Nature of Conflict


Whether dealing with family members or hired personnel, challenges will arise sooner or later. Often, "courting behavior" gets pushed aside out of necessity. The reasons why we react to conflict with aggression, denial, or resistance include the perception of conflict as negative and as a contest. Conflict is not negative; it is a natural fact of living in an increasingly complex society where we are all trying to get our jobs done and live out our lives. What we do with conflict as it happens, how we respond, can be negative. Images of negative responses to conflict, such as fistfights, massacres, and verbal retorts, are numerous. When we do not view conflict as a win/lose contest, we can create win/win solutions.


For this to happen, three basic conditions have to exist: acknowledgment, acceptance, and adaptability—the "3 A's" of conflict resolution. Parties to a conflict must acknowledge its existence rather than trying to avoid or deny it, accept their involvement, appreciate the feelings and viewpoints of all parties to the problem without making judgments, and be open to new ideas that might lead to solutions.


Sensitivity to Conflict


Persons differ in their sensitivity to comments or actions of others, as well as their ability to deal with the stress created by a conflict situation. When disagreements emerge, it is easy to hear without listening. People involved in conflict often enlist others to support their perspective, avoiding direct communication with the affected person.


Unresolved conflict often threatens our self-esteem. Our self-esteem will be more robust when we learn to deal effectively with conflict. It may seem easier to fight, withdraw, or give in, but in the long run, working through difficulties together will help us live a less stressful and more fulfilling life.


Yielding and Avoidance


If a person feels obligated to continually yield and let another have his way, such yielding can lead to withdrawal from the situation. Avoidance, at its worst, can involve someone cherishing the power trip involved, allowing himself to become a sort of arbiter in the conflict.

The Importance of Dialogue


Talking about disagreements may result in opportunities to strengthen relationships and improve productivity. Effective dialogue reduces stress, resolves challenges, and increases productivity. Such a conversation entails as much listening as talking. Discussing challenging issues may involve some pain or at least moving us out of our comfort zones, but the rewards include satisfaction and improved long-term relationships.


Unwanted options are discarded, and our best solution becomes our position or stance in the matter. Our needs, concerns, and fears all play a part in coming up with such a position. It involves a real effort to understand another person's perspective.


Fear in Conflict


Fear is a significant factor in conflict. Fear of losing something we cherish can drive our responses. The good news is that there are simple and effective tools to spin positive solutions and strengthen relationships out of disagreements. If you deal with other people, you will, sooner or later, have to deal with conflict. Conflict is not inherently bad. It stems from differing viewpoints, and since no two people view the world exactly the same way, disagreement is quite normal. When there is conflict, it means there is strong disagreement between two or more individuals, usually in relation to interests or ideas that are personally meaningful to either one or both of the parties involved.


Unmanaged conflict can lead to violence and insubordination. The key to managing conflict effectively is to learn the skills necessary to become a good conflict manager.


Main Areas of Conflict


Conflicts occur in three main areas: interpersonal one-on-one relationships, meetings, and negotiations. Connecting with others through what they most value can help in these situations. Suppose you are the first person to experience a conflict arising. Acting as if the conflict won’t occur can make you less of a target and attract less escalation toward conflict. Remember, there are two kinds of pain: the pain of risk and the pain of regret.


The Roundtrip to Resolution


The benefits to both parties are obvious: if it’s a relationship you wish to continue, you can do so; if it isn’t, you can at least be civil to the people whenever you meet them. You haven’t created an enemy. Reaching an agreement when tension is rising is difficult, but following these four steps can make it easier to resolve conflict than any alternative. If you are serious about changing your method of operating in the world, memorize and practice these four steps every day in the low-level conflicts that will arise frequently in your office, manufacturing plant, or home. These small issues can escalate into full-blown conflicts that will leave lifelong scars if you don’t react appropriately.


Step One - Tell Yourself the Truth


Humans build a defense system that clicks into operation whenever we feel affronted in any way. In a moment of confrontation, either real or imagined, we escalate into the hottest negative reaction we can summon. At such moments, we need to slow down the process and seek personal clarity by asking the important question: What do we want? What’s our bottom line?


Step Two - Reach Out to the Other Side


Ask yourself: What is the other side’s greatest need? Reaching out to understand the other side’s perspective is crucial.


Step Three - Listen Attentively to the Other Side


Listen to the other side and demonstrate that you have heard their concerns. Proper respect must be shown at all times. The more you dislike the other side, the more time and effort you must summon to prove that you are indeed listening and aware of their needs. Do not try to deduce other people's intentions from your own fears.


Step Four - Prove You Are Fair


When you propose a solution, prove that you are fair by addressing the other person’s interests first. What seems like an agonizingly slow process will prove to be a fast lane to resolution. Spend enough time to get clear about the two most important factors at every stage in the negotiation: your most important need and the other person’s most important need. By taking the time (the first two steps of the Roundtrip), you will get centered and accumulate the information necessary to formulate the correct approach to the situation. You will know the other side’s hot buttons, motivations, and needs.


Preventing Conflict Escalation


Ten Ways to Stop a Conflict from Escalating


1. By thinking about your own needs in Step One, you zero out the resentment of the other side. Essentially, since you no longer consider them the enemy, you have curbed their resentment.

2. A holistic perspective helps you maintain your objectivity. It’s far more difficult to resolve conflicts when you have strong emotions about the other person.

3. Since Step One requires you to identify your own need first, it eliminates the natural frustration you would feel in not knowing what you want.

4. By taking the time for Step Two, you slow down the pace of the discussion. Rushing the beginning of a relationship often makes the other person shut down.

5. Step Two also helps you avoid the easy assumption that the same kind of offer works for every person and situation.

6. Step Two prevents you from being overpowering, thus preventing the other side’s natural antagonism from increasing.

7. By speaking first to the other side’s needs in Step Three, you demonstrate that you have placed their needs above yours, and you therefore avoid appearing selfish and unfair.

8. With Step Three, you do not appear to be an antagonist. It’s a maneuver that will help heal the situation.

9. With Step Three, you are more likely to propose solutions the other side can accept because you have given yourself more time to recognize what they want most and want most to avoid. You make fewer untested assumptions about the other side’s needs and desires. Consequently, you will not appear oblivious or thoughtless.

10. In summary, by taking a Roundtrip, you will always be able to find the best mutual interest, even if you are given a very short time to decide.


Because we respond more strongly to the negative actions of people for whom we have strong feelings than to those of strangers, allow yourself more time to get back in balance in these cases.


Approaches for Offering Your Solution


Ten Approaches for Offering Your Solution


1. Before you speak about your own needs, address their needs first and work through whatever obstacles or power issues have surfaced.

2. Don’t talk before you are prepared to reach an agreement. If you start talking with the other person before you are ready to reach an agreement, you could wind up with less than you want.

3. Bring out the other’s better sides. Orient yourself so that you will look for the other side’s more positive traits.

4. People are more inclined to resolve a conflict with someone they consider fair than with someone they like but don’t trust.

5. Reach agreement on your key items before you make any gesture toward finalizing an agreement. When the other side avoids discussion of their most important needs, their avoidance will eventually impede progress toward resolution.

6. Ensure the presence of a third party if necessary. This person may be a friend, colleague, or a professional mediator. It doesn’t matter as long as the person chosen by both sides has the training and strength of character to stay focused on the solution.

7. If you appear to grow more rigid, even if the other side is doing it too, the others will become wary and suspicious of all your future suggestions.

8. Listen and thoroughly consider other people’s opinions at the moment they are presented. If you disagree immediately or counter with another suggestion, reactions will remain hardened long after this particular discussion.

9. Speak to the relationship you have built. Mention that you respect the people who are important to the other side.

10. Make sure that the other side will share your satisfaction in coming to an agreement.


The Beginnings of Conflict


Conflicts often arise from:


  • Poor communication

  • Seeking power

  • Dissatisfaction with management style

  • Weak leadership

  • Lack of openness

  • Change in leadership


Conflict Indicators


  • Body language

  • Disagreements, regardless of issue

  • Withholding bad news

  • Surprises

  • Strong public statements

  • Airing disagreements through media

  • Conflicts in value systems

  • Desire for power

  • Increasing lack of respect

  • Open disagreement

  • Lack of candor on budget problems or other sensitive issues

  • Lack of clear goals

  • No discussion of progress, failure relative to goals, failure to evaluate fairly, thoroughly, or at all


Conflict’s Impact


Destructive Conflict


Conflict is destructive when it:


  • Takes attention away from other important activities

  • Undermines morale or self-concept

  • Polarizes people and groups, reducing cooperation

  • Increases or sharpens differences

  • Leads to irresponsible and harmful behavior, such as fighting or name-calling


Constructive Conflict


Conflict is constructive when it:


  • Results in clarification of important problems and issues

  • Results in solutions to problems

  • Involves people in resolving issues important to them

  • Causes authentic communication

  • Helps release emotion, anxiety, and stress

  • Builds cooperation among people through learning more about each other

  • Helps individuals develop understanding and skills


Techniques for Avoiding and Resolving Conflict


Meeting Conflict Head-On


Set goals and communicate frequently. Be honest about concerns. Agree to disagree and understand that healthy disagreement can lead to better decisions. Remove individual ego from the management style. Allow your team to create—people will support what they help create. Discuss differences in values openly. Continually stress the importance of following policy. Communicate honestly and avoid playing "gotcha" type games. Provide more data and information than needed. Develop a sound management system.


Causes of Conflict in Board-Superintendent Relationships


Boards can cause conflict with CEO’s by:


  • Trying to act as administrators and overstepping authority

  • Making promises as individual board members

  • Involving themselves in labor relations or budgetary minutia

  • Not doing their "homework" and failing to prepare for meetings

  • Not following procedures for handling complaints

  • Not keeping executive session information confidential

  • Failing to act on sensitive issues

  • Failing to be open and honest with the superintendent

  • Making decisions based on preconceived notions

  • Not supporting the superintendent and lacking loyalty

  • Springing surprises at meetings

  • Having hidden agendas


Strong Board-CEO Partnerships


A strong partnership involves full disclosure, frequent two-way communication, careful planning, informal interaction, periodic evaluation, and mutual support.


Courageous Decision Controversies


Controversies usually involve changes in long-standing practices, fundamental values, determined advocates for every side, inability to compromise, rampant rumors, and threats of retaliation at the polls during the next bond, levy, or board election.


Resolving Conflict


Searching for the causes of conflict is essential for successful resolution. Possible causes include conflict with self, unmet needs or wants, values being tested, perceptions being questioned, assumptions being made, minimal knowledge, high or low expectations, and differences in personality, race, or gender.


Interpersonal Relationship Conflicts


Sometimes, there may be a conflict you are not aware of. If a person remains cheerful with everyone else except you, chances are you are dealing with a conflict situation. Address the problem by setting up a private face-to-face meeting in a non-confrontational manner. Respect each other's opinions.


Tools for Improved Communication


Two principals have greatly contributed to the productive handling of disagreements:


1. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," introduced by Steven Covey in "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." This principle helps in understanding others' perspectives before sharing your own.

2. Focusing on needs rather than positions, introduced by Roger Fisher and William Ury in "Getting to Yes." This principle encourages satisfying the sum of both parties' needs rather than emphasizing disagreements.


Individuals can learn how to keep communication lines open and solve challenges when things go wrong. While it is important to share your needs and views, focusing first on the other person's thoughts, needs, and observations is crucial. This approach helps to ensure that both parties feel heard and understood, reducing the potential for contention.


Involving a Third Party


Sometimes, differences in organizational level, personality, or self-esteem among participants in a disagreement require a third party's participation. Telling employees to work out their troubles on their own or simply get along may work occasionally, but most of the time, the conflict will resurface in more destructive ways.


A better approach is to allow employees to meet with a third party, or mediator, to assist them in resolving the conflict. An insider may be part of the problem, perceived as favoring one stakeholder, and may not maintain confidentiality. An outside mediator with integrity and impartiality is crucial for successful mediation.


Mediation Process


Mediation helps stakeholders discuss issues, repair past injuries, and develop tools to face disagreements effectively. Mediators facilitate the process by:


  • Understanding each participant’s perspective through a pre-caucus

  • Increasing and evaluating participant interest in solving the challenge through mediation

  • Setting ground rules for improved communication

  • Coaching participants through the joint session

  • Equalizing power between participants

  • Helping participants plan for future interactions


Understanding Each Participant’s Perspective


The pre-caucus is a separate meeting between the mediator and each stakeholder before the joint session. During the pre-caucus, the mediator explains confidentiality and the mediation process, offers opportunities for regular caucusing, and emphasizes stakeholder control.


The pre-caucus allows stakeholders to feel heard and understood, reducing stress and defensiveness. This makes participants more confident and receptive to listening to the other party.


Increasing and Evaluating Participant Interest


Stakeholders often experience stress and consider quitting during deep-seated conflicts. The mediator helps visualize a life without this stress and determines whether mediation, arbitration, or another approach is appropriate.


Transformative Opportunities


Transformative opportunities involve recognizing moments of recognition between participants. Mediators encourage stakeholders to see positive attributes in each other, even after venting their frustrations.


Setting Ground Rules for Improved Communication


Mutual validation of identities through identity negotiation is crucial in conflict resolution. Mediators help stakeholders re-cross the line and change their behavior for a second chance at a relationship. Ground rules prevent hurtful comments and increase positive interactions.


Coaching Participants Through the Joint Session


Seating arrangements in mediation are powerful. The mediator sits far enough away that stakeholders must turn their heads to make eye contact. This arrangement encourages direct communication between stakeholders.


The mediator encourages participants to address each other by name, validating each other's humanness. Discussions of past behaviors help analyze conflict patterns and prepare for future disagreements. Specific agreements and understanding each other's needs are crucial for successful resolution.




When negotiation fails, arbitration may be necessary. Supervisors should clearly communicate their roles and offer mediation before making decisions. An arbiter should avoid trying to make both parties happy with the decision. Sometimes, a firm judgment is needed, as demonstrated by King Solomon's story.




Interpersonal conflict is a natural part of human interaction. By understanding the nature of conflict, recognizing its indicators, and employing effective resolution strategies, we can turn conflicts into opportunities for growth and stronger relationships. Acknowledging, accepting, and adapting to conflicts, along with effective communication and mediation, can lead to positive outcomes and improved interactions.

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