Managing conflict constructively

December 2001 News & Events

The potential for conflict is a common element of our day to day dealing at work, in our social life, and even at home. It impacts on our personal relationships, how we relate to other groups, and even international relationships.

Conflict arises from situations where there is a chance for one of the parties in a situation to perceive that developments can lead to a negative impact on their satisfaction or needs. While typically associated with a negative context, conflict also generates the dynamic to change and can often lead to people being in better situations than otherwise may have been the case.

Situations where we see our vested interests changing are one of the most common causes of conflict. We tend to see most change as a threat and the way it is managed is a key aspect of reducing the resistance to change. We have to be convinced that we are not going to lose anything, or what is to come will be better than before for the level of threat to be reduced. Some people are also more prone to conflict than others. Strong wills, competitiveness, or a desire to have things done in a particular way increase the levels of tension and the personal stake in success when dealing with people in this context. People who prejudge situations or who are extreme in their views will also increase conflict because of the need to get through these preconceptions before the real resolution can start.

At times, we do not understand the problem clearly or we act on a misunderstanding that would have immediately been resolved if it had been discussed and a common perspective obtained. How many promising relationships have failed because of a lack of talking through and gaining a common perspective on issues? The issue of a lack of understanding tends to be compounded because conflict feeds on itself. In extremes, it leads to a negative spiral with each side reinforcing the conflict positions and the level getting worse and worse. The result is that it becomes progressively more difficult to get the parties to talk to each other in a constructive way unless you break the spiral - something that requires a major effort. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a classic illustration of this. The fact that we can get locked in to our positions is a common theme in conflict in all situations. We lose sight of what we want to change because we are so busy defending our own positions relative to the other party. The South Africa peace process is a reflection of parties voluntary moving out of these positions and the lack of similar progress in other conflict situations around the world is an indication of how difficult this is.


Key to the resolution of conflict is a need for recognition of a common purpose - a need to achieve a win-win situation. In exercises where people have to negotiate with each other, people determined to win at all costs (a win-lose scenario) often do worse in the end then others committed to working together. It is important to reduce the area of conflict - the more we understand of the other party's needs and can reconcile them against our own, the more we can do this. In their book, 'Getting to Yes', Fisher and Ury emphasise how critical this is in negotiations. Published in 1981, the book is still one of the key readings for people in conflict handling and negotiations.

There are a number of ways that we can avoid increasing conflict or resolve issues more constructively in situations. Some of these are detailed by Fisher and Ury and are included in the list below:

1. Separate the person from the problem. Avoid letting personal attributes or feelings about a person affect you and focus on the objective factual matters of the problem that needs resolution. Antagonistic personal relations only increase conflict as they prevent you from dealing with the real issues.

2. Avoid getting locked into your own position - rather focus on how both of your interests can be enhanced. Generate and explore options as part of this as a joint problem solving exercise.

3. Look at the results that you want from the discussions in as factual and objective way possible. The more they can be reasonably quantified and measured, the more it takes the personal interpretation and stakes out of the situation and provides a meaningful and acceptable criteria for discussion.

4. Acknowledge that people have feelings and emotions - that these are legitimate and understandable. If they are out in the open they are much easier to address and can often be resolved much more quickly.

5. Allow the other people to let off steam when they get emotional. It is a lot easier to talk reasonably later once everybody has calmed down. If you react in the heat of the moment, you may make comments or decisions that are going to be very difficult to live with.

6. Communicate to the other person's frame or reference. Talking past each other is a common reason for things not being resolved. The more people can put what you are saying in context, the more they will understand your view. Doing so also increases your understanding of the other person.

We all have different styles of dealing with conflict and you may put a particular emphasis on one or another. Keeping the win-win context in mind and using techniques such as the points mentioned above should help resolve things more constructively no matter what your style.

Dr Craig Donald
Dr Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald is an industrial psychologist and specialist in human factors in security and CCTV. He is the co-developer of the Surveillance and Monitoring Assessment Exercise (SAMAE) for the selection and placement of CCTV operators and presenter of the CCTV Surveillance Skills training course. He can be contacted on telephone: (011) 787 7811, fax: (011) 886 6815, or e-mail: [email protected]

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