Conflict resolution can be defined as the informal or formal process that two or more parties use to find a peaceful solution to their dispute.
A number of common cognitive and emotional traps, many of them unconscious, can exacerbate conflict and contribute to the need for conflict resolution:
- Self-serving fairness interpretations: Rather than deciding what’s fair from a position of neutrality, we interpret what would be most fair to us, then justify this preference on the bases of fairness. For example, department heads are likely to each think they deserve the lion’s share of the annual budget. Disagreements about what’s fairlead to clashes.
- Overconfidence: We tend to be overconfident in our judgments, a tendency that leads us to unrealistic expectations. Disputants are likely to be overconfident about their odds of winning a lawsuit, for instance, an error that can lead them to shun a negotiated settlement that would save them time and money.
- Escalation of commitment: Whether negotiators are dealing with a labor strike, a merger, or an argument with a colleague, they are likely to irrationally escalate their commitment to their chosen course of action, long after it has proven useful. We desperately try to recoup our past investments in a dispute (such as money spent on legal fees), failing to recognize that such “sunk costs” should play no role in our decisions about the future.
- Conflict avoidance: Because negative emotions cause us discomfort and distress, we may try to tamp them down, hoping that our feelings will dissipate with time. In fact, conflict tends to become more entrenched, and parties have a greater need for conflict resolution when they avoid dealing with their strong emotions.
- Negotiation: In conflict resolution, you can and should draw on the same principles of collaborative negotiation that you use in deal making. For example, you should aim to explore the interests underlying parties’ positions, such as a desire to resolve a dispute without attracting negative publicity or to repair a damaged business relationship. In addition, determine your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA—what you will do if you fail to reach an agreement, such as finding a new partner or filing a lawsuit. By brainstorming options and looking for tradeoffs across issues, you may be able to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to your dispute without the aid of outside parties.
- Mediation: In mediation, disputants enlist a trained, neutral third party to help them come to a consensus. Rather than imposing a solution, a professional mediator encourages disputants to explore the interests underlying their positions. Working with parties both together and separately, mediators seek to help them discover a resolution that is sustainable, voluntary, and nonbinding.
- Arbitration: In arbitration, which can resemble a court trial, a neutral third party serves as a judge who makes decisions to end the dispute. The arbitrator listens to the arguments and evidence presented by each side, then renders a binding and often confidential decision. Although disputants typically cannot appeal an arbitrator’s decision, they can negotiate most aspects of the arbitration process, including whether lawyers will be present and which standards of evidence will be used.
- Litigation: In civil litigation, a defendant and a plaintiff face off before either a judge or a judge and jury, who weigh the evidence and make a ruling. Information presented in hearings and trials usually enters the public record. Lawyers typically dominate litigation, which often ends in a negotiated settlement during the pretrial period.
In general, it makes sense to start off less-expensive, less-formal conflict resolution procedures, such as negotiation and mediation, before making the larger commitments of money and time that arbitration and litigation often demand. Conflict-resolution training can further enhance your ability to negotiate satisfactory resolutions to your disputes.
The Five Steps to Conflict Resolution
Step 1: Identify the source of the conflict. The more information you have about the cause of the conflict, the more easily you can help to resolve it. To get the information you need, use a series of questions to identify the cause, like, “When did you feel upset?” “Do you see a relationship between that and this incident?” “How did this incident begin?”
Step 2: Look beyond the incident. Often, it is not the situation but the perspective on the situation that causes anger to fester and ultimately leads to a shouting match or other visible—and disruptive—evidence of a conflict.
Step 3: Request solutions. After getting each party’s viewpoint on the conflict, the next step is to get each to identify how the situation could be changed. Again, question the parties to solicit their ideas: “How can you make things better between you?”
Step 4: Identify solutions both disputants can support. You are listening for the most acceptable course of action. Point out the merits of various ideas, not only from each other’s perspective, but in terms of the benefits to the organization. (For instance, you might point to the need for greater cooperation and collaboration to effectively address team issues and departmental problems.)
Step 5: Agreement. The mediator needs to get the two parties to shake hands and agree to one of the alternatives identified in Step 4. Some mediators go as far as to write up a contract in which actions and time frames are specified. However, it might be sufficient to meet with the individuals and have them answer these questions: “What action plans will you both put in place to prevent conflicts from arising in the future?” and “What will you do if problems arise in the future?”
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