Conflict Resolution Techniques

The following approaches to conflict management were introduced by Mary Parker Follett in her Constructive Conflict publication in 1926.  Despite the 80+ years that have elapsed since then, these approaches are relevant today.  These 5 approaches to conflict each have a time and place, but in most cases the ultimate goal is to achieve a consensus.

Avoidance Approach

Stay out of conflict; remain neutral on issues.  Employed by individuals that do not have enough invested in the issue to see value in the conflict.  Often used when the conflict is not critical or is perceived to be beyond their capacity to manage.

When to use: How to Respond:
Minor conflicts where team members have already begun to formulate constructive resolutions. Managers may not add value to all conflicts, and may foster greater leadership in team members by allowing these members to resolve conflicts. Find potential “wins” for these individuals. Provide incentive to engage them in the process of resolution.  Avoidance is usually detrimental in obtaining valuable resolution to conflict.


 

Domination Approach

Remain singularly focused on one resolution to a conflict.  These individuals will not readily yield and often fail to recognize the value of alternatives.

When to use: How to Respond:
Only when project success depends on the outcome.  Domination will not build good relationships and will leave sole accountability for outcome upon the Manager. Remain focused on the real objectives and put conflict into perspective.  Identify the merits of the dominator’s position, and seek to demonstrate places where their position complies with conflicting ideas.  Let them recognize that they can “win” without others losing.


 

Accommodation Approach

Entirely yielding to the conflicting point of view.  Seeking to preserve personal relationships even when it does benefit project tasks and objectives.

When to use: How to Respond:
Should only be used infrequently, and on issues of little relevance to the project success.  Can be used as a tool of diplomacy with client sponsors on minor issues, but should never be used on any significant issue. Emphasize the significance of project objectives, and demonstrate solutions where by personal relationships can benefit from the continued success of the project.


 

Compromise Approach

Assumes that no solution can be achieved that will yield complete satisfaction for all participants involves. Attempts to balance personal relationships and project success when one or both may be compromised in the conflict.

When to use: How to Respond:
Is appropriate when the effort involved in resolving differences is not worth the time it will take.  This approach only applies when each participant has a fundamentally valid position and the differences are not significant. Determine whether a true consensus can be achieved. If so, reinforce through merits of their position and constructively guide the conflict into a free communicating environment where the consensus can be pursued.


 

Consensus Approach

Mutual agreement and understanding between all conflicting parties.  Leads to project success while simultaneously reinforcing personal relationships.  Is often the lengthiest resolution to a conflict, but produces the most favorable results.

When to use: How to Respond:
For all major conflicts seek to build consensus. It yields the strongest buy-in for all parties involved and typically produces the strongest solution. Only when decisions must be made in a very short time frame should Managers avoid consensus. Encourage consensus, even in relatively minor conflicts. The potential synergistic value is worth the additional time it takes to yield a true consensus.


 

Any group"s goal should be to reach decisions that best reflect the thoughts of all group members. This approach is called "reaching consensus”. However, many people use this phrase without an understanding of its true meaning. It is easy to be confused about what consensus is and is not, so here are some guidelines:

  • Consensus Is:
    • Finding a proposal acceptable enough that all members can support it; no member opposes it.
  • Consensus Is Not:
    • A Unanimous Vote --- a consensus may not represent everyone"s first priorities.
    • A Majority Vote --- in a majority vote, only the people in the majority gets something they are happy with; people in the minority may get something they don"t want at all, which is not what consensus is all about.
    • Everyone Totally Satisfied.
  • Consensus Requires:
    • Time & active participation of all group members
    • Skill in communication: listening, conflict resolution, discussion facilitation
    • Creative thinking and open-mindedness

 

Tools for Conflict Management

Ultimately, consensus is the best tool for conflict management, and for even moderately important conflicts Project Managers should consider reaching a consensus as opposed to any other approach. So how does one seek to achieve consensus? Below is a set of tools and techniques that will aid project managers in achieving a successful consensus.

Assume the Role of Facilitator

In nearly every situation a facilitator is required to bridge the gaps between participants in a conflict and provide open lines of communications. Even when the conflict is between the Project Manager and other team members or client personnel, the Project Manager can potentially serve as a facilitator, but in some cases it may be more beneficial to call on an outside source to facilitate more serious conflicts.

Identify Common Ground

In most cases, participants in a conflict share common objectives, but do not recognize that others share many of the same ideas and convictions. Conflict may often be over a very isolated detail or subsection of the bigger picture. Start by highlighting where viewpoints are shared and build a foundation of assumptions and objectives that are shared between involved parties. This effort will isolate the points of contention and put them into perspective.

Fully Analyze Each Position

Outline the position of each side to the conflict and systematically discuss resolutions on each point. Consensus can only be achieved when all involved parties are satisfied their thoughts have been understood, and can agree on the resolution to individual points.


About the Author 
Mark Hazleton has been active in Information Services delivery for over 20 years. Reach Mark at mark.hazleton@projectmechanics.com

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