Resource Toolkit: Conflict Resolution Process
Many challenges involve conflict. This process is one I’ve used often myself, and have taught in training groups. You can use the gist in minor conflict, and the full process in major ones.
Here we move on to human skills which can help you to compost difficult situations. We often regard conflicts as bad, or wrong: actually they’re a normal part of life in the human and natural worlds. Many people find conflicts alarming, and react in fight or flight mode: attacking, or trying to withdraw. While the process below may look quite formal, that’s appropriate for major disputes of many kinds, and you can use the gist of it informally too. I’ve found it helpful in conflicts with neighbours, in community groups, friendships, and at work.
Conflicts are hot situations and like most hot things, they need careful handling to avoid someone being hurt. This three-stage process is drawn from experts in conflict management, such as Edward de Bono. Conflict quickly brings up strong emotions, and deep concerns such as respect and safety. People can move quickly from the facts of the present situation into a habit or pattern. For some people, this can mean getting angry and aggressive, for some it means walking away and cutting off, for others it can mean going very quiet and not expressing their views. Clearly, some conflicts are more big and complex than others. Sometimes you can use these three stages very quickly and simply. In more serious situations, it helps to have more time, and some independent support.
STAGE 1: COOLING
Many conflicts heat up, escalate, and get out of hand very quickly. The basic aim of the cooling stage is to prevent this. There are three main steps to cooling;
Hear the other parties’ feelings: in a conflict, people typically will get more hot, angry and loud as long as they feel that the other party has not heard them. Hearing someone is not the same as agreeing with them! Saying something like, “I can hear that you are very upset about this”, usually helps: you may need to say it several times before the other party can hear you!
Slow the process down: because conflict is uncomfortable for most people, there is a desire to end it quickly. However, this often means that one party imposes power on the other, and there is no real understanding or resolution between the parties. Suggesting that both parties take ‘time out’ for a few minutes, a few hours or even a few days, depending on the scale of the situation, can help to cool the process.
Restore respect: in the early heat of a conflict, people may make angry or insulting comments, which leave the other person feeling disrespected. Try to make good any damage caused by this. For example, you might invite the other person to apologise or at least correct their statements by saying, “when you called me a stupid idiot just a few minutes ago, I felt very upset by that.” An independent person can help a lot at this stage.
STAGE 2: CLARIFYING
This stage begins when both parties’ emotional heat has reduced to a level where they can talk about how to proceed from here, and about the issues and needs they have. The clarifying stage has four aims:
- To deal with any power and safety issues that could prevent true negotiation
- To form an initial agreement on a process to resolve the conflict
- To get all the needs and issues out on the table and understood by both parties
- To develop an atmosphere of trust, safety and collaboration as a basis for the third stage.
Power and Safety Issues: it is common for one party to feel less powerful in a conflict. If so, probably they will feel less safe, less able to negotiate freely. It is up to the party with more power to take the initiative to create a sense of safety.
Agree a process: discussing with each other how to resolve the conflict is hopefully a move from a focus on emotions, to problem-solving together. It may help to agree guidelines on how to keep the emotional heat down for the rest of the process, for example:
- We agree that we will only discuss this face-to-face, we will not ‘negotiate’ by making remarks to other people, or trying to catch the other party informally in other settings.
- We agree to keep all of our discussions totally confidential throughout the process.
- If either party feels emotionally threatened, they can call time out, and suspend the discussions for up to 48 hours.
- We agree that neither party will take any action which might damage the future relationship.
At this stage, seek a provisional agreement on the process for resolving the conflict. For example, an overall time period, when to meet, who should be involved, whether to use a mediator, and so on.
Needs and issues: this should be given plenty of time. The primary aim is to know and understand all the needs and issues of both parties, not to resolve them. It is best to get everything ‘on the table’, including emotional needs/issues.
It can be helpful to talk about how the conflict arose, and why it became so emotionally heated. This enables each party to accept that they played a part in bringing the conflict about, and gets away from the idea that one party is guilty and ‘started it’, and the other is an innocent victim.
The term issues is used here simply to mean any points of conflict between the parties. Here is one way in which the issues can be sorted into categories.
- Factual issues: Many conflicts arise because there is a misunderstanding or partial knowledge of the facts.
- Interest issues: The benefits or outcomes which each party wants from the negotiation.
- Power issues: This includes a sense of power imbalance between the parties, a sense that one has an unfair degree of power, or that each party’s rights need to be renegotiated.
- Value issues: Conflicts as to whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, based on differing beliefs and values.
- Face issues: Emotionally-charged issues affecting the sense of self-esteem.
These categories are in increasing order of difficulty to resolve. Putting the issues into categories like this gives a mediator, or the parties themselves, some guidelines on the order in which to tackle them: as discussed below.
Building collaboration: being heard, and working together on tasks like agreeing objectives, should improve trust and collaboration and lay foundations for the third phase. It is helpful to aim for a few easy ‘early goals’ in this second stage. For example, clearing up some of the factual issues, and creating a sense of give-and- take in negotiating about the norms and the process.
PHASE 3: CONSTRUCTION
The aim in this stage is for the parties to work together to construct a satisfactory solution. This stage can begin once all the aims of the clarifying phase are fulfilled. Here is a checklist of aspects to consider and methods to use.
Bigger picture: seek agreement that both parties are working towards the highest good for the situation as a whole. Ask what will serve the overall vision, the shared view of the outcome.
The solution-designing approach: It is more fruitful to get both parties working as a team to create a new approach which meets future needs, instead of seeking a solution to each historic problem.
Focus on interest and power issues: This is general advice, which would not apply in every situation. Jointly designing solutions to future interest and power needs (see definition in Phase 2) for both parties usually produces a viable outcome to the overall conflict. This may mean leaving the apparently central problem, the ‘hot’ issue that sparked the whole conflict in the first place, parked to one side. This is what many conflict resolution experts in fact advocate.
Mapping the situation: Mapping the whole situation, not just the apparent problem, can help. For example, bring in other parties’ views and needs: for example, other group members, colleagues etc.
Role reversal: Get each party to role-play the other party’s position. At the extreme, and as a ‘game’, get each party to negotiate from the other’s viewpoint.
Composting: It can be very helpful to see the negative feelings, problems or failures highlighted by a conflict as material for composting.
The suspension role: as far as possible, conduct the construction phase on a mutual agreement that all preconditions are suspended, and there are no fixed taboos or assumptions to be considered.