Resolve conflict by concentrating on the interests, not the personalities

Picture of two goats locking horns

Very few people enjoy dealing with workplace conflict. But very few workplaces are entirely conflict free. Even in the best of organisations, people can disagree, fall out, or take a dislike to someone or something.

So how do you, faced by two opposing views, stop people from locking horns?

Whatever you may think about the individuals, the positions they are adopting, and the merits or otherwise of their respective cases, you need to focus on maintaining relationships.

So your underlying approach should be to look at the interests of each party, not their personalities or position:

  • What are the interests of each party?
  • Why is a particular interest important?
  • Is there a less obvious underlying interest?
  • What interests are the same or similar?
  • What do the parties want?

Your aim is to help the parties look forwards, not backwards; and you are looking to a range of options that overlap the interests of both parties.

Ideally you want to secure a win-win outcome, where both parties feel they have gained from your efforts at resolution. But sometimes you may be forced to look for a compromise.

Either way, given the likely different interests of each party, it can sometimes help to unbundle them into their component parts. Indeed, this can lead to an early win-win on the least contentious aspect of a particular interest. An early success like this can ease tension and make the idea of agreement more achievable.

Sometimes a party will put forward a solution that might seem unworkable. Don’t immediately disregard it. Leave it on the table, and ask for them to come back with more detail on how it would work in practice.

Alternatively, a party might be willing to trade something. If the other side can do likewise, then you have the basis of solution. Explore the idea further to see if offers can be tweaked to align them with particular interests.

Given what you have found out about the interests of each side, don’t be frightened to offer your own solutions. Having a range of options is helpful, as the more challenging options can help to focus minds on the more workable one. But remember that you are trying to generate options that overlap with the interests of those involved. Finally, remember that whatever is agreed, it has to suit your organisation. In other words, you need to check there will be no negative impact on the other staff and volunteers.

Of course you may not succeed in finding a solution. In that case, recognise what you have achieved and agree to try again another time. Indeed, leaving a problem unresolved might make things worse; and that will surely be bad for everyone involved, including you.

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