Ronald Reagan once said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” We know that in any situation, conflict is possible, and resolution doesn’t mean avoidance of conflict. To create a positive and productive workplace, we need conflict management skills.
The question is, how? Conflict is always unpleasant for both participants and bystanders. As a leader, it often falls on you to lead by example — and that means you must both model and facilitate the correct behavior.
Sweeping conflict under the rug is rarely a good strategy. As Reagan noted, peace emerges when you handle conflict well. If you haven’t honed your conflict resolution skills yet, don’t worry: they can take years to learn!
So, which conflict management skills are the most important in the workplace? And which strategies are best for managers and leaders? How can you get better at conflict resolution? Let’s find out.
What Are Conflict Management Skills?
Conflict management describes your ability to equitably address workplace conflicts and help your team members resolve their issues with each other. As a workplace leader, you often take on the role of “mediator” or “liaison.” This can be tricky as you must remain impartial and guide your employees toward harmony.
To help you on that journey, here are some of the core conflict management skills you should develop.
We’re often told to “stick to the facts,” and it’s certainly essential to keep a level head when addressing conflict. As a mediator, you must remain neutral and constructive. It takes common sense and rational thought to sift through the claims and objectively mediate the situation.
However, you need more than factual intelligence. Virtually all conflict stems from misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Therefore, you must look beneath the surface and leverage your emotional intelligence. Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined this term to describe how we perceive and respond to others’ attitudes and feelings. It’s the foundation of empathy — and as people in conflict are rarely driven by logic, empathy is vital to your conflict management skills.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) enables you to manage both your and others’ emotions — manage, not control. You cultivate an environment that allows others to express their feelings. That alone can dispel many misunderstandings. Add empathy to the mix, and you can address the root cause of a conflict.
Considering the benefits of EQ, it’s no wonder that 90% of top performers score high on emotional intelligence.
Empathy is also a key ingredient in active listening, another crucial tool for conflict management. When mediating a conflict, both parties should feel wholly heard and understood. This means that you, as a leader, must (a) step back and allow them to speak and (b) be completely present during the conversation.
Both skills require emotional intelligence, as you need to manage your responses while showing empathy. Finally, active listening is the art of balancing verbal and nonverbal feedback while creating a safe environment for constructive conversation.
Develop a keen awareness of how you respond to both parties. It’s too easy to let your preferences or implicit bias shape the interaction. For example, if you regularly nod while Party A speaks but look away or disengage while Party B does so, you have already sent a clear signal that you care more about Party A.
Mediating a conversation and listening to complaints is only half the battle (pun not intended). Very few conflicts can get resolved so quickly. That’s partly because issues often brew for a while before bubbling to the surface. By the time your employees sit down together, they may have a complex history of direct and passive conflict.
Make no mistake: you should focus on the present issues rather than allowing the conversation to devolve into a laundry list of grievances. Set a clear outcome for the meeting and keep it within scope. However, you then must create accountability. What did the parties agree to do? How will they check in with each other? What will happen if another challenge arises?
This is what we call communication engineering: you create a framework for understanding and compromise, with mutual checks on their progress. As the conflict is often multifaceted, you’ll also need to forge a path for continued improvement. Ensure that lines of communication stay open. For complex disputes, make a plan for addressing all grievances and finding a way forward.
Remember, most conflict stems from misunderstandings or negative feelings. By resolving each root cause over time, you can prevent further issues from developing.
What are conflict resolution skills?
Of course, you’re not immune to conflict. Whether you’re an executive, manager, or customer service agent, you must know how to ease stressful situations — and respond professionally and constructively to antagonists. There will always be button-pushers and unhappy colleagues or employees to address. Conflict resolution skills can help you navigate these challenges.
Many of the conflict management skills listed above double as conflict resolution skills. However, here are a few additional skills to cultivate:
There have recently been many media discussions about gaslighting, a behavior in which one person attempts to convince another that their feelings or observations are incorrect. While this is a harmful tactic, it can sometimes be accidental. Affirmation has a place in conflict resolution – if you don’t affirm or acknowledge the other person’s concerns, it’s easy to seem like you’re dismissing their feelings and inserting your narrative.
Be aware of how you respond to a conflict. One way to practice affirmation is to borrow the concept of “yes, and” from the world of improv theatre. Improvisational performers are taught to acknowledge and build upon each other’s contributions. So, for example, if one actor grabs a box and says, “Wow, a treasure chest!” the other actor shouldn’t say, “No, that’s a computer.” Instead, they say, “Yes, AND we should see what’s inside!”
Similarly, when someone shares a grievance, resist the urge to correct them. Instead, respond with “Yes, AND I’d like to see how I can help.”
We all like to be right — but when conflict arises, your priority should be to resolve the issue rather than proving your rightness. Be willing to take a step back from your ideas and emotions and listen to the other person’s perspective. You may even realize that you were wrong — or that you’re talking about two different issues!
More importantly, know when to apologize and forgive. Remove your ego from the apology: it’s okay if you don’t reach a complete agreement as long as you find a place of peace.
Respect the other person by keeping your conflict private and addressing it in a neutral space, e.g., a conference room rather than in one of your offices. Ideally, you have your conversation away from other people; an impartial mediator is acceptable.
Then, show that you prioritize resolution and compromise by limiting what you say to others about the conflict. As the saying goes, don’t air your dirty laundry.
How do I improve my conflict management skills?
While training and coaching can help, your best conflict resolution skills will develop with practice. As with any education, you must be willing to abandon your assumptions and open your mind to new concepts. There is currently a significant paradigm shift toward inclusive, equitable workplaces that embrace conflict management skills and plenty of peer-reviewed research into work psychology and team-building.
In short, there’s always more to learn as a leader. We recommend setting clear goals for your professional development. How would refining your conflict resolution skills look for you? What’s most vital to your overall approach and philosophy? Use the SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) to define your goals for conflict management.
Whether you’d like to get better at active listening, learn to defuse arguments, create a more inclusive workplace with a healthy team, or all three, it’s worth your while to invest in conflict resolution training. Empathy, communication, and mediation can all be taught.
As a leader, your growth can continually take you to new heights in your professional development. When you can confidently manage workplace conflicts, you empower your team to do their best work — and feel valued and supported at every turn.
Are you interested in developing or refining your conflict management skills? Reach out to me and book a call to explore the next steps of your leadership journey.