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Conflict Resolution — What You Heard Is Not What I Meant!


Preston J. Leavitt, Ph.D., J.D., C.P.M.
Preston J. Leavitt, Ph.D., J.D., C.P.M., 9609 West Gould Avenue, Littleton, CO 80123-2344, 303/973-2625,

86th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 2001 

Abstract. Be creative in your handling, managing, and resolving conflicts. Awareness, willingness, logic, and good listening skills will help you in the variety of conflicts that are inevitable in today's homes and workplaces. When communication breaks down, all parties walk away from the table feeling angry, hurt, and defensive while the issues of conflict remain unresolved. Negotiation, persuasion, and consideration for the individual's true needs are your most powerful tools to help everyone involved in conflict resolution walk away feeling like a winner.

Conflict is that feeling or condition which occurs whenever you face an unpleasant situation created by you or someone else. Conflict differs from "feeling upset" in that conflict always presents at least two possibilities or choices, one or both of which may be agreeable or not agreeable. Conflict can show up in almost any circumstance of our lives. It can be internal — that is, felt by us about an issue in our own mind or it can be external — that is, felt by us and at least one other person. Conflict can be direct and aimed at you or it can be indirect and not aimed at you personally. Conflict usually appears to the people involved as something unpleasant and something that causes the people involved to have mixed feelings and multiple choices.

Conflict is an inevitable and important human process. In times of change, conflicts are likely to increase. If we understand the process and dynamics of conflict, we are better able to deal with a given situation. Moreover, how we deal with conflict situations will determine whether we achieve creative or destructive results. Some of the basics to keep in mind regarding conflict include the following:

  • Human beings see things often not as things are, but as who they are. Our evaluations tend to be subjective.
  • Simplicity does not mean unimportance. The simple and the complex can co-exist side by side.
  • Conflict is a normal part of life. This does not make it right, correct, or justified. It just is that way.
  • Dealing with conflict involves two responses — automatic and learned. Automatic responses include anger, fear, and rejection. These are a part of who you are and your personality. Learned responses offer you a choice when conflict arises.
  • The automatic response to conflict may or may not be alterable. Everyone can change but you must be willing to do so.
  • The learned response to conflict can impact your whole life. Conflict and its sibling, stress, put people into hospitals and graves every day. That can be changed.
  • Humans have certain styles of behavior that dictate our automatic response to conflict. Personality style affects how we react to all life situations. Dealing with conflict is dealing with people.
  • Humans want to resolve their conflicts. Communication is essential for human beings. And with communication, conflict resolution is not far behind.

Psychology breaks conflicts into four general types.

Approach-Approach Conflicts. These are good news conflicts. They involve choices which have to be made from two or more desirable alternatives. These are usually the easiest to resolve.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflicts. These are bad news conflicts. In these conflicts both choices are unpleasant. These are the most difficult to resolve.

Approach-Avoidance Conflicts. These are conflicts that look like good news, but are really bad news. These are difficult because both attraction and repulsion are involved. Often the response to these conflicts is to do nothing.

Double Approach-Avoidance Conflicts. These are good news and bad news conflicts. The choices both have positive and negative pulls to them. Resolution is not easy in these conflicts because there is a tendency to waver between the choices. These are the most common conflicts.

Differences in attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors can result in conflict. And when differences become disagreements, conflict can evolve. Conflict would not occur without one essential ingredient however, and that ingredient is power. Power is the underlying issue in the majority of conflicts. It is the driving force in many adversarial situations. It plays a number of roles in matters where differences are at issue.

Power is the ability to do or to affect something or someone. Power is an individual's potential to influence. Differences that have the potential to escalate into a destructive conflict usually involve the issue of power. Power takes two forms: positional and personal. An individual who induces compliance from others because of their status within an organization has positional power. Influence derived from personality, gender, race, education, and behavior is said to be personal power. While some individuals possess both, others possess none at all.

Power is finite — with respect to resolving differences, it does not have to be perceived in a negative light. Authority is a distinct type of power that finds its base by default, that is, the individual's formal role within an organization. Power can be a matter of perception and therefore is a central component of differences. All of us should realize that we have one or more power bases and that these power bases can shift based on matters of difference. We frequently have choices whether or not to use our power bases to effectively and equitably resolve differences.

Knowing the sources of our power, we can be effective when we choose to use our power bases. The following are the most widely accepted power bases.

  • Coercive Power is based on fear.
  • Connection Power is based on an individual's personal or professional connection with influential or important people.
  • Reward Power is based on an individual's ability to reward others.
  • Legitimate Power is based on an individual's authoritative position.
  • Referent Power is based on personal traits and characteristics.
  • Information Power is based on an individual's possession of, or access to, information that is valuable to others.
  • Expert Power is based on education, knowledge, and possession of expertise or skills that influence others.

What is important is that an individual who tries to influence a group uses the appropriate power base to legitimately persuade others.

Conflicts may arise when differences are not acknowledged, dealt with, and resolved. Differences are viewed as negative factors in conflict resolution. Four sources of differences include: (1) Facts and information. When differences of information or facts are at issue, two parties can see the same facts differently or can disagree on what the facts are. This is the easiest level to manage because it can usually be resolved by sharing information or producing data that are more reliable. (2) Methods. This level presumes there is an agreed-upon common goal. Disagreements are about which strategies will be used to reach the goal. The key is to agree on an acceptable strategy. (3) Goals. Differences occur about achieving specific outcomes in basic goals. Disagreements often center on what should be done. Collaboration, negotiation, and resolution skills can help resolve differences. (4) Values. This is the most difficult to resolve. While the others deal with tangibles, value differences deal with ideology, basic principles, and beliefs. People identify strongly with their values and can be very resistant to changing them.

Different resolution strategies are classified into avoidance, diffusion, and confrontation. Some people attempt to avoid differences or difficult situations altogether. Although avoidance may cover up differences, it does not leave the individual satisfied. Avoiding resolving differences is detrimental to an individual's ability to develop negotiation skills and the self-confidence required to resolve difficult situations. Diffusion delays action, at least temporarily. It can be used to "muddy the waters" which renders confrontation impossible. As with avoidance strategies, diffusion leaves a person dissatisfied and lacking in self-confidence. Confrontation involves facing the differences head on and its strategies involve power and negotiation.

Conflicts occur when differences are not properly managed or resolved. When this happens, the parties view one another as the enemy. As hostility increases, communication ceases to function and differences can become completely irreconcilable. We must learn to "unpack" and assess the situation. In the unpacking process, we use communication tools to resolve differences and disagreements. We must determine how we define the problem and the attitudes people possess about a potential conflict.

Five styles are appropriate for managing differences and resolving conflict. (1) Competition is a power-oriented, win-lose approach. You use whatever power you have available to win. (2) Accommodation is the opposite of competition. When accommodating, you neglect your own differences and yield to those of the other person. (3) Avoidance is postponing the airing of any differences. By avoidance, you choose not to resolve any differences and in this way avoid a confrontation. (4) Compromise is splitting the difference — seeking a middle ground. Both parties get some, but not all, of what they want. (5) Collaboration is win-win, aimed at finding the best possible solution that satisfies the needs of both parties.

There are always several possible solutions to a conflict. The alternative to developing choices is an "all or nothing" mindset. All or nothing players end up with "nothing" far more often than they end up with "all." Conflicts are not won — they are resolved. Resolving involves a permanent disposition of the matter. It means that while people may not be totally happy with the result, they all agree it is over. Resolving means agreeing that choices between potential solutions are desirable.

What determines which of the possible solutions to a conflict is best? The answer is to choose the best workable choice from the possibilities that are available. Then this best workable solution needs to be communicated in a manner that makes it certain to be received. The art of active listening becomes an essential element in this communication process. Most studies indicate that very few people listen. Instead, they are interpreting, judging, preparing their own position, or thinking about something else entirely.

Resolving conflict is about preserving relationships. This process requires that parties acknowledge each other and make every reasonable attempt to look at the value in their relationship and how important that may be even in the context of the conflict. Resolving disputes requires affirmation on the part of all parties that there is value in each of you as an individual, that there may be merit in the position of each, that each has different issues at stake, and that each desires the same thing deep down: resolution of the dispute and preservation of something between you.

The essence of conflict resolution is to honor the legitimate interests of all the persons involved. Preserve and protect the dignity of all that are involved in the conflict. This includes you. In a heated discussion, it's easy to say something demeaning. Keep your focus on issues, not personalities. When you show sincere respect for people who disagree with you, they will be less inclined to be defensive.

When you listen to others' views, put yourself in their shoes. See from their perspective and listen with neutrality that suspends critical judgment. Give your full attention to appreciating why the other person sees the same situation differently from you. Be receptive to more than the words you hear. In a dispute, it is tempting to force or expect others to change their basic orientation or behavioral style. People change basic patterns only with difficulty, only when there is trust, and only when they believe it is in their best interest to change. The only disagreements of any real importance are those that involve people in interdependent relationships where each person depends on the other to get a task done or to gain satisfaction.

Different viewpoints spur the creative search for resolution. When people converge quickly and reach instant agreement, the process is sterile. Nothing new has been added. In resolving conflict, your gift to others is in your independent point of view. Diverse opinions hold the seeds for constructive change. Honor diversity, including your own perspective. This will lead to more and better conflict resolution.

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