Four-step guide on effective conflict management

In Summary

•Conflict management is critical in personal, business, and work-life.

•When done effectively, it can create an environment of trust, and reduce stress, demotivation, and general dissatisfaction. 


Conflict happens every day

Conflict takes on different forms. From the everyday misalignment with your spouse on what brand of toothpaste to buy to a more dramatic stalemate between two warring countries. At work, it can look like a blame game between interdependent employees, or fundamentally disagreeing with your boss on your performance review.

Women are sometimes unfairly generalized to be one of two extremes during conflict: either emotionally eruptive, or docile. At the same time, women have been at the centre of monumental peace-making moments globally, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee in Liberia. Additionally, women played a central role in conflict resolution in many traditional Kenyan societies.

So, What is Conflict?

Conflict is defined by Merriam-Webster as the competitive or opposing action of incompatibles, or an antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons). Conflict can occur within self (intrapersonal), with others (interpersonal), within groups (intragroup), and across groups (intergroup). According to American psychologist Daniel Katz, conflict may arise from three different sources: economic, value, and power.

Conflict management is critical in personal, business, and work-life. When done effectively, it can create an environment of trust, and reduce stress, demotivation, and general dissatisfaction. Simply put, conflict management reduces negative outcomes of conflict while increasing the positive. There are four practical steps to effectively managing conflict.

  • Recognize
  • Manage
  • Act
  • Get feedback

Step 1: Recognise the conflict

You can only manage what you know exists, and thus the first step in mitigating the effects of conflict is recognizing that conflict is occurring or likely to occur. It is critical to recognize;

1) The presence of conflict

2) The source of conflict.

Conflict can brew in oneself, other parties, or both. Emotions are one sure-fire tell-tale sign to be mindful of. Do you feel angry, guilty, anxious, or fearful? These can be a direct result of conflict. In other parties, emotion can be observed through body language, tone, language choice, and curtness.

Step 2: Manage self

While you may not be able to manage others’ responses during conflict, you can manage your own. In attempting to defuse a tense situation, it is crucial to pause and ground oneself. Before taking any action, or saying anything, calm yourself. This can be done by taking a few deep and mindful breaths, redirecting your thoughts, and holding one’s tongue. If the situation has already escalated, respectfully stepping away from a moment can be prudent.

Step 3: Act on the conflict

This is the part you have probably been waiting for. You have determined that there is a conflict, and you have managed your own emotions. What next? Now act. But how?

In 1974, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann published the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) that outlines five conflict resolution strategies that people use to handle conflict. The five strategies are a factor of ‘cooperativeness’ and ‘assertiveness’. The strategies are: avoiding, competing, accommodating, collaborating, and compromising.

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument TKI Conflict Model

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument TKI Conflict Model.
The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument TKI Conflict Model.
  • Avoiding: This involves pulling away or ignoring the conflict without resolving it. If a conflict is heated, it may be a wise strategy to adopt. If the benefit of resolving the conflict is low, then one may choose to use this too. However, it can lead to festering issues if the conflict is not revisited and adequately handle.
  • Competing: This is an aggressive strategy, often used when one or more of the parties ‘want to win’. It is one of the trickiest positions to be in. This strategy is unhealthy and does not allow for the hearing of more than one perspective. In conflict, be introspective and determine if you are employing this tactic. If you realize that you are competing, try and pivot to one of the other strategies. If you recognize that the person you are conflicting with is employing a competing strategy, try to adopt one of the next three strategies. If all else fails, you may choose to ‘avoid’ if the stakes are low for you. 
  • Accommodating: Here, one party gives in to the wishes or demands of another. If you have been wrong, or learn new information that changes your position, you should probably adopt this strategy. This strategy should not be used as a way of avoiding conflict, however, as it can lead to the same issues as ‘Avoiding’.
  • Collaborating: This is one of the sweet spots. It drives towards co-creating a solution. Collaborating typically plays out when all parties are cooperative and assertive. While collaborating can be highly effective, it can only happen successfully if all parties are open-minded and emotionally mature.
  • Compromising: In this approach, each party makes concessions until everyone involved is ‘happy enough’. It requires good mediation skills and tact to understand each parties motives and propose something that works for all. Compromise is generally viewed as being fair and can be an effective strategy.

The above five strategies are only guidelines. In any given conflict, you can move across more than one of the five depending on the situation. Emotional intelligence is a critical enabler for this.

Step 4: Get feedback

So you have now acted and hopefully settled a conflict. It is important to have a feedback mechanism to assess the success of your efforts. Was a mutual understanding reached? Have the issues resurfaced? Are there festering sentiments? Have all involved parties amicably moved on? Depending on the answers to the above questions, the conflict resolution cycle may repeat - Recognise, Manage, Act, Feedback.

Wamuyu is a management consultant with broad experience supporting businesses, NGOs, and investors across sub-Saharan Africa. She is also the founder of Ataare Advisors, a Kenyan-based company that helps MSMEs in Africa solve their toughest business problems in order to build profitable and sustainable businesses. You can connect with Ataare Advisors via their website, Linked In or Instagram and learn about their services and programs. Join WomenWork today to network with professionals like Wamuyu.

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