Introduction to Conflict Management

The purpose of this course is to help you develop a better understanding of negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy and how they can serve as powerful tools in your career for achieving the most advantageous outcomes for yourself and others. These three skills are specialized topics within the general practice of conflict management. Mastering them will begin in turn by familiarizing yourself with what conflict management is, why it matters, and how it is best practiced.

Conflict management is a necessary skill to have in order to resolve situations in which the interests of two or more individuals or parties are seemingly at odds.1 This skill is needed whether you are one of the parties in conflict or intermediating on someone’s behalf. Therefore, conflict management primarily involves communication methods that will help one resolve disputes strategically, productively, and amicably. Before we begin, here are some situations in which conflict management may become necessary:

  • Negotiating a raise with your employer

  • Mediating a dispute between two coworkers

  • Resolving a conflict brought up by HR

  • Settling a disagreement among family members

  • Achieving diplomacy between two nations

  • Balancing and solidifying international relations among a coalition of states

As you can see, conflict management is a widely applicable and highly transferable skill with a broad range of uses and relevant contexts. It will serve as a valuable asset to have in your communications toolbox no matter where your life and career may take you.

Figure 1.1: Conflict management is useful in a variety of situations, including times when opinions and emotions run strong in group discussions.

Image by Cherrydeck via Unsplash.

Defining Conflict Management

Learning a new concept always begins with definitions, so it will help us a great deal to have a clear working definition of what is meant by conflict management.

For our purposes, we can define conflict as a disagreement or contest that arises from two or more opposing or incompatible needs, motivations, wishes, drives, or demands.2 We can define management as the practice or process of handling, directing, organizing, and conducting things or people.3

With these two definitions in mind, conflict management is then the practice of handling, directing, organizing, and conducting a disagreement which results from two or more opposing or incompatible needs, motivations, wishes, drives, or demands.

Ultimately, the purpose of conflict management is to resolve conflicts in a manner that minimizes the negative outcomes and maximizes the positive outcomes for everyone involved.4 This will deliver the greatest possible benefit to the largest number of parties. Successful conflict management necessitates recognizing and handling disputes and conflicts of interest in a fair, evenhanded, and rational manner.

In any context, conflict management relies on effective and adept communication skills and problem-resolving abilities. In the context of a business environment or organizational setting, conflict management ought to aim for not only satisfying the disputing parties, but also showing that conflict does not have to be an inherently negative outcome. It can be positive so long as the people involved can learn as a group from the way that conflict has been managed. Being able to do this with any instance of conflict management will benefit the overall effectiveness and performance of those in the organization.

Now that we have our definitions in hand, we can venture forth into the following subtopics which will teach you the importance and benefits of skillful conflict management.

Why Is Conflict Management Important?

By nature, people are driven by their own individual motivations and desires and are influenced by their own inherent biases and perspectives.5 As a result, everyday life itself is rife with countless opportunities for the needs and objectives of people to be at odds, which inevitably leads to conflict.

Most of the time, when people want something that is limited or scarce, it can create conflict. This can partly explain the prevalence of conflict in the world. In fact, many studies have shown scarcity to be highly influential in determining the desirability of something or someone.6 Furthermore, the nature of conflict tends to evoke an immediate negative emotional response in anyone caught in it, mostly due to the possibility of not having one’s needs, motivations, wishes, drives, or demands met. This dynamic further complicates effective conflict management because negative emotional responses such as anger, sadness, or resentment can themselves both exacerbate existing conflicts and become additional conflicts in and of themselves.

Therefore, deepening your understanding of the nature of conflict and learning how it can be managed effectively will help you calm your own emotional response to a given conflict and approach it with greater objectivity.7 This will afford you the opportunity to slow down and focus on the particulars of any given conflict. Then you can apply the right communication techniques to engage with the other party or parties in the most positive manner possible to reach a resolution. Having the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral toolset to improve the outcomes of conflicts will help you consistently reduce the overall risk of negative and undesirable occurrences, such as conflict escalation or lasting relationship damage. It will also help you develop more effective, innovative, and lasting solutions to current and potential sources of conflict. The result will be stronger partnerships in both your work and interpersonal relationships.

Managing conflict is something that not everyone does well. The ability to manage conflicts in this fashion consistently and confidently will give you a competitive market advantage in any field or industry.8 Having mastery of conflict management will prove to be an incredibly helpful skill when it comes to advocating for your interests, accomplishing your own goals and plans, and assisting others in doing so for themselves. On a personal level, conflict management will help you avoid the unnecessary stress and breakdowns in communication that tend to come with something as emotionally charged as conflict. It will help you to effectively strive for your desired outcomes. On a global scale, effective conflict management reduces discord and establishes agreement, which works in its own way toward making a more peaceful world.

What Are the Benefits of Conflict Management?

A truly exhaustive account of all of the many benefits of conflict management would require more space and time than is available to us in this lesson. Here we will focus on some of the most immediate and significant benefits of conflict management, particularly in the context of work, commerce, and business.

Conflict Management Leads to Increased Productivity and Goal Accomplishment

Since the goal of conflict management is the resolution of a dispute while delivering the most benefits possible to those involved, naturally, conflict management works toward people achieving their goals.9 Conflict can be time-consuming and stress-inducing, so the successful management of conflict will minimize these negative outcomes and in turn increase overall productivity. For example, a company that has established rigorous practices for conflict management will spend less time dealing with the fallout of unmanaged conflict; avoid additional conflict; and produce a more coherent, coordinated, and cooperative workforce. A culture of conflict management will nurture and facilitate a more open and innovative climate in which personalities and disagreements do not unnecessarily hinder new ideas, developments, and growth.

As a student of conflict management, you will develop an intuitive understanding of what impediments you may encounter and how to overcome them when it comes to achieving your own personal goals. This way you can accomplish more without becoming embroiled in unnecessary disputes. It will also make you a far more effective communicator in general, which will be useful to you in any field.

Conflict Management Establishes and Enhances Relationships

While conflict itself can tend to entrench each party in their own needs or beliefs, the process of conflict management can unite the parties by acknowledging each other’s positions and encouraging problem-solving together. In this regard, conflict management can help individuals shift from an “I” mindset to a more empathetic and cooperative “we” mindset.10

Successful conflict management achieves a resolution between two or more disputing parties. It helps to establish a relationship between these parties, even insofar as their commitment to maintaining this resolution. In this regard, conflict management even opens up the possibility of making constructive improvements in relationships and agreements. In the absence of proactive conflict management, there are only ever two possible outcomes: stagnancy or further breakdown. But when parties are able to work out their differences and reach compromises, the stage is set for further positive development in the long run.

Conflict Management Drives Innovation

While most people consider conflict wholly negative or without positive value, this is only the case when it comes to conflict that goes unresolved or unmanaged. The truth is, the resolution of conflicting opinions in disputes can frequently reveal new, unconsidered perspectives. Conflict management requires the parties involved not only to express their own particular position and considerations but also to hear out the stance of the party with whom they are in conflict. This exercise encourages exactly the kind of open-mindedness and flexible thinking that can sometimes give rise to the best ideas. Many times, a truly imaginative solution can only come from the kind of discussion and resolution that conflict management necessitates.

Conflict Management Mitigates Risk

On the flip side, the negative emotions that come with conflict can be potentially dangerous, as they can inspire hostility, vindictiveness, vandalism, and even crime. Therefore, conflict management is a form of insurance, as it means soothing any dissatisfaction or resentment before it is allowed to fester into something more damaging and permanent. Although we have acknowledged that conflict is natural and a fact of life, that doesn’t make it any less unseemly. Diligent conflict management will help you to project a more positive public image, whether as an individual or as a company.