Working with Conflict

Given conflict is a normal, expected and inevitable across all elements of our lives, how do we work better with conflict and use it as an opportunity? Rikki Mawad writes how understanding conflict, improving communication, self-awareness and changing behaviour are the foundations for conflict competency.


Understanding Conflict

What do we mean when we say ‘conflict’? The Latin origins of the word define it as a ‘striking together’ or a ‘contest’. Most of us understand it to be a serious disagreement or a fight but it is also simply an incompatibility of positions, needs and or interests. It is when we don’t manage these incompatibilities and differences that they become misunderstandings which become disagreements which lead to discord, polarization and then move from uncomfortable to crisis point.

The best way to work with conflict is at the earliest point, which also requires us to understand the Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioural (Mayer, 2000) dimensions of conflict. When our belief or understanding of what we need or want is incompatible with someone else’s (cognitive), this causes an emotional reaction or interaction that results in a disagreement (emotion) which makes us act to get our needs met in a way that may impact on others (behaviour). These dimensions are complex and not always easy to observe but highlight why we need not to just look at the surface of a conflict situation – but also look deeply at what needs, interests, perceptions and emotions are driving behaviour by all parties to a conflict. Through communication about these elements in a conflict situation there is the opportunity to create shared understanding of the issue and then identify possible solutions.

Improving Communication

Most conflict arguably happens based on a lack of or weak communication – this can be both a miscommunication, a lack of information, misunderstanding, tone of communication, mode of communication or even a lack of listening.  We all have different communication styles and preferences and in turn, we have different conflict styles. Some of us are conflict avoiders and ignore a conflict or a person, some of us accommodate the other person and just give in to their request. Others are competitors, actively trying to win at all costs, while some of us compromise and others collaborate. While there isn’t a ‘best’ response to conflict, effective conflict management generally builds on a collaborative approach through which the parties to a conflict work with that conflict and with each other to find a mutually acceptable outcome. The collaborative approach necessitates clear, strategic communication between the parties as it requires us to consider all the issues, needs and interests at play to then work towards a solution that meets those needs.

Effective communication, requires us to take account of both the facts and feelings but also to align intent and impact – which is increasingly difficult when we rely on email rather than face to face conversation. We need to check in about what we actually know about a situation or issue, what we have assumed, the evidence available to us and what information we might be missing. This is important if we are both a party to a conflict or if we are assisting people who are in conflict.

Consider a workplace conflict example where a whole team have submitted leave requests for the school holidays. The Manager logs into the approvals system and automatically approves leave for staff with the highest leave liability and denies the rest thinking that is fair and leaving a balance in the office. The team however, are all unhappy with the decision.  Those who have had leave approved feel bad their colleagues can’t take time out and the rest are irritated because they believe that they could all take leave or reduce their hours and still staff the office. The Manager’s automatic decision without consultation denied the team the opportunity to discuss their needs and find the best fit for everyone during that holiday period.


Working better with conflict requires us to look at our own role in a situation and to better understand ourselves. Whenever we seek to point to others as the source of conflict, we are ignoring the fact that there are always three of those fingers pointing right back at us – as individuals or organisations. As well as pointing to others as the cause of conflict, we also need to look at ourselves and ask ourselves – what we have done, what we could have done and asked ourselves what we would do differently next time. Being self-aware is not only about our own positions and needs about also recognising those of other party/ies to a conflict.

If we continue with the workplace example,  a self-aware Manager might reflect on what they did, what they could have done and what would they need to do now. Is it too late to meet with the team to talk about holiday leave? How could better communication have enabled the team to work with the Manager to generate a better outcome for everyone? What will the Manager do differently when making decisions about staff leave?

Changing Behaviour

We all have standard responses to conflict, so the final step in the process is about changing our behaviour, reflecting on patterns and harnessing increased self-awareness to break habits to explore new ways to work with conflict. As part of this we can stop being reactive and start being responsive, make considered choices and communicate clearly and effectively – which includes both listening and talking. In any conflict situation, while we can hope that with self-awareness all of us can be better communicators and conflict competent, all we can actually take responsibility for is ourselves, our behaviour and our response in a situation.

In responding to the dissatisfied team, the Manager has the opportunity to work differently with staff to balance leave requests and workplace priorities. Where the Manager can see a potential conflict over leave, rather than unilaterally deciding who can take that time working differently could involve a conversation with staff about their needs and interests underlying their requests.

Conflict Competency

It is through understanding conflict, understanding ourselves, improving communication and our own behaviour in a conflict situation that we become conflict competent. Competency also requires us to listen to and understand the needs and perspectives of others, opening space for mutual gain through collaboration.