Your approach to conflict resolution can largely determine the outcome. For this reason preparation, with an eye toward understanding both sides of the issue, is key. William Ury, co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, stresses the importance of preparation for negotiation and conflict resolution.
Most negotiations are won or lost even before the talking begins, depending upon the quality of the presentation. People who think they can "wing it" without preparing often find themselves sadly mistaken. Even if they reach agreement, they may miss opportunities for joint gain they might well have come across in preparing. There is no substitute for effective preparation. The more difficult the negotiation, the more intensive your preparation needs to be.
Before you address any conflict, you need as much information as possible. You need to know what is true and what information is missing. You need to be keenly aware of your worldview and how it influences your perspective on the situation, what psychologists call "cognitive bias." You need to understand your emotions and how they are affecting your decisions. In addition, you should know the other person's position on these points, as well. Try to empathize with the other person. How would she describe the problem and the history of what's going on between you? What are her cognitive biases, as best you can predict? How is she likely to be feeling? However unattractive the prospect may seem at the time, it's crucial to make an honest attempt at seeing the conflict from the other person's perspective.
William Ury, Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation, rev. ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 16.
Creating an Action Plan for Addressing Conflict
When I'm facing a serious conflict, I create an action plan for resolving it, as I do for any difficult problem I'm facing (see fig. 1). You may have your own process. What's important is to take the time in advance to work it through.
Figure 1: Assessing Conflict
State the problem. In the clearest terms possible, I describe the problem, who is involved, and why—and make sure it's not just a symptom of a larger problem. I think through the history—all that has happened to lead me to this pivotal place. What events have played a role in this conflict?
Consider the impact. I then look to see how the conflict is affecting my business, my personal relationships, or other areas of my life. What is the financial (and social) impact on my business? If I don't deal with the conflict, what do I project will happen?
Acknowledge your role. What role have I been playing in the conflict thus far? This is the most challenging part of the exercise, because it forces me to identify my own accountability in a situation in which I believe I'm "right." (And I very well may be.)
Describe your ideal result. I try to be clear about what I want. In the best of all worlds, if I were to successfully work through the conflict, what would my best result look like? After going through the steps above, I sometimes have a different result in mind than when I started.
Identify your obstacles. What's getting in the way of resolving this conflict? The biggest barrier to getting past the conflict may be me. I also look at it from others’ points of view, and what their barriers might be.
Create your strategies. I identify strategies for confronting and overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of resolving the conflict.
Predict likely outcomes. In advance, I identify the likely outcomes of confronting the conflict, including worst- and best-case scenarios, as well as some in between.
I find it helpful in this kind of exercise to repeatedly ask the quintessential journalist's question, Why? Why is this a problem in the first place? Why have I contributed to the problem? Why is this the result that I want? The more times I ask why, the better I understand the true issue at hand.
Addressing the Other Side
Once you have prepared yourself, it's time to address the other person, or persons, involved. Sometimes, if it's a particularly challenging issue, it may be helpful to script out the conversation in advance. And always, if at all possible, meet in person—if necessary, in a moderated environment. In an ideal world, the conversation would progress as follows:
State the situation as you see it. Calmly share with the other person your perspective on what is going wrong and the history behind it, including the facts (as you believe them to be) and what is at stake. Acknowledge that this is your perspective on the situation, and, if possible, offer your best, most respectful description of what you believe to be her perspective. Talk through what you see to be getting in the way of resolution, but refrain from suggesting solutions early in the conversation.
Be accountable for your role in the situation. Even if you believe you are in the right, you've likely had some role in letting the conflict reach the point that it has. For example, perhaps you could have approached the other person sooner. Facilitate the other person's acceptance of his accountability by setting the example.
Get feedback. Ask the other person to describe the situation and its history from her perspective—what she believes to be the facts and the issues at stake. Be calm and open-minded; if not empathetic, at least try to be compassionate and understanding.
Mutually decide on a resolution. Having stated your case, take turns with the other person in describing how you would like to see the situation resolved. Show your commitment to reaching a compromise and work with the other person to reach a solution that satisfies you both.
Of course, it would be wonderful if these steps would work without fail, that after it all you'd both head off for coffee, laughing and wondering why you ever argued in the first place. In an ideal world, all conflicts would be resolved so easily. But despite our best efforts to be calm and rational, the fact is that emotion is inherent in conflict. That's not to say that there isn't any value in doing your best to follow the steps outlined above. In fact, they've helped me to better resolve many conflicts both at my company and at home.
But all too often, someone throws you a curveball during the process and all bets are off. I remember one situation involving a conflict with a friend. I did all my homework. I identified the problem and its history, knew the stakes, accepted full responsibility for my role, and had my ideal resolution in mind. My friend and I agreed to meet, one-on-one. All systems go. Ten minutes into the conversation, however, I was shouting at my friend (and I'm not even the yelling type), who in turn stormed out of my office. This person was flat-out refusing to get past our issues, refused to accept accountability, and, damn it, I wouldn't stand for it! How quickly our emotions can get the better of us.
Frankly, there is no fool-proof prescription for conflict resolution. The best you can do is thoroughly prepare yourself and truly commit to working toward a solution that serves the interests of all parties as much as possible. Use the steps above to help keep you on track.
And what if you still find yourself at an impasse? Well, unfortunately, the truth is that not all conflicts can be settled. There are times when people, and organizations, can't come to a mutual agreement that satisfies the win-win objective. Some intraorganizational disputes are intractable; or, at the very least, one conversation isn't going to be sufficient to resolve the situation. When you find yourself in these kinds of situations, it's easy to feel trapped. However, you can strive to look beyond the obvious and not disavow the ownership you have over your choices. Some of the options may not be desirable, but you still have the power to decide. The one choice you shouldn't make, however, is to wallow in the situation, to remain stuck at the impasse. Decide for yourself whether there is a creative solution you can commit to, or if you should simply move on. At some point we all have to choose our battles.
Some of the best work on dealing with organizational conflict is from Chris Argyris, a member of the Harvard faculty with joint appointments in education and business. Through his extensive research on organizational dynamics, Argyris acknowledges the problem of prescriptive, step-by-step advice on dealing with problems between people. He advises uncovering what is below the surface: the things people think but don't say, the mental models we assume as fact but are untested assumptions; the willingness to challenge and be challenged. See also the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project and, specifically, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), for an excellent guide to handling the most challenging workplace and personal conflicts.