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Conflict resolution

Helping Skills

Conflict resolution: the "win-win" or "no lose" method of settling disagreements.

Every relationship has conflicts. However, conflicts do not have to end with someone losing and with both parties hating each other. Many do end this way. That is why we have so many wars, political fights, divorces, lawsuits, business breakups, time and money-wasting arguments at work, etc. Wise persons are able to resolve disagreements with both parties satisfied and respecting each other. It takes real skill.

Begin by understanding that we each have our own way of dealing with conflicts in our lives. Knowing your own style and motives as well as the style and motives of the person you are in conflict with will help you handle the situation. Also it is obvious that self-serving and hostile underlying emotions are often the cause of disputes. The conflict may be a power struggle, a need to prove you are right, a superior attitude, a desire to hurt or "get even," or some other motive.

Current thinking is that people have these conflict resolution styles:

Denying the conflict. Such a person hopes the problem will go away. Usually it doesn't. So, this is a bad approach. But many people take it. Do you?

Many prefer to give in rather than fight. Why? Sometimes they are being a martyr, sometimes scared, sometimes seeking appreciation, etc. In any case, this is another bad approach, because it is unfair, it generates no creative solutions, and usually such an accommodator remains very unhappy.

Some people get mad and blame the other person. “You ignored my authority" or "You are totally unfair" or "You've hurt me and I want to get even," etc. Such a conflict becomes an ugly battle in which they must "get their way" and win at any cost (like in a divorce settlement). This is also a terrible approach because it stops all constructive thinking, is unfair (deceitful, threatening, chauvinistic), and produces lasting hostility.

Other people appear to seek a compromise, i.e. find some middle ground and "work out an agreement." That would be wonderful, if it were entirely true, but sometimes a part of this approach is subtle but deftly trying to win more ground than your opponent. The objective becomes trying to prove you are clever or slick. Thus, political or social pressure, misrepresentation, threats-with-a-smile, and so on may slip in, rather than simply seeking an optimal solution for both sides.

A few people can control their anger, competitive and I-give-up feelings and genuinely seek an innovative, fair, optimal solution for both parties. Take this creative, integrative approach if you can.

It isn't easy to be rational during a conflict. Moreover, it may seem very unlikely that an aggressive person would give up a chance to take advantage of an avoider (style 1) or an accommodating person (style 2). Yet, in the long run, the aggressive person would probably be better off if he/she worked out a fair arrangement, especially if they had an ongoing relationship. In many situations, where there will be a continuing relationship, you can find better solutions to today's specific conflict and also build much better long-lasting working and loving relationships by learning the principles of constructive conflict resolution.

Of course, there are many conflicts in which openness, empathy, and creativity are just not part of the process, such as buying a car, returning an unsatisfactory purchase, or win-lose labor-management negotiations.

"Win-win" negotiating is a complex process for resolving conflicts, a way of fairly settling a disagreement. It isn't getting the best deal for me; it is finding the best solution for us. The conflict could involve a lover, your own children, a parent, a friend, a co-worker, a teacher, a boss, or almost anyone. This involves respectfully discussing as equals the general situation with the other person, so you can understand his/her situation and interests. You must suspend your judgment and needs; you must "hold your fire" and listen to the other side; you must see their viewpoint and know their needs. Integrative solutions require both sides to carefully identify how their preferences are different and how they are similar. Then a solution is built on the similarities--similar ways of doing things, similar values, and similar desired outcomes. Both parties must view the conflict as a problem to be solved by them in the best way possible, not just fairly but optimally, even creatively. You both should be open and honest, not deceptive and manipulative. Trust must be built. You both work hard together to develop a wise, workable, "win-win" solution. It is not easy.

If an attempt to find a cooperative, integrative solution fails, you could seek professional help with the mediation, as in marital mediation. In some cases, you will have no choice except to confront an aggressive opponent. Win-win solutions (integrative) are fair, optimal solutions between reasonable people; tough bargaining is with an untrustworthy, self-serving opponent. In some cases, perhaps win-win negotiating can be combined with tough bargaining methods, but most of the time they are very different processes. It is probably important to know both methods, however, and to be willing to get tough (or empathic) if the situation calls for it.

Purpose: To resolve disagreements as fairly and peacefully as possible. This may involve parent-child or marital conflicts, disagreements at work, business transactions and many other situations.


Start with the right frame of mind.

It is better to view the situation as "two equals trying together to solve our problems" than to think "you will do it my way because I say so." Being in conflict doesn't necessarily mean being mad at each other. It can mean an opportunity to show your wisdom, to create a better situation, to help both of you be winners. Having a negative, distrustful attitude is detrimental to this process; believing you must "win" the argument or otherwise you lose face is a bad attitude; feeling superior or being "hard-nosed" and feeling inferior or being a "soft-touch" are both problems. Start by seeing your opponent as a decent, reasonable person who wants to arrive at a fair solution (until proven otherwise). Deal with him/her with respect. Just as you would separate the person from his/her behavior, separate the person from the conflict the two of you are having.

In this fair and cooperative spirit, invite the other person to sit down and talk it over with you. Even with warring spouses, marriage mediation has proven to be far superior to settling disputes in divorce courts. Lawyers in court do not take a cooperative, integrative problem-solving approach; they take an adversarial, get all you can, let's-prove-who's-wrong approach. If we can control our emotions just a little, however, we can usually work out good solutions.


Have a discussion to understand both sides' problems, conflicts, needs, and preferred outcomes (separating "positions" from "interests"). Be empathic.

It is important to make this first meeting as cordial as possible while being honest and open. Persuading the other person to take the "win-win" approach may take time, especially if the other person is angry. Admit there is a conflict; acknowledge that both of you have legitimate needs and goals. Be respectful and, as much as possible, empathize with each other. Indicate that you are willing to be flexible and open-minded; ask them to be. See if both of you are willing to make a sincere effort to work out an optimal solution, recognizing that neither can have everything he/she wants. If so, arrange to take the time necessary to understand both sides.

Start by clarifying to each other exactly what the conflict or problem involves. Find out what they want. Get all the information the other person has to offer. Ask for all the additional information you need. Don't try to offer solutions now. First, just listen to their side, get all the facts, and give the situation some thought (solutions come next time). Don't try to assess blame but point out anything that seems unfair. Be honest and cordial. Keep on maintaining a good relationship, talk over coffee or take a walk together. Be as understanding, empathic, and sympathetic as you can be (considering that you may be viewed as the villain).

It is important to use "I" statements and avoid blaming "you" statements. Be especially aware of offensive language or attitudes. When describing your hopes for the future, don't just express the benefits you want describe the benefits you hope the other person (or other side) receives too.

Special attention must be given to the causes (try to avoid blaming) of the conflict, as seen by both people. List the things each of you does that have not helped to resolve the conflict. Consider what attempts have been made to resolve the issue before. Also, very specific behavioral descriptions of the desired outcomes should be gotten from both people. At the end of this discussion, both people should understand the exact nature of the disagreements. Be sure you do much more listening than defending or "explaining." Do not, at this point, disagree with the other person's ideas and certainly don't attack or insult them. Listen carefully, and especially listen for points of agreement and for similar goals. It is these agreements that will form the basis for a cooperative plan.

Special attention must also be given to the possible distinction between what changes the other person says they need (their "position") and what they really want (their "interest"). Some examples will help: suppose an employee asks for a higher salary (his/her "position") but the company can't pay it. If you found out that the employee liked the job but his/her "interest" was primarily to get some transportation for his/her family, the company may be able to find extra work or a vehicle for the employee. Suppose a principal wanted to fire a poor teacher ("position") but couldn't because of tenure. If the principal's "interest" (and the poor teacher's goal) was to improve the instruction in the teacher's classroom, there may be many solutions, such as hiring a skillful teaching assistant to help out, co-teaching with a superior teacher, helping the teacher get more training, transferring the teacher to another kind of work, etc. Stating different demands or "positions" does not mean that your basic "interests" are irreconcilable.

Recognize that there are probably many possible solutions that would meet both your "interests" and the other person's "interests." Talk about your shared interests. It helps you avoid thinking you will accept only one solution. Also, avoid feeling competitive and that you must come out on top or get some concession to save face. All of this takes time.


Gather all the additional information you need and think of several options or plans for resolving the conflict and satisfying shared interests. Try brainstorming.

Drawing upon the things you both agree on and upon your shared goals and interests, draft some plans for changing things and for greater cooperation which will maximize the desired outcome for both of you. Have several plans or ideas (to demonstrate your flexibility).

One person, say a parent or a child, may simply ask the other to join in a rational, adult-like effort to resolve a difficulty between them. They are respectful of each other as equals; both contribute to the solution. There is no force, no threats, no crying or whining or other pressure to get one's way, just logic, respect, and consideration of each other. Both accept in advance that the final "solution" must be acceptable to both. No one is put down; everyone wins as much as possible.

If you are negotiating for a promotion or trying to sell an idea, obviously you must amass all the evidence supporting your points. For the promotion, list all of the strengths you bring to the company, what extra responsibilities you will shoulder, how your salary can be made contingent on your productivity, how much support you have from colleagues, etc. Put together your best arguments and present them well. Don't just assume the decision-makers will "consider your merits," even if you say nothing.

If you can't think of good solutions to the conflict, try brainstorming with friends, colleagues, or with the person with whom you are in conflict (see method #11). Both of you are looking for ways you both can win. Do some reading. Try to be creative.


Both of you present your plans for resolving the conflict; try to integrate the best of both plans. Or, make a fair offer or express a request. Negotiate the differences.

Don't present your ideas as the "ideal solution," be tentative and honestly welcome different or better ideas. Nevertheless, clearly state the logical reasons for the plans or offer you are proposing. Make it obvious that you have considered the other person's needs and preferences. When indicating the outcomes you want, don't just say you want something because it is to your advantage, e.g. "I need a raise because I bought a new car" or "I have to have more time to do the paper because I'm social chairman in my fraternity." Word your proposals so they seem well justified and are easy to agree with, for example:

"If I check with you first and then make all the arrangements, wouldn't you like to take one night off each week so we can have some fun time together?" (Rather than: "It's so boring around here, can't we do something?")

"We are overdrawn again this month, can we cut down on your beer and my junk food or is there something else you would rather cut?" (Rather than: "Do you realize you drink up $15 or $20 a week in alcohol?")

It may be wise to present your two best alternatives and then ask the other person which he/she likes best or if he/she can see ways to improve on your proposals. This shows your flexibility. If the other person seems unhappy with your suggestions, ask: "What would you do in my shoes?" or "What don't you like about my suggestion?" These kinds of discussions may disclose the other person's interests and motives, which can perhaps be integrated.

Normally, the other person will have his/her own plan or will make a counter-proposal. Don't immediately attack the plan. Instead, earnestly ask "why" and "how" these changes will help them and you (you are looking for a mutually beneficial solution); this discussion will uncover his/her basic "interests." Give the other person support and encouragement when he/she proposes solutions that address your shared interests. Then the best of both plans can be integrated. And, the remaining disagreements can be discussed and compromises sought.