Whether a conflict erupts at work or at home, we frequently fall back on the tendency to try to correct the other person or group’s perceptions, lecturing them about why we’re right—and they’re wrong. Deep down, we know that this conflict resolution approach usually fails to resolve the conflict and often only makes it worse.
Here are 5 conflict resolution strategies that are more effective, drawn from research on negotiation and conflicts, to try out the next time you’re tempted to argue your point.
In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.
- Conflict resolution strategy #1: Recognize that all of us have biased fairness perceptions. Both parties to a conflict typically think they’re right (and the other side is wrong) because they quite literally can’t get out of our own heads. Our sense of what would constitute a fair conflict resolution is biased by egocentrism, or the tendency to have difficulty seeing a situation from another person’s perspective, research by Carnegie Mellon University professors Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein and their colleagues shows. When embroiled in a conflict, we need to try to overcome our self-centered fairness perceptions. We might do this by jointly hiring a mediator who can help us see one another’s point of view, or by enlisting another type of unbiased expert, such as an appraiser, to offer their view of the “facts.”
- Conflict resolution strategy #2: Avoid escalating tensions with threats and provocative moves. When we feel we’re being ignored or steamrolled, we often try to capture the other party’s attention by making a threat, such as saying we’ll take a dispute to court or try to ruin the other party’s business reputation. There’s a time and place for litigation, but threats and other attention-getting moves, such as take-it-or-leave-it offers, are often a mistake. Because of the common human tendency to treat others the way they’re treated, people tend to respond to threats in kind, leading to an escalatory spiral and worsening conflict. Before making a threat, be sure you have exhausted all other options for managing conflict.
- Conflict resolution strategy #3: Overcome an “us versus them” mentality. Group connections build loyalty and strong relationships, but they can also promote suspicion and hostility toward members of out-groups. As a result, groups in conflict tend to have an inaccurate understanding of each other’s views and to see the other’s positions as more extreme than they actually are. Whether dealing with conflict as a group or on your own, you can overcome the tendency to demonize the other side by looking for an identity or goal you share. Begin your conflict management efforts by highlighting your common goal of reaching a fair and sustainable agreement. Try to identify and discuss points of similarity between you, such as growing up in the same region. The more points of connection you can identify, the more collaborative and productive your conflict resolution process is likely to be.
- Conflict resolution strategy #4: Look beneath the surface to identify deeper issues. Our deepest disputes often seem to involve money: labor disputes over employee wages, family conflicts over assets, for example. Because money is a finite resource, these conflicts tend to be single-issue battles in which one party’s gain will inevitably be the other party’s loss. But disputes over money often involve much deeper causes of conflict, such as the feeling that one is being disrespected or overlooked. The next time you find yourself arguing over the division of funds, suggest putting that conversation on hold. Then take time to explore each other’s deeper concerns. Listen closely to one another’s grievances, and try to come up with creative ways to address them. This conflict management strategy is likely to strengthen the relationship and add new interests to the table, expanding the pie of value to be divided in the process.
- Conflict resolution strategy #5: Separate sacred from pseudo-sacred issues. Conflict management can be particularly intractable when core values that negotiators believe are sacred, or nonnegotiable, are involved, such as their family bonds, religious beliefs, political views, or personal moral code. Take the case of two siblings who disagree about whether to sell their deceased parents’ farm, with one of them insisting the land must remain in the family and the other arguing that the parents would want them to sell it. We tend to err on the side of not negotiating when sacred principles and values are at stake, writes Program on Negotiation chair Robert Mnookin in his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight. But many of the issues negotiators consider sacred are actually pseudo-sacred, notes Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman—that is, the issues are only off-limits under certain conditions. So it’s important to thoroughly analyze the benefits you might expect from negotiation that could allow you to honor your principles. For example, the sibling’s objections to selling the family land might soften if a percentage of the proceeds are donated to the parents’ favorite charity.
How do you deal with conflict? Do you use any of these strategies?