Working with other people means navigating different experiences, perspectives, expectations, communication styles, and work approaches. That makes conflict inevitable, and conflict resolution an invaluable interpersonal skill

But that’s not necessarily bad news. Research shows that workplace conflict can actually be healthy for teams. So what’s the key to ensuring that disagreements are productive rather than poisonous?

What’s the best approach to conflict resolution?

Empathy is the antidote: conflict resolution at work

Every conflict is unique – and so are the ways individuals respond to them. The Thomas-Kilmann model explains that, generally, there are five ways people tend to react to conflict: 

  1. Competing: Pursuing your own concerns at the other person’s expense
  2. Accommodating: Neglecting your own concerns to make the other person happy
  3. Avoiding: Not pursuing your own concerns or the concerns of the other person
  4. Collaborating: Digging deep into the conflict to find solutions that fully satisfy each person’s concerns
  5. Compromising: Finding solutions that partially satisfy both parties (often more realistic and expedient than collaboration)

But while conflicts are nuanced and can be met with varied reactions, they have this in common: They’re a problem to solve. A standard approach to conflict resolution can be boiled down to: 

  • Understand the root of the disagreement: While it’s tempting to jump right into finding solutions, you first need to understand the problem. Everybody involved in the conflict should come together to explain their side of things. You can use a technique like the 5 whys analysis to go beyond surface-level symptoms and understand the real root of the conflict. 
  • Ask for solutions: People want to be involved in solving the problem, not just identifying it. Once everybody agrees on the cause of the conflict, each person involved should have an opportunity to voice solutions. Your goal here isn’t to reach consensus on the way forward – you’re simply giving everybody a chance to share their ideal remedy. 
  • Agree on solutions: This is the hard part. With all of the prospective solutions out on the table, all of the involved parties need to negotiate a way forward. That might mean blending different solutions together to find an option that gives everyone involved the most of what they’re looking for. Ultimately, nobody should feel like the “loser” of the conflict. 

5 conflict resolution skills 

Understanding the typical mediation process is helpful, but the right conflict resolution skills will make reaching an agreement even smoother. Here are five that are crucial for successful conflict resolution: 

  1. Communication: To solve a conflict, people need to understand each other – and that means they each need to be able to clearly communicate their point of view and expectations. Nonverbal communication carries a lot of weight in conflicts too, as cues like posture, gestures, and facial expressions could either strengthen or undermine the points you’re making.
  1. Active listening: Communication isn’t only about talking – listening matters too. Active listening, in particular, is the most helpful for smooth and respectful conflict resolution. When digging to the root cause of the disagreement, take turns summarizing each other’s perspectives to reach a mutual understanding before trying to find a resolution. 
  1. Objectivity: Objectivity might seem like something that’s imperative only when you’re mediating a conflict that you aren’t directly involved in. But, as challenging as it is, it can also be a boost when resolving disagreements that directly impact you. Objectivity allows you to see things with a more balanced point of view, as opposed to setting up a narrative in which you’re the hero and the other person is the villain. 
  1. Empathy: If you think achieving objectivity is impossible, empathy can help you understand and rationalize how other parties in the conflict feel. When you take some time to actually connect with other feelings and perspectives, it’s easier to approach the conflict with a productive and collaborative mindset. 
  1. Emotional intelligence: As the Cleveland Clinic explains, successful conflict resolution depends on your ability to regulate stress and other emotions. That’s why emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others – is so crucial for effectively resolving a conflict. 

5 conflict resolution skills to help you keep the peace