Soft skills
“Fight or flight?”, or how to resolve conflicts productively
16 Nov 2022

Conflict is an unavoidable part of teamwork. It occurs when different judgments clash, which is predictable, given that everyone has their own experiences and opinions and often the willingness to defend them. How can you put out the fire quickly without losing the team? How do you turn a difficult situation into a constructive one?

What is behind every conflict?

People frequently perceive the opinions, pursuits, and goals of others as incompatible with their own. You recognize that you are in a conflict when you experience strong emotions and negative feelings such as anger, disappointment, or irritation. These are the primary indicators to look for.

Strive to be constructive, even when in conflict

Constructive conflict contributes to identifying the objective causes of misunderstanding. It involves considering different points of view and working together to find a solution. Team dynamics improve once the conflict is resolved. 

Destructive conflict implies that criticism gets personal. Relations become uncomfortable, and that makes cooperation impossible. In such circumstances, the parties to the conflict are unlikely to reach an agreement.

A conflict is not always on the surface. In that case, you will stabilize the conflict rather than resolve it. You may settle its particular manifestation without eliminating or even identifying its cause, and over time the conflict will resurface again. For example, a poorly designed work process will be the source of conflict outbreaks from time to time that, even if stabilized individually, will recur until the process changes. 

Extinguish the conflict at the level of occurrence

Conflicts occur at different levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, intergroup, and organizational. Intrapersonal or internal conflict takes place inside one individual's mind, which can make that person irritable and provoke interpersonal conflict. It may, in turn, affect group confrontation. Intergroup conflict occurs when people compete for social reasons. Organizational conflict can stem from an improper division of responsibilities within a team or be embedded in team roles. For example, in a developer-tester conflict, the tester always aims to find a bug in the developer's code.

Unresolved conflicts progress to the next level. As a result, it is critical to put a stop to it at the source.

Mix strategies to achieve the best result

  •  Collaboration. Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication model provides a solid framework for this strategy. The nonviolent communication approach advises shifting from a reactive (response to a stimulus) to a conscious mode of thinking and acting in conflict situations.

To achieve that, you need to talk through:

  • The event itself, without using the pronoun you, sticking to the facts and avoiding accusations and passing judgment. For example, instead of "You ignored my message." it is better to say: "I did not receive a response from you.";
  • The emotions you feel. For example, "I'm confused, annoyed." It is essential to let your interlocutor understand your feelings;
  • A request at hand. A request, not an order or a demand. 

Next, it is critical to hear the arguments of your opponent. Concentrate on the existing needs rather than the wording used to express them. It is a time-consuming process, but it is effective.

  • Competition. By employing this strategy, we completely disregard the other party's needs in favor of our objectives. This approach is suitable for urgent situations, when the conflict must be settled quickly, or when its consequences pose a threat to many participants. Unfortunately, many people, who have achieved their goals with this strategy, tend to insist on having their way in conflicts, sometimes needlessly. That is a mistake. As a result, a person's authority gradually erodes, and the strategy becomes ineffective.
  • Accommodation. A person seeks to escape from a conflict, giving up their interests for the benefit of their opponent. This strategy can be a viable option when the relationship with the person is more important than the point of contention. Or for reaching a temporary truce as a first step toward resolving the conflict constructively. "Now I yield less to gain more in the future."
  • Avoidance is associated with trying to get out of the situation, refraining from arguments, and dodging responsibility for decisions. Often avoiding conflict is accompanied by the snowball effect when tension accumulates, but there is no solution. We can apply this strategy when a conflict has lasted too long, and everyone involved needs some downtime. Either we avoid conflict to buy time, have no resources for confrontation, or the question is irrelevant to us. 
  • Compromise. When we compromise, everyone gets what they want but only partially. This approach makes sense when we realize we cannot satisfy 100% of our needs. The strategy of compromise does not ruin interpersonal relationships. Moreover, it contributes to their positive development.

There is no perfect strategy; instead, you should select the one that works best for your team and situation. Experts advise, however, to mix strategies, add your own, and experiment to find what would benefit team interaction. The main thing to remember is that a healthy atmosphere in the team brings success to the project. That is what you should concentrate on when resolving the conflict.

Where people work, there will be conflicts, so we advise you to train your stress resistance and awareness in the first place. Being a person with one strategy won't get you far, so consider combining all the positive features of different approaches. But first and foremost, don't be afraid of disagreements because without them, a team cannot develop, and no one will feel motivated to defend their position. Conflict productively!