7 Conflict Resolution Skills (and How To Use Them at Work)

Updated July 31, 2023

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Two people are seen shaking hands during a meeting taking place in a boardroom.

Conflict refers to a disagreement or argument, which can arise in various circumstances and settings, including the workplace. When there is conflict, it’s important to understand how to navigate and resolve it.

To successfully resolve conflicts, you’ll often need to read both verbal and nonverbal communication cues, to remain calm and control your emotions and work to understand the position of the conflicting parties.

In this article, we take a look at seven specific conflict resolution skills that can help to de-escalate a conflict and resolve matters, examples of conflict in the workplace and how to resolve a conflict in 10 steps.

What is conflict resolution?

Conflicts in the workplace can sometimes arise when two or more parties have different objectives, opinions or styles. Conflict resolution is the art of addressing those differences and finding a common ground that enables everyone to work together peacefully.

Sometimes, the person who resolves a conflict may be a neutral party or mediator, while at other times they may be someone involved in the conflict who takes an outside perspective to find a solution.

The skill to resolve conflicts

The ability to resolve conflicts is often seen as a leadership trait. People who can identify conflicts and pinpoint the cause, acknowledge different opinions and build a consensus are valuable to many organizations. They make it more likely for personal differences to be set aside so work can continue.

Read more: 5 Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies

Conflict resolution skills

Here are seven conflict resolution skills used in the workplace:

1. Active listening

Active listening is a crucial part of conflict management and resolution. An employee might be approached by someone about a way in which their behavior is disruptive, and by actively listening, they can understand the origin of the complaint and what to do about it.

2. Bias for action

Having a bias for action means assertively seeking out the next steps rather than waiting for someone else to do something. In conflict resolution, this could manifest as a coworker noticing they may have upset someone else and actively seeking to address that with them as soon as possible.

A manager could also realize there is a conflict taking place and step in to resolve the conflict before too much time has passed.

Related: Types of Decision-Making Biases (and How To Recognize Bias)

3. Perspective-taking

Perspective-taking is the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. You can ask yourself: "What are their thoughts, triggers and observations?" For example, a client may call customer service because they are confused about how to use the company’s product.

Even though the customer service agent who receives the call may understand clearly how to use the product, they can benefit from understanding the client’s confusion. In fact, these conversations can help reveal potential improvements to product design or training.

4. Facilitation

When there is conflict, you can arrange the environment around you to make resolution easier. For example, a manager who oversees two different groups might bring those groups together in a comfortable conference room to address points of disagreement on a joint project. Providing time and space for discussion can facilitate a speedy end to the conflict.

Related: Best Practices for Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

5. Mediation

Mediation is when a neutral third party is involved in the resolution of a conflict. A mediator can be a trained professional, someone from an outside group (such as HR), or a person outside the conflict who can provide an objective perspective.

In addition to all the other skills listed here, a successful mediator has the ability to summarize what they are hearing and observing to demonstrate progress and agreement.

Related: How To Mediate Conflict in the Workplace (With 9 Tips)

6. Problem-solving

Problem-solving skills help you determine the source of a problem and find an effective solution. During conflict resolution, a manager might use their problem-solving skills to identify areas of compromise between two team members who disagree.

7. Responsibility

The ability to hold people responsible for their actions is important in conflict resolution. For example, when an agreement is reached, an HR representative may need to check in a few days later to make sure everyone is still on the same page.

Related: Responsibility vs. Accountability: What's the Difference?

Examples of conflict in the workplace

In the workplace, you may experience conflict with a coworker, manager, vendor or client or customer. When conflict arises, using conflict resolution skills like those noted above, such as active listening and mediation, can help to de-escalate a situation and bring about eventual resolution.

Here are examples of common workplace conflicts:

Conflicts between coworkers

Conflicts between coworkers may arise because of different work styles or personal habits. They can also arise from personal prejudices and cultural differences:

Example 1

Sarah regularly cleans out the shared refrigerator in the break room. One day, she unknowingly throws out Martin’s leftovers. The next day, Martin discovers his food is missing and erupts at Sarah.

She responds by saying he should have clearly marked his food. They both leave this exchange feeling angry: Sarah feels under-appreciated for the work she does to clean the office while Martin feels that no one respects his personal belongings.

Example 2

Connor and Eli are assigned to a new project. Connor already has an overwhelming workload while Eli has more availability. Assuming that Eli will take the lead, Connor doesn’t attend a few meetings and neglects several tasks assigned to him.

Meanwhile, Eli doesn’t have insight into Connor’s existing workload and interprets his lack of initiative as laziness. Eli begins loudly complaining about Connor in shared workspaces. Connor overhears these complaints, which exacerbates his existing work stress.

Related: Four Common Types of Team Conflict and How to Resolve Them

Conflicts between supervisors and supervisees

There's an inherent power imbalance between managers and their direct reports, which can make conflicts between them difficult to navigate:

Example 1

Nadia is a sales manager who often steps in to help her team members when there are challenging moments. While some people appreciate this, others have complained that she is overly involved and micromanaging. A few people on her team go to HR with their complaints about her management style.

Example 2

Derek is an outspoken leader who responds well to people who are similarly vocal and extroverted in group settings. However, a member of his team, Sam, is shyer and prefers to express themselves in one-on-one settings or writing. After several of their ideas are overlooked in strategy sessions, Sam tells Derek that they feel demoralized and is considering other job opportunities.

Conflicts between service providers and clients

Disagreements between vendors and their clients or customers can often arise because of unclear communication or expectations:

Example 1

During the holiday season, Diana places an order online for a gift for her daughter. She receives an email after the order is placed informing her that the item is out of stock. She calls customer service, upset that she will not receive the gift before the holiday

Example 2

Carly’s company is redesigning its website. She is working with a design agency to create a new website. It was her understanding that the project fee includes sourcing images for the site, but the agency believed that her team would do that portion of the project. Carly is highly frustrated and says she will have to reduce the payment amount as a result.

Related: Customer Service Skills: Definition and Examples

When a conflict requires HR

It’s important to note that some conflicts can arise because of prejudice, discrimination, bullying and harassment. These types of conflict can cause lasting personal harm. While employing conflict resolution skills can help navigate these situations, too, it’s important that this type of behavior is documented and dealt with at a higher level.

If you're experiencing or witnessing this kind of conflict in the workplace consider talking to your human resources department.

Related: Code of Ethics vs. Code of Conduct: What's the Difference?

How to resolve conflict in 10 steps

The steps listed below can help you to resolve many conflicts in the workplace:

1. Stay calm and take a moment, if necessary

Before approaching conflict resolution, it can be helpful to take several deep breaths. Sitting, rather than standing, and pulling your shoulders back can also calm you. Feet can both be placed on the floor, rather than crossed. Keep arms open and to your sides, rather than crossed or in motion.

Related: 9 Tips For Staying Calm Under Pressure at Work

2. Find a private, comfortable place to discuss the conflict

Both conflict and conflict resolution can be distracting to others. Find a place where you can work on the problem in private. Participants in the conflict resolution should be given equal seating arrangements. Consider having water available during the conversation.

3. Acknowledge that a problem exists

For the best chance at having a productive conversation, it’s helpful for all parties to agree there is a problem in the first place. Begin the conflict resolution by calmly sharing your take on what the conflict is and asking for the other individual or parties to share their experience.

It’s important to use “I” statements, such as, "I feel like my ideas are not valued” instead of "You never listen to my ideas.” Avoid blaming the conflict on an individual and instead create a safe place for everyone to voice their opinion.

4. Agree to find a resolution

Once the problem has been acknowledged, everyone needs to agree that a resolution should be reached. If you're mediating a situation and one party does not readily agree to find a resolution, you may want to take them aside separately to understand why and how you can convince them to participate.

Related: 5 Effective Strategies and Steps for Conflict Resolution

5. Work to understand the perspective of everyone involved

In most workplace conflicts, people are not trying to cause problems. Rather, most conflict commonly arises because of misunderstandings. Using the conflict resolution skill of active listening, take time to listen and understand the experience of your colleagues can make it easier to resolve a disagreement.

(There are cases when people are actively trying to cause conflict. In these cases, HR may need to be involved sooner.)

6. Take note of what triggered the conflict

People may be under numerous unknown stressors which led to conflict. Factors such as deadlines, tiredness, family, health, hunger, burnout and others can all lead to heightened emotions that ignite conflict. Learning the triggers and stressors of the other involved parties can help you navigate or avoid a potential conflict in the future.

Related: The Ladder of Inference: Understanding the 7 Rungs

7. Identify opportunities for compromise

For most conflicts to be resolved, one or more parties must agree to a compromise. Being able to set aside pride or stubbornness at this stage of the resolution is essential. The resolution will feel best to everyone involved if all parties are able to compromise in some way.

8. Agree on a plan for resolution

Ideally, at this point, each person should know how they contributed to the situation and be processing what they can do to make it better. Before ending the conversation, aim to create a plan for resolution that involves steps for each person involved.

The resolution plan might include apologies and changes in behavior to prevent the same conflict from arising again. For example, if an employee feels like their ideas are not being valued by their manager, the plan for resolution may include the manager setting aside time in 1:1’s to listen to ideas the employee has written down throughout the week.

Related: A Guide To Leadership and Conflict Management

9. Check in to make sure the agreement is lasting

Follow-through is important in conflict resolution. The conversation may have gone well, but it will lose meaning if the plan for resolution isn’t being followed. Set expectations by scheduling a check-in point within a few days or weeks to revisit how everyone is feeling and ensure that everyone is following the agreed-upon plan.

10. Involve HR or another third party if the conflict continues

Hopefully following the above steps and using your conflict resolution skills allows for the conflict to be resolved. However, there may be situations where one or more parties fail to cooperate, or the conflict escalates. In this situation, it’s best to involve HR or higher-level leadership.

Related: 13 Key Functions of a Human Resources Department

Conflict resolution skills on a resume

If you're applying or interviewing for a job that requires conflict resolution skills, prepare examples of how you’ve managed conflict in the past. Be sure to include these examples on your resume in your skills or work experience sections. Practice discussing conflict resolution out loud so you’re ready to answer interview questions on the topic.

Read more: Interview Question: “How Do You Handle Conflict in the Workplace?

Frequently asked questions

What do you do when you're unable to agree on a solution?

If you struggle to find a solution that pleases both parties, engage in creative problem-solving to devise a win-win alternative. It's rare for either party to sacrifice their wishes entirely, so finding a new solution may involve some brainstorming and collaboration. It may also help to consider shared goals that unite both parties and then use those goals to inspire your potential solutions.

How do you stay calm when resolving conflict?

Breathing is an important part of emotional regulation. If you notice yourself becoming angry or anxious during a disagreement, pause to take steady deep breaths to re-stabilize your nervous system. Granting yourself permission to listen to everybody else involved rather than instinctively defending your interests may help you calm down and understand the situation fully.

What's the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management skills?

Conflict resolution skills help you find an agreeable solution and end the problem by helping you alleviate tension and find a suitable action plan. Conflict management skills help you minimize the negative effects of ongoing conflict. Some conflict is natural in work environments and can promote collaboration and creative thinking. Conflict management skills, like leadership and feedback, can help you build a safe environment in which team members can disagree within reason.

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