Conflict Management: Assessing the Best Approach

Some conflicts are easier to resolve than others and that can depend on a number of factors. The conflict diagnostic model below will help to understand why that might be.[1]

Factor Makes resolution
Makes resolution
Issue in dispute What is in dispute
goes to the core of
the parties’ values,
principles or code of conduct. It could
also set a precedent
if resolved in a
particular way.
The issues can be
managed and discussed easily and divided
up collaboratively for
What’s at stake and
how big of an impact will a lose/win
solution have on the
Big impact /
Low impact/
Extent to which
outcome can be
None. One has to win and the other has to
Both parties can come
up with mutually
beneficial solutions and believe that both can
benefit from the
Desire/need to
None- the
relationship was
created only
for one transaction/
activity etc
This is a long-term
relationship in which a
future is expected.
What is the structure of the party and
what is their ability
to make decisions?
A disorganised
group with weak
leadership and long
delays in making or communicating
unified decisions.
A well organised group with clear leadership
and effective decision making. Clear
communication to
regarding decision
making authority.
Intervention of a third party to help
the dispute.
Will not agree or not possible. Agreement possible:
trusted, competent and influential third party available.
Do the parties
perceive that both parties will be harmed and benefited equally by the conflict or do they believe one party will be harmed/ benefited more than the other?
One party believes the other will benefit more than they will be harmed and wants revenge. The party perceiving a benefit will not wish to lose it to the other. When both parties believe the conflict is harming them both equally, they are likely to meet in the middle. They may also see that ending the conflict will benefit them both equally.

Difficult conflict can become intractable.  We can see how this might play out in an international setting for example, when political interests, groups of stakeholders such as voting bases and political allies, determine acceptable strategies and solutions. Mix that with cultural and religious tensions and historical grievances and this may explain why the conflict between Southern and Northern Ireland took so long to resolve.

In Practice

The scenario below is an illustration of creative problem solving and how it can be determined using the conflict diagnostic model above.

I contract with a local builder to fit a kitchen. He knows that I own several properties and he has just started his business, so he is keen to get further work from me and potentially my contacts. We agree that he will purchase materials and fit the kitchen for an agreed price. However, he measured the dimensions of the kitchen incorrectly and so there is a gap between two of the cupboards which, he says, is too small to fit another cupboard. I see the kitchen and am disappointed because it doesn’t comply with the original design agreed with the kitchen designer. I am also told by the builder that the measurements were taken by their representative and not by the builder.

The issue at stake is the gap in the kitchen cupboards. It’s unsightly, impractical and I’m sick of the delay. The builder also feels embarrassed as he hoped to obtain more business from me and to build a reputation for his new business. We’re both angry with the kitchen designer.

We have an interest in a long term relationship as I need a trustworthy builder for my future projects and the builder wants more work.

It’s easy to come to a creative solution as there are only two decision makers: myself and the builder. Instead of offering a discount, he says that he knows a subcontractor who will build me a book shelf to fit those dimensions. I agree to call the kitchen design company who offers to pay the subcontractor for his work.

Diagnosing the Conflict

It’s not always that easy, however, by working through Greenlaigh’s model, you can identify from the beginning of the conflict, the factors you can work on to resolve it.

Focussing on mutual interests instead of negative emotions will also assist in choosing your approach to take.

Is it really that simple?

Every conflict is unique as are the parties to it. What’s important is understanding the mechanics of it so that it can be managed and you can devise effective strategies to reach durable solutions.

[1] Leonard Greenlaigh, Managing Conflict, Sloan Management Review, 27, no.6 (1986) pp.45-51


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