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Conflict management - a way out of the crisis


Conflicts sometimes arise in working life. They are not desirable, but often unavoidable. Professional challenges often lead to stress - and when nerves are on edge and you are under pressure, it is easy to take the wrong tone. People say things they don't mean, and quarrels that are actually minor grow into major crises. Of course, it is best for the peace of the workplace if disputes do not arise in the first place. But since they cannot always be avoided, it is important to resolve existing conflicts. Good conflict management helps to find solutions and overcome crises.


  • What is conflict management?

  • Types of conflict: Not all problems are the same

  • Resolving conflicts: This is how it works


De-escalation is the main task of conflict management: disputes or even subliminally fermenting enmities must not simply be sat out. This is because they not only affect the atmosphere in the workplace, but also the productivity of the company - which is why conflict must be resolved quickly. To ensure that a factual discussion does not turn into a full-blown dispute, conflict management offers methods that have proven their worth in various conflict situations. However, conflict resolution by the disputing parties themselves is not always possible. In such a case, a third person should act as a mediator who works towards resolving the conflict without escalation.

Conflict management, however, is not about winning an argument or ordering a proverbial truce. Both would only interrupt the conflict for a short time, but in the long run, it would flare up again. Therefore, good conflict management works towards both sides understanding the other and making concessions in response. Conflict management is therefore not so much about finding an actual solution to the specific problem itself - rather, it provides strategies and methods to help the two parties communicate productively with each other and thus find a solution to the problem on their part.

As the above lines make clear, conflict management can thus be strictly distinguished from conflict resolution. This is because conflict management is actually only used in situations where something is negotiable. The parties involved have different interests and now it has to be negotiated to what extent certain interests are taken into account and others are given up. However, if it is less about interests and more about fundamental needs, these cannot be negotiated, but only mediated. This is where conflict resolution comes in. Since the two are often interrelated, a clear demarcation is not always easy and usually, both methods are used in companies.

Conflict resolution is to be distinguished from conflict management and conflict resolution: it aims to find a solution as quickly as possible so that the conflict does not escalate and work can continue without problems. However, it does not get to the bottom of the causes of the conflict - conflict resolution does not even aim at these.

Conflict transformation, on the other hand, attacks the problem from exactly the other side: The aim of this method is to find long-term solutions. Therefore, one works less on the concrete case but rather changes the context which can lead to conflicts. In other words, one tries to improve the overall situation so that conflicts do not arise in the first place. However, the potential conflict parties should still be involved in order to create an environment that is acceptable to all.


If you want to apply established strategies for conflict resolution, you should first understand what a conflict actually is. Because: Not every dispute is automatically a conflict. Small disputes in particular - usually about quite banal things (like the temperature in the office) - quickly resolve themselves. If both parties are actually well-disposed towards each other, they usually reach an agreement after a short time. On the other hand, there are problems that are so profound that they do not just disappear into thin air.

Especially when different values, goals and world views clash, a conflict can hardly be avoided. Moreover, professional conflicts are characterised by the fact that the parties must continue to act together despite the disagreement. Among colleagues, it is only in the rarest of cases possible to simply stay out of each other's way forever and thus avoid confrontation.

Internal conflicts

Not every conflict involves several parties. Often, for example, an individual employee has a problem with himself or herself - so this conflict lies hidden within. For example, when difficult decisions have to be made, employees may struggle with themselves. Such difficulties in decision-making often result from the fact that both choices seem equally good or equally bad - or involve both advantages and disadvantages. Even though this form of conflict rarely leads to disputes, it does create problems. A colleague who is at odds with himself, who delays judgements and suffers as a result, harms not only himself in the long run, but the entire company.

Interpersonal conflicts

Wherever people meet, minor or major conflicts often arise. Even if one does not enter into a discussion with bad intentions, factors can unexpectedly come to light that cause an actually harmless situation to escalate. Often confrontations arise even when there are actually no reasons, but disputes have arisen due to misunderstandings. Such communication conflicts are by no means rare. In order to solve them, it is necessary to uncover communication errors.

The situation is different when there are no rationally comprehensible reasons for the conflict. Sometimes conflicts arise simply because different personalities clash that cannot act together without problems. Such relationship conflicts are part of human nature and are difficult to avoid. It is all the more important to work with sensible conflict management when two different personalities clash.

If it is not the personalities, it is often the roles of the people involved that cause conflict. In a group of people, and therefore also in a professional team, one quite automatically takes on different roles - planned or unplanned. In the process, it happens from time to time that one is pushed into a role that does not actually suit one (example: due to the company experience, the management sees someone in the role of a department head in the future, but the employee does not consider himself to have sufficient leadership competence). The employee sees him/herself in a different role than the one assigned to him/her - a person-role conflict arises.

Another type of role conflict is when different groups of people see someone in a different role - but the employee cannot fulfil all expectations because the roles are contradictory (example: callers expect the best possible advice from a customer service employee. The managing director, however, expects the employee to offer the most cost-intensive company services possible, regardless of the customer's problem). Even then, there is a potential for conflict.

The situation is similar with a power conflict: this often arises when employees in similarly high positions have to work together at once. A conflict arises because one person is of the opinion that he or she is higher up in the hierarchy than the other. This other person, however, sees himself as higher up. It is therefore a question of influence that neither of the two wants to relinquish.

However, there can also be quite rational reasons for a conflict. Both in the circle of friends and in professional life, the views within a group can differ. Often the problem is caused by different perspectives. A factual conflict occurs, for example, when people want to pursue different solutions or goals.

A conflict of values, on the other hand, is about the attitudes and beliefs of the people involved. They can often result from questions such as: How should situations be dealt with? What actions are appropriate? When different convictions come to light in answering such questions, this sometimes leads to conflict - because no one likes to give up their values. This makes compromise difficult. Conflict management must intervene in such cases to prevent the situation from escalating.


First of all, watching and doing nothing is not a solution. Every employee (and not only the supervisor) should react if he or she notices a smouldering conflict between two colleagues. If one cannot or does not want to do something oneself, a responsible person should be informed. When a conflict exists can be recognised by various signals:

  • Avoidance: The two parties avoid each other and do not talk to each other.

  • Body language: Moods can be easily read through facial expressions and gestures. If the body language appears dismissive and defensive as soon as certain people meet, there is probably a conflict.

  • Distance: Conversations between the two potential conflict parties are very distant and formal. Contact on a personal level is avoided.

  • Ignorance: When a conflict exists, one side often no longer takes the other seriously. Therefore, the parties then also tend to disregard decisions made by the other side.

  • Aggressiveness: The parties involved react irritably to aggressively to each other. Even small things can lead to escalation.

  • Rumours: If conflicts have been going on for a long time, it is often not only noticeable to the persons directly involved, but rumours also circulate among colleagues - possibly even stimulated by the disputants.

Such latent conflicts tend to build up over time. To prevent this from happening, you should intervene as early as possible when you notice such a conflict. Especially in the initial phase of conflicts, they are easiest to resolve so that there is a satisfactory outcome for both sides. The further a conflict progresses, the more difficult it becomes to find an amicable solution. Most likely, at least one side will then disagree with the resolution. At the end of an escalation - i.e. a more or less open dispute - no one can win. Both sides have already suffered too many losses.

A clarifying conflict discussion should change the situation for the better at an early stage. Ideally, this discussion should take place with the participation of a third party: a superior, an official person of trust or an external conflict moderator. One model has proven successful for such talks: The Harvard Conflict Resolution Method. However, certain basic requirements apply:

  • Objectivity: Emotions often cause a conflict to escalate. Therefore, the objective level should not be abandoned in the discussion. Personal attacks are completely inappropriate.

  • Respect: Even if there is a dispute, the other person should be treated with respect. This includes letting the other person finish.

  • Willingness to compromise: Anyone who takes part in a conflict discussion without the will to approach the other person blocks possible conflict solutions. In order to be able to resolve the conflict, one should look for common ground and build on it.

Harvard Conflict Resolution Method

The Harvard Conflict Resolution Method is based on a project at the university of the same name and was published as a book by Roger Fisher and William L. Lury in 1981. The concept aims not only to find a compromise but to determine the best possible outcome for both sides. It is intended to facilitate negotiation between the parties in conflict. A conflict moderator is not mandatory. Therefore, the model is very suitable for conflict resolution among colleagues, but also for conflicts outside the professional context.

The concept gives clear guidelines to which one must adhere as a conflict partner:

  • Always discuss on the factual level. The person behind the position is considered separately from the matter. Emotions are also given room, but care is taken to keep the emotional and factual levels strictly separate.

  • The parties should put interests first. To do this, it is necessary to analyse the conflict and break it down to the actual goals of the two sides. This alone often makes it clear that both people are closer to each other than they originally thought.

  • Now they look together for ideas on how to solve the conflict. At first, the participants should not limit themselves, but rather play through each idea mentally and also discuss it with the other person.

  • Then the best possible solution is found on the basis of objective evaluation criteria. Both sides have agreed on these criteria in advance. To ensure that the process remains fair, the advantages and disadvantages of each solution should be discussed and no details should be concealed.

When finding a solution, it should be kept in mind that despite the conflict, the relationship between the two parties should not suffer in the end. Thus, the aim of the Harvard Conflict Resolution Method is to bring about reconciliation on an interpersonal level as well. Conflict resolution according to this concept also focuses on the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). However, in order to know the best alternative, all other alternatives must also be known. This is why the idea generation phase is so important. If it is neglected, it cannot be said with certainty whether there might not have been a better solution for the parties involved. The best option is the one that brings the greatest success for both sides, i.e. creates a win-win situation.

However, one cannot always rely on both sides actually adhering to the Harvard concept in every conflict. If one or both parties feel they have to ignore the rules of the Havard concept, certain methods can be used to reach a successful negotiation conclusion nevertheless. An essential feature of the concept is that no one should abandon factual debate and resort to insults. In addition, neither side should exert pressure on the other to speed up the resolution of the conflict. If one party does not abide by these rules, the Harvard concept provides for interruptions in the negotiations: Only when the uncooperative side shows itself willing to engage in reasonable debate do you resume negotiations.


Fact: A person's personality often determines how constructively he or she reacts to confrontation. Conflict capacity is the ability to resolve conflicts efficiently or to avoid them in advance. Prerequisites for this are empathy and a sense for moods and emerging problems as well as a certain degree of self-awareness or self-reflection. However, it is also important not to ignore conflicts, but to proactively seek out confrontations in order to quickly get the problem out of the way.


Mediation & Supervision

Particularly if a conflict seems to be deadlocked or escalates very quickly or very strongly, outside help can be useful. For example, if communication among colleagues no longer works, even with the involvement of a supervisor. Mediators and supervisors, as independent third parties, then often have a better chance of bringing the discussion back to a constructive level.

Mediation is an extrajudicial conciliation procedure: This legal classification already makes it clear that this procedure is often used as the last option before a legal dispute. In fact, mediation can also help with everyday disputes in the workplace and even with international political conflicts. The crucial factor for success is that the disputing parties voluntarily decide to participate in mediation. The mediator assists the conflicting parties by acting as a moderator. The aim, however, is for them to find a solution to the conflict themselves.

Supervision, on the other hand, does not usually take place in the context of a specific conflict. Instead, one generally works with one person or - even better - the whole team to improve the entire structure. First, behavioural patterns are analysed and the causes of possible conflicts are identified. In this way, conflicts can be avoided at an early stage and cooperation and cohesion among colleagues can be strengthened in the long term.

Both appraisal interviews and staff motivation can help to weld the team together and create a constructive culture of discussion. This often prevents conflicts from arising in the first place.

Results of conflict management

Ideally, peace should be restored at the end of conflict management. However, it is not always possible to fulfil the expectations and wishes of both parties 100 %. As an outcome of conflict management, 4 constellations are conceivable:


This outcome does not satisfy either side. Most often, such a situation arises in everyday working life when a superior ends a conflict by making a strict decision, ignoring the expectations of the parties involved.


In this outcome, only one side benefits from conflict management. The other party is unhappy with the outcome, which creates the potential for new conflicts.


The best outcome is a win-win situation. Such an outcome makes it possible for both parties to come out of the conflict satisfied. There is a mutually satisfactory solution; no one is left out.


A compromise of equal value is not ideal, but still a satisfactory outcome. Both sides have to give up parts of their wishes, but they can also push through proposals in equal proportions.

In the best case, a conflict can even be used as the starting point for positive development. Because conflict management uncovers the causes of conflicts, it is possible to change the company's conditions in such a way that fewer conflicts arise from now on. In addition, the protagonists learn how to behave in conflict situations in order to avoid escalation. Often conflicts can be resolved at an early stage.


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