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Education competencies: Conflict management

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies.


Successfully mediates conflict between individuals and groups; can hammer out tough agreements and settle disputes equitably; can find common ground and obtain cooperation with minimum noise.

Proficiency Level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Identifies situations needing attention and steps in as mediator Successfully mediates conflict between individuals and groups Steps up to conflicts; seeing them as opportunities Masterfully defuses volatile situations
Is objective Is objective in situations that involve personal conflicts of interest Is unbiased and trustworthy in situations that involve personal conflicts of interest Is well respected as a fair and wise leader
Can promote calm dialogue and cooperation Finds common ground and gets cooperation with minimum noise Hammers out tough agreements and settles disputes equitably Engineers plans to equitably and calmly resolve disputes

Reads situations quickly Moves quickly to resolve issues to prevent bitterness Exhibits foresight to identify and defuse conflicts before they occur

Overdoing conflict management

  • May be seen as overly aggressive and assertive
  • May get in the middle of everyone else’s problems
  • May drive for a solution before others are ready
  • May have a chilling effect on open debate
  • May spend too much time with obstinate people and on unsolvable problems

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
  • What techniques have worked for me thus far to manage conflicts?
  • Am I able to restate another person’s position to his or her satisfaction?
  • What questions must I ask to uncover the cause of the conflict?
  • What can I give to initiate bargaining?
  • Have I described a problem without conveying blame?
  • What potential “powder keg” can I extinguish now before it becomes a conflict?
To avoid overdoing conflict management, ask yourself:
  • Am I too emotional in a conflict situation?
  • Am I using body language that communicates hostility?
  • Am I looking for conflict where there is none?

Interview questions

  • Describe for me a couple of instances in which you were the pivotal person to defuse a volatile situation.
  • It is difficult to demonstrate the ability to be objective, unbiased, and trustworthy in situations that involve personal conflicts of interest. Describe a situation in which you found this most difficult to do.
  • Think back to a time that showcases your aptitude to engineer a plan to equitably and calmly resolve a difficult dispute.
  • Describe two situations in which you exhibited foresight to identify and defuse conflicts before they occurred.

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Develop cooperative relationships: Demonstrate equity, understanding, and respect of all points of view. Focus on common-ground issues and interests of both sides. Find wins on both sides and make concessions.
  • Pick your words: Use words that are other-person neutral, that don’t challenge, and that don’t sound one-sided. Choose phrases that promote probability and allow for maneuvering or saving face. Pick words that are about the problem not about the people.
  • Practice Aikido: Try to absorb the energy of your opponent to manage him or her. Ask clarifying questions without hitting back. Consider that your task is to accurately understand what is being said, not to accept or refute. Allow them to blow off steam and talk until they run out of venom. Separate the people from the problem.
  • Downsize the conflict: Start by finding something to agree upon. Focus first on common goals, priorities, and problems. Keep open conflicts small and concrete. Concede smaller issues that aren’t central to the main one. If you can’t agree on a point, agree on a procedure to move forward.
  • Control emotion: Separate personal issues from the problem. Always return to the facts and the problem, and steer clear of personal clashes. Restate each position and try to see the issue from the other point of view. If you get emotional, pause.
  • Bargain and trade: Attempt to manage a win-win situation. Encourage giving or conceding something to get something in return.
  • Establish clear, problem-focused communication: Explain your thinking and ask other people to explain theirs. Be able to restate their positions clearly, even if you don’t agree with them. Separate facts from assumptions. Ask lots of clarifying questions. Be objective without criticizing or lecturing.
  • Seek arbitration: When you reach a true impasse, allow a third party with equal power to intervene and resolve the conflict.
  • Handling conflict again: Analyze your most recent experiences of handling conflict to determine what you did or didn’t do well. Look for themes and commonalities. Isolate the causes of poor performance and mentally rehearse a better way to do it next time.
  • Work to understand the politics of the organization: Recognize that organizations are made up of a complex maze of egos, sensitivities, and empire protectors. Get to know the people and the roles they play in the organization, and identify the traps that can short-circuit effective conflict management.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Integrate diverse systems, processes, or procedures across decentralized or dispersed units.
  • Handle a tough negotiation.
  • Troubleshoot a performance-related or quality-related problem.
  • Resolve a conflict between two people or groups.
  • Make peace with an enemy or someone you’ve disappointed, had trouble with, or don’t get along with.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Rehearse successful tactics, strategies, and actions. Imagine how you will act before you actually present. Anticipate reactions and your response to them. Consider best-case and worst-case scenarios, and rehearse staying under control.
    • Study your history of conflicts for insight. Look for common themes in the situations or people that cause you trouble. Anticipate them in the future.
    • Sell something to a tough group or audience. Understand opposing viewpoints; find common ground. Prepare yourself with your best data and arguments.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Get feedback from peers or colleagues. Promote trust to get honest, quality feedback.
    • Be cautious of feedback obtained in temporary or extreme contexts. It likely won’t reflect your normal behavior.
    • Be open to feedback. Ask for examples and details; listen, take notes, and keep a journal.
    • Give feedback to others.
    • Learn from poor authority figures. Determine what makes them bad examples, if you are part of the problem, and if others regard them in the same way. Avoid reacting out of anger and frustration, and purpose to not imitate poor behavior.
    • Learn from limited staff. Look for ways to bring out the best in others who may lack skills or experience. Motivate by being a positive force, even in negative situations, and by giving feedback. Recognize when to stop trying something and start over.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Participate in insight events. Take a course designed to assess skills and provide feedback to help you develop self-knowledge.

Recommended readings

  • Blackard, Kirk, and James W. Gibson.Capitalizing on Conflict: Strategies and Practices for Turning Conflict into Synergy in Organizations. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing, 2002.
  • Cartwritght, Tatula.Managing Conflict with Peers. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, 2003.
  • Cloke, Ken, and Joan Goldsmith.Resolving Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000.
  • Crawley, John, and Katherine Graham.Mediation for Mangers: Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Relationships at Work. Yarmouth, ME: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002.
  • Dana, Daniel.Conflict Resolution. New York: McGraw-Hill Trade, 2000.
  • Deutsch, Morton, and Peter T. Coleman (Eds.).The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000.
  • Eadie, William F., and Paul E. Nelson (Eds.).The Language of Conflict and Resolution. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001.
  • Guttman, Howard M.When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization. New York: AMACOM, 2003.
  • Kheel, Theodore W.The Keys to Conflict Resolution—Proven Methods of Resolving Disputes Voluntarily. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999.
  • Levine, Stewart.Getting to Resolution. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998.
  • Masters, Marick Francis, and Robert R. Albright.The Complete Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace. New York: AMACOM, 2002.
  • McDowell, Douglas S.Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000.
  • Neuhauser, Peg.Tribal Warfare in Organizations. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
  • Perlow, Leslie.When You Say Yes but Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies…And What You Can Do About It. New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2003.
  • Popejoy, Barbara, and Brenda J. McManigle.Managing Conflict with Direct Reports. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, 2002.
  • Van Slyke, Erik J.Listening to Conflict. New York: AMACOM, 1999.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.