Conflict Resolution Skills, Part 2

Conflict occurs when people (or other parties) perceive that, as a consequence of a disagreement, there is a threat to their needs, interests or concerns.

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Different Degrees of Conflict

It is not uncommon for a minor conflict to escalate into a major crisis without even those directly involved noticing the signs along the way. People often ignore the early signs of conflict as they do not seem important enough to deal with. Some people work on the ‘peace at all costs’ principle; however, this often has enormous long term costs (Webne-Behrman, 1998).

The first step in the art of resolving conflict is to look for conflict indicators. If a client can learn to recognise the early signs then they can often save a situation from escalating into something more serious and more difficult to manage (Healey, 1995).

Discomfort – is an intuitive feeling that something is wrong, even though you may not be able to put your finger on it. Sometimes it can be a sense that you did not say all you needed to about an issue, that there may be ‘unfinished business’. It is important to pay attention to these feelings.

Ask yourself, ‘Is there something I can do about this?’ If there is, act on it as soon as possible. If there isn’t stay alert and look for another opportunity to do something about it.

A minor conflict incident – is when something minor happens that leaves a client feeling upset or irritated for a while. Often these incidents seem so minor it feels unreasonable to make a fuss, and it is soon forgotten. At least it appears to be.

Misunderstanding – the lack of clear communication and/or rapport often lead to people making unwarranted assumptions about a person’s motives or situation. Sometimes misunderstanding arises because the situation raises a touchy issue and perceptions of the problem become distorted.

Often the person who reacts emotionally or defensively to a situation is unaware of the past, unresolved conflict which triggers these emotions.

Tension – is the client recognising any tension that may distort their perception of another person. The relationship becomes affected by negative attitudes and fixed opinions or positions. The relationship suffers and almost any incident can cause a significant rift (Webne-Behrman, 1998).

Conflict resolution skills enable clients to bypass personal differences and to open up to possibilities. The skills of conflict resolution can draw clients closer to other people, as they are able to jointly search for fair solutions and balanced needs. It can often involve a powerful shift from adversaries to co-operative partners. In this shift each person benefits (Axelerod, 1984).

Skills of Conflict Resolution

There are a range of communication skills that a counsellor can teach a client in the counselling process. Each is discussed below.

Win-Win Approach: The Win/Win Approach is about changing the conflict from an adversarial attack and defence, to one of co-operation. It is a powerful shift in attitude that alters the whole course of communication (Conflict Resolution Network, 2006).

Encouraging your client to address each person’s underlying needs means that they can build solutions that acknowledge and value everyone’s needs, rather than denying or opposing them (Axelerod, 1984). Have your client ask questions like:

“Why does that seem to be the best solution to you?”
“What’s your real need here?”
“What interests need to be served in this situation?”
“What values are important to you here?”
“What’s the outcome or result you want?”

The answers to these questions can significantly alter the agenda of the discussion. It allows for co-operative problem-solving, it can lead to opportunities for the client to take responsibility, be assertive and to say what they need to (Alexelrod, 1984).

In summary, the win/win approach involves strategies of:

  • consideration of underlying needs
  • recognition of individual differences
  • openness to adapting one’s position in the light of shared information and attitudes
  • attacking the problem, not the people (Helpguide, 2006)

Withdrawal: If you physically or emotionally withdraw from a conflict, you no longer have a say in what happens. Withdrawal can allow a problem to grow out of proportion. It can be used to punish someone. It can leave the other person angry and helpless (Stress, 2005).

Suppression: This is often the ‘peace at any cost approach’. Suppression can be positive if it gives a client time to think about how they will respond. However, suppressing a conflict means you don’t discuss the main issues and communication is cut off (Conflict Resolution Network, 2006).

Win/Lose: This approach is often prompted by a need to protect oneself from being wrong. Win/lose is a power struggle where one person comes out on top. While it is sometimes necessary, it is rarely a long term answer (Healey, 1995).

Compromise: Compromise seems fair, everyone gains something, but no one gets everything they would like. This potentially leaves everyone feeling at least a little dissatisfied (Healey, 1995).

Creating empathy and the role of active listening: Creating empathy is about considering rapport and openness between two people. When it is absent, people are less likely to consider their needs and feelings.

The best way to teach clients to build empathy is to help the other person feel that they are understood. That means being an active listener. There are specific listening activities relevant to different situations – information, affirmation or inflammation (Conflict Resolution Network, 2006).

Assertiveness: The essence of assertiveness is being able to state your case without arousing the defences of the other person or denying their or your rights. The secret of effectiveness lies in saying how it is for you rather than what they should or shouldn’t do. For example, “The way I see it…” attached to your assertive statement can help (Lloyd, 1998).

When you want to state your point of view helpfully, the “I” statement formula can be useful. An “I” statement says how it is on my side, how I see it.

Clients could use “I” statements when they need to let the other person know that they are feeling strongly about the issue. Others often underestimate how hurt, angry or put out they are.

So it’s useful to say exactly what’s going on for them – making the situation appear neither better nor worse (i.e. your “I” statement should be “clear”) (Conflict Resolution Network, 2006).


  • Alexelrod, R. M. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Conflict resolution Network, (2006) retrieved on 9 October, 2007 from
  • Hater, S. (1990). From conflict to resolution: strategies for diagnosis and treatment of distressed individuals. New York: Nerton.
  • Healey, K. (1995). Conflict Resolution. Balmain: Spinney Press.
  • Helpguide, (2006), retrieved on 9 October, 2007 from
  • Lloyd, S, R. (1988). Developing Assertiveness.  California: Crisp.
  • Mayer, R. J. (1990). Conflict management: the courage to confront. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press.
  • Ury, W. (1988). Getting disputes resolved: Designing systems to cut the costs of conflict. Calif: Jossey-Bass.