How to Handle 3 Kinds of Conflict

Conflict is inevitable, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. Learning how to handle, manage, deal with, and/or resolve conflict is a critical skill for any leader.

A lot of leaders make the mistake of using the same conflict management strategy for all kinds of conflict. There are actually three types of conflict, each requiring a different approach:

1. Conflict of emotion:
Conflicts often involve both substance and emotion. When emotions are high, i.e., anger, fear, distrust, defensiveness, it’s almost impossible to use a rational problem solving approach. When emotions are high, the adrenaline flows faster, and blood and oxygen are diverted from our brains. This physical response is great for getting ready for a barroom brawl – but it’s a terrible way to solve a problem.

However, this is exactly the mistake many (men in particular) make when trying to use a “let’s fix the problem” approach to a conflict of emotions. When it doesn’t work, they then get frustrated and angry at the “lack of cooperation” and unwillingness to “calm down” from the other party.

Instead of jumping right to problem solving, a better approach is to use active listening skills to deal with the emotions first. Active listening means paraphrasing, asking questions, and seeking to understand both what the person is saying (the substance) and how they are feeling (the emotion). Actually, there are times when that’s ALL someone needs from another person, just to be listened too. But if there is a problem to be solved, dealing with the emotions first sets the stage for problem solving.

2. Conflict of needs:
A conflict of needs is the rationale, substantive part of conflict. It also starts out as a conflict of emotion because people get caught up in a conflict of solutions that don’t address each person’s needs.

Here’s an example:
Teenage daughter: “I need the car to go shopping today”
Dad: “Well, you can’t have it, because I need the car to run my errands”.
Teenage daughter: “You NEVER care about me, you’re the worst Dad in the world, etc….”

In this case, both parties needed transportation to run some important errands. Using Dad’s car was only one solution. Other solutions could have been using Mom’s car, getting a ride from a sibling, or taking the bus.

The key skill to use when resolving a conflict of needs is to re-frame the conflict from looking at a lose-lose single solution to a win-win solution that satisfies both needs.

3. Conflict of Values:
Conflicts of values are are often deeply held beliefs about things like religion, politics, social issues, and other strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong”. While it’s often constructive to listen to seek to understand another person’s point of view, people will rarely change their minds in a conflict of values. There is no “problem” to solve or need to satisfy. However, too many people think they can use their persuasion skills or ability to shout louder than the other person to turn someone to their point of view. It rarely, if ever works.

So, the next time you have a the opportunity to wade into a conflict – either proactively or reactively, ask yourself what kind of conflict(s) are you dealing with. Then, choose the right strategy for the situation.