Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

The DNA of conflict

There are three key ingredients that are always present in interpersonal conflict:

  1. The parties
  2. The interests or needs
  3. The actions.

The parties

These represent the individuals, teams, groups, divisions or departments that are directly involved. In certain contexts, the parties might be communities or even countries. As a rule of thumb, the more parties there are involved in the process, the more complex the resolution of the dispute becomes.

In organisational conflict, you quite often encounter an imbalance of power between the parties. For example, in a conflict between a member of staff and line manager there is a clear imbalance of power. Other, subtler ones might include stereotypical imbalances, such as between a male and female member of staff or between members of staff where there is a significant age gap and seniority is implicit. These differences are important to recognise when you come to resolving the dispute. In this context, you can separate conflicts into two types:

  • Symmetric conflicts are those that exist between relatively similar parties: for example, two members of a team, or departmental or divisional heads
  • Asymmetric conflicts are those that exist between dissimilar parties, where an imbalance of power is present: for example, between an employer and employee or a manager and a member of staff.

The interests or needs

This refers to the reasons behind the conflict. Interests are the fuel and motivation that drive the parties into conflict. Interests can generally be divided into two categories – objective and subjective interests.

Objective interests

These are largely independent of the parties’ perceptions and are therefore easier to identify. They represent the tangible aspects of the conflict and can include resources, manpower, money and its distribution, or contractual obligations and deliverables. A useful strategy that may help determine whether an interest is tangible or not is to apply the wheelbarrow test: ‘Can I put this interest in a wheelbarrow?’

Subjective interests

These are less tangible and more visceral and you may need to explore the circumstances further if you are to identify them. Examples of subjective interests include power (where people want political control over decision making) and recognition (where people simply want recognition and acknowledgment for their contributions, status and identity or where people want to be treated with dignity and respect). Most of these can be described as being social and emotional needs.

Key point

As a rule of thumb, underlying every objective interest you will find a subjective interest or emotional need, so keep exploring for that need. It will help enormously when it comes to resolving the conflict.

The actions

These relate to the actions of those involved in the conflict and translate into behaviours that provide the evidence to indicate the presence of conflict. Behaviours may manifest in any number of ways, but generally emerge as being either passive or aggressive.