We've evolved! Fingerprint for Success is now Marlee.

21 Conflict resolution skills and strategies you need at work

If you’re struggling to deal with conflict at work, you’re not alone. 85% of employees deal with disputes on one level or another. Resolving conflict requires essential skills. Let's delve into the skills to develop to maintain workplace harmony.

Amy Rigby

What are conflict resolution skills?

Conflict resolution skills are abilities that help individuals navigate and resolve disagreements effectively. These include active listening, empathy, problem-solving, negotiation, and clear communication. They enable people to find mutually beneficial solutions, manage emotions, and maintain positive relationships in challenging situations.

Why are conflict resolution skills important in the workplace?

It can seem pretty daunting as we look at the effects of common conflicts in the workplace:

  • Bad vibes around the virtual office space right after a ping-pong of accusations.
  • Slow (or failed) projects as collaboration takes a hit.
  • High levels of stress result in decreased productivity all around as focus drops.

That’s not all.

Employees spend about 3 hours every week attempting to straighten out conflicts. What’s more, managers invest double the time – 6 hours – ironing out wrinkles in the workplace. That’s 15% of their time.

Can you imagine all you could accomplish if you could reclaim even half that time?

And if we dig into the bulk of what is causing this conflict, it’s easy to see: coworker fights.

A recent study revealed that 100% of workplace conflict was caused by ‘other people’ — a clear indicator that improving team dynamics is absolutely critical to a team’s success.

It's important to acknowledge that everyone on the team has unique motivations.

Even the team members with the most in common won’t be (virtually) high-fiving each other and sharing laughs daily—it’s just human nature.

What are the conflict resolution skills that you need to develop?

The primary conflict resolution skills you need at work are:

  1. Communication
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Stress management
  4. Empathy
  5. Impartiality
  6. Negotiation

But before we get to these skills, you’ll need to learn how to:

  • Identify conflict
  • Change your mindset: Adjust from solving the issue to facilitating a solution.

Strategies to identify conflict in your workplace

This part can be a little tricky in a remote work environment. The virtual setting means you aren’t physically present in an office to see a conflict bubbling up. What you can do, though, is use your personal strengths to your advantage.

That means:

  • Keep your ears peeled in a team video or phone call if you're convinced by hearing things. For instance, you pin down conflict in someone’s tone.
  • If you are better at identifying the first signs of a conflict by seeing them, make video chats a regular part of your team's communication.

Since so many of us around the globe are working from home, there’s a third addition here: reading signs of conflict in written conversations.

Look out for:

  1. Rude comments or someone trying to make fun of someone.
  2. Brusqueness. Are two colleagues who talk well exchanging only a few messages now?
  3. Teammates not asking clarification questions from each other.

This last one is a hat tip to a certified Meta-Coach (ACMC), Dina Cooper, who uses Marlee to help bring out the best in leaders and teams at work. Dina is also an expert at coaching parents in conflict resolution methods so they can discover the joy of low-stress parenting while empowering their children for the ‘future of work.’ There’s a huge overlap between managing your ‘home’ team (aka your family) and your high-performance remote team.

Dina explained that when people engage with one another (and are on peaceful terms), they often ask each other clarification questions. Or, as she puts it, ask questions seeking “the meaning behind why somebody shares something that they do.”

Here’s an example:

  • Not ideal: Sara shares a lengthy blog post with John, who says he can’t read it. End of story: The first signs of conflict are detected but ignored. Sara feels hurt but decides not to address the issue and never to ask John to read one of her blog posts again.
  • Ideal: Sara shares a lengthy blog post with John, who says he can’t read it. So, Sara asks, “Do you mean you don’t want to read it, or is it something else.” John then explains, “Oh, it’s not that. Someone interested in this topic can give you better feedback than I can." Now, Sara knows that John meant no harm and makes a mental note to circle back to John when there is a blog topic that is more relevant to him.

Arrange regular check-ins to ensure conflicts don’t run right under your nose. It’s a good idea to schedule weekly virtual meetings so you can keep your pulse on the team’s collaboration and ferret out conflicts.

Change your mindset before you work on your conflict management skills.

Here's the thing: going in with the mindset of solving the issue isn't helpful.

However, understanding each involved person's viewpoint can help clear up the case amicably.

Dina shares that it is best to see yourself as a facilitator rather than a resolver. When you think of yourself as the latter, you start looking at things through a need-to-fix-immediately lens.

However, when you understand that everyone has the resources needed to resolve the issue, all the parties are more likely to emerge satisfied. You’ve got to work as a moderator.

Plus, this goes without saying, but you need to be prepared to accept differences in opinion.

The 6 key conflict resolution skills you need to develop

Let’s get to work:

1. Effective communication

Communication and conflict resolution in the workplace always go hand in hand. Facing the issue head-on always works best. This leads us to develop a proactive communication strategy, which involves understanding the heart of the problem and the stakes for those involved.

Communication branches into two main categories:

Understanding the communication styles of those dealing with conflict makes it much easier to resolve issues.

This is where Marlee comes in. Marlee, our collaboration and performance AI, assists you in understanding who on your team is an effective communicator (who pays attention to details like body language and tone of voice) and who is a neutral communicator (who pays attention to specific words).

While working at Investible, Annie Luu used exactly this information to improve communication between two co-founders (her clients) during an 8-week accelerator program. The results? Her clients were able to overcome the bickering to generate revenue, grow their customer base, and more.

So, how do you take all this info and put it to work? Here’s how:

a. Verbal communication: Ask the right questions.

We’ve already talked about asking clarification questions. Those help to uncover the meaning behind someone’s actions.

Another type of question you can ask is a meaning question. These are questions that dive into the intention behind a behavior.

Say one of your colleagues (let’s call him John again) shrugs his shoulders. And another one of them, (our other imaginary teammate) Sara, finds that dismissive.

So, the meaningful questions you can ask both of them are:

  • Ideal: “Sara, what’s the meaning you take from John shrugging his shoulders?”
  • Also: “John, what did you mean, or what’s your intention behind shrugging your shoulders?”

This allows each team member to clarify the meaning behind their actions and reactions, ultimately leading to a better understanding between them and the potential dissolution of the conflict before it escalates further.

b. Non-verbal communication: Give the right non-verbal cues.

There are a few things you can do here:

  • Rephrase what the other person is saying (my favorite thing to do!): This tells you you’re interested in resolving the issue while understanding the other person’s point.
  • Position your camera right: If you’re any bit like me and prefer using your hands to explain your point, make sure you position your camera to show your actions so they work in your favor, not against you.
  • Mirror reactions: This helps build rapport and, again, shows your interest in solving the issue. If a person is leaning forward, you should, too. If they’ve got their hand on their chin, replicate. But keep it subtle, of course. Mimicking every single thing someone else does will get creepy fast.
  • Other cues: Nod and maintain eye contact. This goes a long way in showing your understanding. Using facial expressions to convey your concern and meaning can be helpful, too, particularly when working with an Affective communicator.

If you are a leader, you should practice these conflict resolution skills regularly, but it’s also a good idea to share them with your team to help them increase their mindfulness. This will also encourage them to take more responsibility for their interactions and be more proactive about conflicts when they start to arise.

2. Emotional intelligence

As human beings, it’s natural that we deal with various feelings that pop up throughout the day. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your and your teammates’ feelings and respond in a proactive, non-reactive way. A team member’s emotions may frequently influence their response or interpretation of an event.

It’s your job to build emotional intelligence skills before your help is needed so you’re ready to offer support when tension arises (rather than being reactive and inadvertently escalating the situation yourself). Putting the development of your emotional intelligence on the back burner won't cut it.

And, frankly, at any point “there could be something going on for you [or your team] and that’s what’s spilling over and creating the conflict,” as Dina puts it.

Since you aren’t a mind reader, you can keep your pulse on your team’s emotions by:

  • Have weekly team meetings (separate from ‘stand-ups’ or status update meetings) where you create a safe space for everyone to discuss how they’re feeling. Go around the group and find out how everyone is doing about current crises or their immediate environment.
  • Hosting virtual coffee or drink chats to create a connected atmosphere for the team. The team at Confluence has a Slack channel, ‘meme-work,’ where members have a laugh over funny memes. They also share pictures of their lunch, views, pets, etc.

3. Stress management

This conflict resolution skill links closely with emotional intelligence. After all, you’ve got to be aware of the stress you’re feeling first before managing it or attempting to help others manage their own.

Practicing stress management is essential because stress can impair logical thinking. As Dina highlights, you may react illogically instead of responding logically.

Here’s how to put in the legwork:

  • Understand and manage your stress triggers.
  • Accept (don’t ignore) your stress levels and have a strategy to neutralize them so you can respond to things instead of reacting.
  • Acknowledge your team’s stress levels. One way to do so is to start all attempts at cooling a heated conflict by saying, “I understand you’re stressed…”

Bonus: Be mindful of everyone’s stress levels, even if they don’t expressly admit it.

4. Empathy

You’ve probably heard the word ‘empathy’ thrown around somewhere. Empathy is about having a nonjudgmental attitude and genuinely trying to understand what others are going through.

To do this, you need to start with a curious mindset. Go about asking why someone is reacting in a certain way. This way, you’re at better odds of learning the root of the problem.

Dina uses the same approach. She explains,

“The mindset that I go in with is that everyone’s doing the best they can under the circumstances and so, if I truly believe that, I want to understand why. Why is that person reacting that way?”

Another tip to improve your conflict resolution skills is to acknowledge everyone’s feelings before you ask any questions.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Ideal: I hear you’re frustrated, [colleague name]. These are trying times, and we’re all very stressed, but can you explain your intention behind…
  • Also ideal: These are challenging times, and I understand that all of us are seriously stressed [ask your question]

You can also do more by:

  • Understanding why a certain matter is important to your teammate(s) before resolving the issue (your weekly meetings are a good place to start).
  • Accepting everyone’s feelings and the effort they’re putting into their work.

5. Impartiality

If everyone starts taking sides, your team’s dynamics can quickly screech and fail. This includes you as a mediator. Impartiality can help keep such a dire situation at bay. It can be challenging but not impossible unless you're a zen person.

Try these tips:

  • Try to stay calm and be mindful of your tone. If all hell breaks loose and you feel overwhelmed, ask to take a 5-minute ‘bathroom’ break. Then, take deep breaths to regain your sense of calm and perspective.
  • Never involve past fights in a prevailing conflict. There’s no point in opening old wounds, and it can be extremely damaging to all parties involved.
  • Make the conflict about someone’s behavior or language, never about the person.

The last tip, in particular, can win you a gold medal for workplace conflict resolution—or any dispute.

Let’s take our imaginary friends, John and Sara, again. Our situation is: John shrugged his shoulders during a fierce word exchange with Sara.

Here’s how to tread the right way here:

  • Not ideal: John, you are such a dismissive person.
  • Ideal: John, I see you shrugged your shoulders. Sara says she felt you were dismissing her comments. Can you explain your intention when you shrugged your shoulders?

It’s possible John clarified that he shrugged his shoulders because he had pain in his right shoulder and meant to release some tension. That’s all.

And if Sara is an affective communicator, while John is a neutral communicator (or vice versa), helping them to understand their different communication styles will help to clear up the conflict and prevent future ones. Remember that empathy is built through the desire to understand another.

There’s one more thing you can do here: avoid evaluative language. Let’s tie this in with our final conflict resolution skill.

6. Negotiation

No matter how empathetic or unbiased your approach is, things won’t untie themselves if you don’t get your point across. Nobody’s asking you to be Raquel Murillo, but brushing up on your negotiation skills can go a long way. (If you haven’t watched Money Heist yet, stop here and watch it — Raquel is a fun character example of a skilled mediator.)

Here are some takeaways to be a better negotiator:

  • Be clear, concise, and specific about what’s bothering you or what you want to say. Spare people the rant.
  • Lean on ‘we’ (you’re a team, after all) instead of the self-absorbent “I” or the accusatory “you.”
  • Express your feelings in words, not actions.
  • Use verbal affirmations to work through a conflict. These are words like “I understand,” “I see,” “sure,” and so on.

That means:

  • Not ideal: You said you don’t want to work with me. How horrible of you!
  • Ideal: I don’t understand why you’re feeling frustrated and don’t want to work with me potentially.

In a remote team, it’s also important you wait your turn. Give the other person time to share their opinion. And don’t go into an interaction to win the argument.

Feeling unmotivated?

Find out how to unlock your motivation.

What is the difference between conflict resolution skills and conflict management skills?

People often use the two terms interchangeably, but there’s one fundamental difference: conflict resolution aims to solve and end a conflict, whereas conflict management aims to minimize the adverse effects and enhance the benefits of conflict.

So, while conflict management may eventually lead to resolution, that is not necessarily the goal.

Now, the idea that conflict may have benefits may surprise you, especially since conflict is often viewed negatively. But let’s take a look at some research.

In a paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers found that conflict can boost creativity by motivating participants to think more deeply.

“For managers, this means that the concept of removing all conflict from your teams should be taken with a pinch of salt,” writes Sujin Lee, one of the paper’s authors. “But this isn’t a call to create a conflictual environment for your employees. Remember that this is about putting people in a frame of mind that makes them aware of the differences between themselves and others.”

Let’s illustrate the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management with an example:

  • Example of when conflict resolution is needed: Client dispute. Let’s say a client calls you and claims a deliverable arrived one week late. You speak with your direct report in charge of the project, and he insists he delivered it on time and the client is mistaken. This urgent matter involves a clear right or wrong behavior—it needs to be solved. This is when you would employ conflict resolution because you want to bring this conflict to an end.
  • Example of when conflict management is needed: Brainstorming sessions. Let’s say you call together a brainstorming session because you want your team to brainstorm new slogans for your company. In a situation like this—where multiple people will be making a case for why their creative idea is better than someone else’s—naturally, conflict will arise. That’s not a bad thing! What is bad is if that conflict becomes disrespectful or destructive.

    Then, ensure opposing opinions are presented respectfully and productively.

15 conflict management skills that will help you create a more harmonious workplace

Now that you see that conflict can be beneficial at times, let’s examine the conflict management skills you can employ to ensure that your team emerges from a disagreement stronger than ever.

1. Observation

One of the foundational conflict management skills is observation because to even begin managing a conflict, you must notice that one exists. Learning to become more observant starts with knowing what to look for.

Here are some signs that there may be a conflict in your team:

  • Raised tone of voice. During a meeting, if you notice someone's tone of voice becomes agitated or louder than usual, you might soon have a conflict.
  • Emotionally charged words. Pay attention to words that indicate negative emotions and differing viewpoints. For example, words like “wrong,” “ridiculous,” “not fair,” or “you're not listening.”
  • Displeased facial expressions. Keep an eye out for any downward turning of the lips, grimacing, eye-rolling, or furrowed eyebrows.
  • Avoidance. Conflict doesn’t always show up as shouting and confrontation. Sometimes, you’ll know there’s a conflict when people start avoiding each other. Look for any behavior change, such as two teammates who used to collaborate suddenly giving each other the silent treatment.

2. Assertiveness

If the first sign of conflict makes you want to run the other way, you may need to work on assertiveness. According to Psychology Today,

“people who are assertive clearly and respectfully communicate their wants, needs, positions, and boundaries to others.”

This is in direct contrast to passivity. Some who is passive might avoid confrontation, meaning they never truly manage conflict because they refuse to acknowledge it.

Being assertive as a manager often means being the first to address a brewing conflict. You must be clear about what you notice, why it’s a problem, and how you intend to help.

3. Diplomacy

When managing conflict on your team, try not to choose sides or pin one person as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad guy.” Though it may be tough to remain impartial, it may be easier if you’re already motivated toward tolerance. Tolerance is one of Marlee's 48 motivational traits. People high in tolerance see the value of having a team full of people with unique individual styles. They understand and embrace that people have different values and approaches.

So, if two teammates have opposing views on approaching a particular problem, it might not be that one approach is right and the other is wrong. Instead, it may just be two different ways of framing an issue.

However, keep in mind that too high a motivation for tolerance can backfire because it can lead to being too tolerant of bad behavior; in that case, you might never address conflicts.

4. Listening

As a manager, it may be tempting to do all the talking when there’s a conflict. But if you genuinely want to see the situation from another person’s perspective, you must ask questions and pay attention to the replies.

It may seem like a simple skill, but surveys show that listening is lacking in the workplace.

A 2020 Leadership IQ survey found that most employees don’t feel like management openly listens to their concerns about discrimination. Only 29% said that management always "listens to employee concerns about discrimination (race, sex/gender, age, etc.) without blame or defensiveness."

Another study, led by John Izzo, polled 675 professionals in the U.S. and Canada, found that employees don’t take initiative at work because leaders don’t ask for their input before making significant decisions.

If you want to make the most of a conflict, listen to your team’s feedback and suggestions.

How to Improve Your Listening Skills | 5 Surprising Techniques

5. Humility

Humility keeps your ego in check. Instead of thinking you have the best idea (which might cause you to overlook other solutions), remain open to the possibility that you are wrong.

Some signs of a humble approach to conflict management:

  • You let the people involved in the dispute speak their thoughts openly instead of discussing them with your ideas.
  • You seek feedback from others about handling the conflict and what you could do better.
  • You accept criticism without defending yourself, and based on that critical feedback, you think of ways to strengthen your conflict management skills.

6. Creativity

To effectively manage conflict, you’ll need to brainstorm new ways to approach the problem and accommodate all sides as much as possible. This requires creativity. Unfortunately, one common side effect of conflict is that we tend to get tunnel vision when we’re upset or under pressure: We’re just unable to see all the possibilities.

To combat this effect, consider the “broaden-and-build” theory. This theory suggests positive emotions— joy, contentment, and amusement—help boost creativity. So, the next time you’re handling a dispute, it’s worthwhile to stay positive. But if you need more actionable steps, check out these team-building activities that can usher in some joy amid the conflict.

7. Collaboration

So what happens if you call upon your creative skills but still feel stuck? That’s when you can tap into your collaboration skills! Remember, you’ve got smart and capable team members at your fingertips. The ones involved in the conflict might be best equipped to brainstorm solutions with you. Be sure to ask for their feedback and actively involve them in the conflict management process.

“Having worked with hundreds of organizations, it has been my experience that a gold mine of talent lay dormant in almost every company,” writes business advisor Dr. John Izzo. “However, there is often a disconnect between leaders and employees so some of the brightest minds with the best ideas go unnoticed.”

By working together with your team and seeking their ideas, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle any problem that comes your way.

8. Adaptability

Conflict management often requires a strategy just as dynamic as your team. You may attempt one approach, but it's okay to change course if it isn’t working well. As a manager, you’ll benefit from remaining adaptable during the process, never getting too attached to one tactic.

9. Emotional management

Being able to handle your emotions is an essential conflict management skill. This includes being able to detach yourself from the outcome emotionally. Remember, conflict management doesn’t directly seek a solution; it merely tries to minimize the negative effects of conflict and maximize the positive effects. If you’re too invested in fixing the problem, you might fail to reap the benefits of the challenge.

10. Resilience

Managing a conflict will inevitably involve disappointments. Maybe a solution you thought would appease both parties failed, or perhaps when you tried to mediate an argument between your teammates, you only made things worse. You won’t get it right 100% of the time, and this can take an emotional toll on you as a manager. Building resilience will ensure you remain mentally strong enough to continue leading your team despite setbacks.

11. Relationship building

As a manager, you must view conflict management through the lens of relationship building. That's because, unlike an outside consultant or mediator, you will work with this team daily. So whenever you’re managing conflict on your team, do not damage the bonds between you and your direct reports.

“Maintaining a positive relationship means understanding, respecting, and staying aware of the other person’s perspective,” writes former hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser, “even—or especially—when you don’t agree with a specific point or behavior, demonstrate your acceptance of them as a person.”

12. Question framing

Questions—and the way you frame them—can greatly influence how someone feels and responds. One helpful tip for asking questions during conflict management is to swap out “why” for “what.”

Why—erm, I mean, what makes this so? Well, “why” tends to put us in defensive mode. We sense that we are being interrogated or accused when we hear that word. But, switch to “what,” and suddenly, the question feels less accusatory.

“The defensive reaction to ‘why’ is something we discovered within the hostage negotiation world,” writes corporate negotiation expert Brandon Voss, “but has proven to be true in both business and personal communication.”

13. Patience

When dealing with conflict, emotions are already running high. Add impatience to the mix, and things could boil over—and all your hard work could go down the drain. Instead of rushing the process and potentially making matters worse, remain patient.

For instance, if you are about to make a decision that could significantly affect the conflict you’re trying to manage, ask yourself, “Do I need to make this decision right now, or can it wait until tomorrow?” Giving a major decision a “cooling off” period can help ensure it’s the right one before moving forward.

14. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is one of the best conflict management skills. If you're being called in to mediate, for example, you'll need to observe and monitor your emotions and biases to ensure they don't negatively color your decisions.

How can you become more self-aware? Ask for feedback.

“Provided it is done well, constructive, formalized feedback allows us to better see our own strengths and weaknesses,” writes Anthony Tjan, founder of venture capital firm Cue Ball. His firm encourages founders to implement a formal feedback process touching upon several competencies.

15. Team awareness

Beyond observing your strengths and weaknesses (we prefer to call these "blind spots" at Marlee), you’ll also need to see them in your team. The unique ways in which each individual views problems and communicates information affect how a conflict arises and is managed.

For example, someone motivated toward neutral communication pays close attention to what is being said and carefully chooses their words. This can be confusing, even frustrating, for someone motivated toward affective communication because an affective communicator focuses on non-verbal, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Conflict between a neutral communicator and an affective communicator may be due to a mismatch in communication styles. But you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t aware of your team’s motivations.

The most effective way to quickly gain team awareness is to answer questions about what motivates you and ask your team to do the same. Then, for example, you can ask Marlee, our AI, "What are potential conflict areas between me and Sara?" You'll receive instant evidence-based insights from Marlee.

Conflict happens even to the best of teams. How will you manage it?

Remember, the goal is not to avoid conflict at all costs but rather to manage conflict in a way that ultimately strengthens your team. There will be friction whenever diverse individuals and novel ideas meet —it’s part of the innovation process!

As a manager, by honing your conflict management skills, you can ensure that the next time your team is in a heated debate, it remains respectful and productive and will ultimately bear good fruit for your organization.

These proven conflict resolution skills can make the difference between a successful remote team and one that’s on the verge of throwing punches. All the time. You can always work on each skill individually and see the difference they make. But, if you look closely, all conflict management skills can be tied back to developing a profound understanding of yourself, your team, and what makes each person tick.

Bring out the best in everyone.

Create your Marlee account now to start chatting and find out about yourself and your team.