Resolving conflicts: here’s one you can try at home

Fighting the good fight

You can’t control others’ acts but you can control how you react” (Old saying)

A while back during a management class, the instructor gave us a simple model for conflict resolution. She explained how it worked and mentioned that it could be used in any context – projects or even domestically! I’ve used this model continuously and have drawn the picture for many others on whiteboards, on restaurant napkins and once even on a beach.

A simple framework for conflict resolution

The figure above is all that you have to remember. On the vertical axis is my own happiness. On the horizontal axis is my need to keep others happy. Here’s how it works: When there is a conflict in play, there are four options that I have. I’ll describe each one in sequence and when I choose to use it.

Quadrant 1: Do not engage, walk away. This is my first filter. I choose to avoid the conflict under the following conditions:

–       I am up against an almighty stakeholder and I’m likely to come off second-best. Better not to pick fight. Better to be unhappy than to risk being unhappy and crushed.

–       OR: There is no possible positive outcome from the conflict (eg. roadrage temptation). Better to walk away.

–       OR: I’m indifferent to the outcome of the conflict. Better not to expend the energy getting involved.  I ask myself: “do I really care about the outcome or am I engaging because my pride has been wounded?”

This first-pass filter has saved me from a lot of unnecessary heartache. I no longer get upset about minor things, don’t fight other people’s battles and if I am going to engage ‘on principle’, I make certain that it’s a line in the sand worth defending.

Quadrant 2: Confront the problem. Once I know that it’s a cause worth fighting for, I immediately move towards a responsible confrontation with the other stakeholders (project team members, my wife, whoever…). Confronting an issue is the best way to find a solution where all parties are happy. The dragon is slain and doesn’t come back. I’m ok if things get heated as long as we’re both lucid and understand that we’re still searching for a common solution.

Quadrant 3: Smoothing things over. There are always folks for whom a confrontation is seen as a ‘bad thing’ or a lack of control. They’re the ones who are quick to step in and pull parties apart saying ‘play nice’. This is crummy. It stops the problem being solved and the pain will be sure to return. The person doing the smoothing feels that they have done something good yet the person with the problem is left unsatisfied. As a project manager I’m quick to spot stakeholders who avoid confrontations. With these folks, I’ve found it best to actually draw the framework in the figure and say “I’m taking us to the scary place so that we can find a solution together. Because I care.”. The only time I’ll smooth things over is if the emotions are running so high that folks are no longer lucid.

Quadrant 4: Forcing. If after trying to confront the problem and getting no joy, I’m prepared to enforce a decision. Personally on projects this is a last resort but one I’m prepared to make if the stakes are high enough eg. a team cannot reach consensus on a time-critical project. People won’t be happy but it allows me to move on.

If they are worthy, confront problems. It’s the best approach to a sustainably happy outcome. 


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3 Responses to Resolving conflicts: here’s one you can try at home

  1. Gaff says:

    Interesting. Here’s a post from another very smart guy:

    How to avoid the break-up arguments.


    • crossbolt says:

      Hey Gaff, thanks for the feedback. I read the article and the word association article. They’re right about asking directly not always being beneficial. There’s an old counselling technique that you can use to help to find out how someone is feeling: feel what emotion resonates inside you (or guess one) when listening to the other person then state is as a fact: for example you may say: “It sounds like you’re pretty disappointed with x”. People are more likely to to agree or disagree with the statement then to give you a response to the generic “how are you feeling?” in which case the answer is usually “fine”. You do have to be a good, sincere listener though 🙂

  2. Simphiwe says:

    The big takeaway for me is that there is a place for each strategy. While quadrant 2 represents, the optimal strategy, it is not always the right strategy for all situations.

    Insightful article – thank you.

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