The Ultimate Guide to Conflict Resolution
The perfect resource for beginner-to-advanced leaders looking to learn new skills or hone existing ones.
The Ultimate Guide to Conflict Resolution is full of insights and strategy for executives, business owners, team leaders, individual contributors, students, and anyone else looking to hone their current skills and get up to speed on the least stressful way to resolve conflicts.
Read it now to build or refine your approach without fear, conflict avoidance, or missteps that come with shooting from the hip.
How Do You Handle Conflict?
Conflict: just the word causes unease in the minds of leaders who struggle with a fear of confrontation.
But could this dread be the product of a larger problem? That’s what we’ve found with many of our clients.
Unfortunately, most people do not know how to solve conflicts productively because they are uncertain about how to start a conversation when the topic is difficult.
It's because they are uncomfortable with going directly to team members to discuss a conflict situation because they believe it may get worse.
The same goes for the team members themselves—they avoid conflict and tough conversations, but mostly because they fear hurting people’s feelings. So many people have had unpleasant experiences with conflict in the past that it inhibits them from acting more effectively.
"80% of conflict is caused by a lack of trust and communication,
and only 20% is caused by conflicting goals and personalities."
— Dr Mary Kay
Preventing Destructive Conflict
Conflicts start out small, flare up and then die down; it’s a typical destructive cycle that exists in all workplaces.
Usually, everyone knows that this conflict cycle exists, but no one knows how to stop it—not even managers, who instead may revert to their old, familiar, habits and ignore the conflict so that they don’t have to deal with people situations.
It’s a big mistake to avoid situations like this, regardless of how tough they are. Letting the conflict go on un- checked is unfair to you and your team, and can be costly to your company by affecting results and negatively impacting performance.
Ignoring the destruction shows that you care mostly about your own interests and are not outwardly focused, which just contributes to the problem.
Proactive Leaders, conversely, are eager to uncover destructive conflicts and prevent them. They know that having tough discussions is the right thing to do and believe in the success of others; they know that without engaging in difficult conversations, team members can’t be successful.
It is by giving team members an opportunity to solve the conflict that Ultimate Leaders get positive results.
The Conversation Map
When entering unknown territory, it’s a good idea to bring along a map, and the same goes for when you’re entering a tough conversation.
During interactions, a map can ensure that you do not talk about the same misunderstanding more than once and do not skip steps; it also facilitates moving from venting to solutions and over to actions—the phase in which positive results take place.
The Conversation Map is a consistent system that works every time.
It teaches us how to communicate with, influence,and help each other. It can also teach team members how they can solve difficult situations by themselves in the future.
More on the process of how to use the Conversation Map later in this guide.
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Why We Initiate Tough Discussions
Resolving misunderstandings provides opportunities
for implementing leadership skills in the areas of:
The Conversation Map Process
Before attempting to use a Conversation Map, you must make sure that the misunderstanding or conflict to be resolved is truly impacting productivity. If team members are just having disagreements amongst themselves that are not affecting the working environment, the conversation map model is not really necessary.
This is a tool to be used for larger-scale issues only, ones that are currently impacting productivity and results.
You might believe that you can’t really do anything about somebody’s attitude, but you can. For
example, when an individual’s attitude makes team members want to leave the company, that is the time for you to step up and take action.
Leaders don’t let anything that affects productivity exist in their workplace or organization.
You can have two types of conversations using a Conversation Map: one-on-one, or a facilitated
discussion. Whichever type you choose, the map (see Conversation Map graphic) will chart the difficult but necessary conversation from beginning to end.
Let’s look at an example of a time when you might want
to informally utilize the Conversation Map.
Say you have a people situation in the workplace that’s affecting productivity, and you’ve determined that one employee—in this case, we’ll call him Steve—is slowing everybody else down. Everyone on the team knows this, but no one has felt comfortable enough to go to Steve directly and
discuss the situation.
Now, when something like this arises, a manager should be talking to Steve about being a better team member but, in this case, the manager either isn’t aware of the problem, or is isolating himself and ignoring it. This is a great opportunity for you to step up and take the reins, by following the map in order to reap results.
Using the Conversation Map starts with the two steps: evaluating the situation and going directly to
the person in question. Let’s look at what each step involves.
Two Formats for Resolving Misunderstandings
1. Informal Conversation
— casual conversation
— all involved communicate
— verbal commitments
2. Facilitated Conversation
— formal meeting time
— designated person facilitates
— written commitments
The Conversation Map Step-By-Step
This step cannot take more than twenty-four hours; if it does, that means you’re procrastinating, and
not making the decisions that you need to make in order to go on to the next step. Here, you must ask yourself: Am I too emotional to go to Steve right now? Is the timing right for what’s going on in the workplace? Has Steve’s behavior been part of a pattern, or is it a one-time occurrence? Ask yourself these questions just to make sure that you’re using the map appropriately, at the right time and in the right place.
If you don’t go directly to the source of the problem, you’ll break down trust; even though many
people know this, they just don’t know how to begin the approach. If you’ve hesitated to have tough
conversations because you weren’t sure how to start, use the following conversation-starting tool to
package your communication into three parts:
• State how you feel about the situation.
• State the topic or behavior.
• End with how the problem impacts the organization.
“Steve, I feel upset [situation] when phone calls are not returned [behavior] because the people completing the orders can’t get products to the customer [impact].” It’s not unusual to become emotional when discussing issues that can impact the organization, so don’t panic if that’s how you feel. Just remember that you can state your emotions without being emotional, and that you need to be certain to include all three elements when you start the conversation. This will set you on a level playing field with your listeners, and show them that you have the right intentions.
One important word to avoid when starting conversations about problems with others is “you.” Here is an example of an ineffective opening statement with Steve: Steve has been annoying you so you finally get around to going directly to Steve and say, “You, haven’t returned my phone calls. You are ignoring me!” When you make the discussion personal like that, Steve will take it personally, and will be less inclined to hear you out, much less do what you want them to.
By repackaging your message to be in line with the three steps outlined in the “go direct” step above, you can really open up a conversation. By further utilizing the conversation map, you can move smoothly from start to finish and end up with result-oriented actions and positive outcomes. Just as a land map helps you move safely from one territory to another, this one will guide you through the conversations that have been a source of anxiety.
In The Open
When you start conversations it’s important to listen to what others have to say—to let
them express their feelings and vent without you interrupting them or explaining your side of the situation. By letting each team member speak while others listen, the conversation will be focused and regulated.
The real value of this step is that team members get to hear what they’ve never hear before—each other’s opinions, hurt feelings, or complaints. The focus is not on who’s right or wrong or what’s fact or fiction; the only focus here is getting perceptions out in the open, and getting on to
the next step.
Red Light/Green Light
Most people avoid conflict because the “In the Open” step is as far as the conversation gets. A red light/green light statement propels the conversation to move from venting to solutions.
When people are venting and then they stop and say something like, “Well, that about covers it,” that is your cue to ask the commitment question: “Would you like better results than you’re currently getting with everyone in the department, starting today?”
The answer to this question is what determines whether the conversation continues to a resolution—that is, gets the green light—or gets the red light and ends the conversation. Ultimate Leaders who focus on letting people solve their own situations should always ask this commitment question.
If you’ve gotten the green light, you and your team member will now be able to put together possible solutions and focus on actions that each of you can take. When you get to this step, start with the person (Steve) first and focus on positive steps that he can take, reminding him of all the possibilities that are open to him.
At this point, your conversation has really become powerful, as you’ve allowed it to transition forward. You have taken the energy of frustration and redirected it to
From this conversation, you and Steve can create a plan for what each of you is going
to do. “I really need to send you an e-mail promptly,” he might say, to which you might reply, “And I
need to be more open with you.” Steve may admit that he needs to share more information about
projects with others who are involved and, in return, you can suggest regular meetings to discuss
Together, you can come up with a multitude of ways in which you can improve
the tense situation that brought you together in the first place, and these ideas are the basis of an
You and Steve must agree that no matter what happens after this discussion, you will give each other feedback on how it’s going. Many people fail to communicate in this way when there’s tension; unfortunately, they also fail to communicate when there’s progress.
Relying on each other to give feedback and follow-up on action plans will sustain productive behaviors for the long run.
Conversation Map Components
When Do You Need a Facilitated Conversation?
In each red light/green light scenario, people generally answer the commitment question with “Yes, I
would like different results in this situation starting today”. But sometimes that’s just not the case.
When you approach another person with an issue that needs to be discussed, keep in mind that there is always the chance that he or she will be taken off guard, and will become upset by what you have to say and give you the “red light” instead. This is okay; there’s no need for you to get emotional about it.
At that point, you can simply say to your team member, “At this point, we’re stuck. I had hoped you
would like to solve this together, but we do have other options. We could ask someone to facilitate a
conversation between you and me. What would you like to do?”
If you and the other person truly wants to work through this conflict, you and Steve will agree to the
facilitated conversation, and your letting him have the choice of facilitator really gives him a feeling of having a stake in the issue’s outcome, since he will be able to select someone he knows and trusts.
Whether or not the facilitator is familiar with the details of the conflict is not essential; the facilitator is there not to solve the conflict but to guide you, Steve, and any other involved team members to solve it yourselves.
The facilitator can be anyone who is familiar with the Conversation Map’s steps (see Facilitated
Conversation Checklist). An example of conflict resolution through a facilitated conversation is
outlined in the following scenario:
Facilitated Conversation Checklist
Evaluate: Facilitator Preparation
- 1Is tension or miscommunication affecting productivity?
- 2Are policies being adhered to?
- 3Have the parties casually tried to resolve this situation?
- 4Is the timing right?
- 5Will conflict resolution be supported by the manager(s)?
- 6Am I a neutral facilitator?
Go Direct & In The Open: Tell Me About It
- 1Communicate “Conversation Map” agenda.
- 2Observation Statement: Open with one behavior “I’ve noticed...” or “I understand...”
- 3Program people to talk; communication is a 50/50 dialogue. Write down topics of venting/storming to track repeated subjects.
- 4Listen, ask clarifying questions. DO NOT FIX IT!
Solutions & Action Plan: Get The Score
- 1Commitment Question — determines red or green light. “Would you like different results that we currently have regarding ________________ starting today?”
- 2If you get a red light — communicate the situation will not be resolved on the front wheel. That is OK, it is their choice.
- 3If you get a green light — the situation moves to action plan. “What is one action you will implement starting TODAY?”
- 4Action plans must be written. Each person receives a copy before they leave the meeting.
Acknowledge: Feedback Process
- 1Positive feedback reinforces action plan. PROVIDE IMMEDIATELY.
- 2Negative feedback reinforces action plan. PROVIDE IMMEDIATELY. “Go to each other first if you perceive an action plan is not being acted upon.” Communicate: “I’m confused, my understanding of the actions were...”
- 3One chance to slip from action plan.
- 4People choose to be a part of the team/solution or not. “Contact me together if the commitments are not being implemented. From today on, our discussions will only be on the action plans.”
- 1Schedule follow-up session or phone call prior to completing session.
- 2Follow-up session reviews progress of action plan.
- 3Add additional action plans only if tension still exists.
Taking the Back Wheel (Management) Option
In our training, managers will sometimes ask us why they can just start with this step—that is, why they can’t just go to the manager and resolve the conflict using the back wheel approach and get the whole thing done quickly. Our answer, of course, is always the same: because this option is not a long-term solution. Though it’s useful and appropriate to be told what to do in some situations, in general people like and should be encouraged to think for themselves. And the majority of the time, when people are allowed to resolve their own conflicts, they do so effectively—and the solutions they implement will last.
Avoiding Attack-Defend Conflict
Although conflict is an essential problem-solving tool, it should not be approached as an attack defend interaction. Telling team members what to do doesn’t get long-term results. We need a different, communication tool. Leaders are trusted coaches who teach team members to speak up, listen to one another, and solve their own problems. To illustrate this phenomenon, we’ll use an example from the personal side of life. Suppose you go home at night and discover that your teenager wrecked the family car. You would probably demand to know what happened, but when your child tries to explain what may have been a faultless accident, you would go on the defensive, blaming your child for what happened and telling her that she should not have been speeding, should have been more careful, or whatever admonishment fits.
Attack and Defend
This is an example of an attack-defend conflict, wherein the speaker attacks someone who has done something offensive to them and then tries to defend their outburst by putting blame on the other party. Attack-defend is always an unproductive method of conversation and should be avoided as much as possible—both at home and at work.
Instead, try using the conversation map to work your way through this situation. Allow your son or daughter a ten-minute venting phase to explain what happened; let them talk until they repeat themselves, and make sure that you listen carefully. Then, take your own ten minutes to speak your thoughts as your son or daughter listens. At the end of the venting (In the Open) period, ask each
other, “Would we like different results than we currently have?” Hopefully, you will both indicate “yes,” and give the green light. Then, you can ask each other, “What could we do, starting right now, to make this situation better?”
When you’re stuck in the attack-defend mode, you can be so busy reacting that you don’t take the valuable opportunity to teach your child how to communicate and how to listen. By utilizing the Conversation Map, whether you’re dealing with problems at home or at work, you can facilitate a tough conversation anywhere, with anyone, very effectively.
Leaders address people situations affecting productivity with the same urgency as quality or safety situations. The goal is to spend more time on possible solutions and very little time on who did what to whom; blame does not matter, and attacking is never the right thing to do. The point is to get to a solution that will last.
There is no reason that a conversation should ever be unproductive if you use the Conversation Map. Remember that you do not always have to be the problem solver or mediator; all you need to do is follow the steps of the map, and encourage your others to do the same.
One of the best suggestions we can make to our clients who are learning how to be leaders within their organizations, whatever their communication style, is to never take shortcuts. Never skip over a step in the Conversation Map. Don’t repeat steps, either—don’t go back and rehash what you’ve already covered; this does nothing but give people more negative things to think about instead of moving forward toward resolution.
Shortcuts can be a major problem, though, when you’re trying to push for results. Does this look like any conversations you’ve had lately? Manager: I’ve noticed that you haven’t been acting as though you’re part of the team lately, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that. Employee: I agree. There’s a problem. Manager: Here’s what we can do to fix it.
If this sounds like the way you communicate, it means that you’re a faster-paced communicator, and you may not be getting the results that you’re after. The reason for this? Your conversation is incomplete—you have taken a shortcut to the Action Plan step and have not let the other person dialogue or get things off their chests and determine if THEY want to solve the situation or not.
You have become too focused on your action plan, have not heard their thoughts on the subject, and did not get their buy-in—without which they will not follow through on the solution you came up with. When managers get excited about employees acknowledging a problem, they can get into trouble because they fail to ask for the employees’ commitment. Without the commitment, the problem will continue.
If instead, you’re more of a faster-paced, people-oriented communicator, you may tend to shortcut the Evaluate step and head right for the Go Direct and In The Open steps. Since you’re using your leadership skills and going direct, you may think that
it’s a good idea to go up to a team member who’s having some problems and say, “Do you know what people are saying about you? When you were at lunch, they said that you hadn’t completed a report.”
But this is really not the way to go. This is communicating your own opinion of the situation, instead of letting him figure things out for himself; it’s called “stirring the pot,” and it’s a telltale habit of reactive communication and not a team member.
Follow These Guidelines For
Effective Conflict Resolution
Conversely, slower-paced, people-oriented communicators tend to stay in Evaluate mode forever— and in fact never even get around to having the conversation with the other person. They think about it and know that they should do it, but it just never happens, whether from fear or lack of time, or whatever excuse they want to give.
This can create so much tension in the workplace—on the part of the communicator, who lives with that phantom conversation hanging over his head, and on the part of the person creating the tension whose behavior is never addressed—but everyone lives with it because they don’t trust each other enough to confront the situation.
Slower-paced, task-oriented communicators have their own shortcuts as well. They usually go straight to the Solution step instead of finding the right balance between Evaluation, going directly to the individual, and allowing them to vent. In this scenario, the communicator takes an investigative approach and tries to find out if anyone else has a problem with the person in question.
This is appropriate if a procedure or policy, such as harassment or discrimination, has been broken, but if you’re dealing with people issues involving only the individual and no one else, an investigation is inappropriate. When this is the case, the only person who needs to know about it—and the only one who can fix it—is the individual, and he can’t do that if he’s not aware of the problem.
Team Members Informally Communicating
Example Scenario: Frank feels Randy is not pulling his weight. Productivity is affected
because Randy and Frank are not working together. Both members are trying to practice their Conversation Map skills.
What is Going Well?
What is Not Going Well?
Informal Conversation Gets Stuck
Your Scenario: ____________________________________________________________________________
What is Going Well?
What is Not Going Well?
Example Scenario: Frank has attempted going direct to Randy. Randy and Frank havedecided to have a facilitator help them communicate so they don’t get too emotional. They ask Andy to be their facilitator. Andy has completed his/her preparation and the actual meeting is now going to begin.
What is Going Well?
What is Not Going Well?
Conversation Map Action Plan
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I use the Conversation Map process and it gets heated or out of control?
Stop the conversation, thank the parties involved, and resume the conversation in 24 hours. When resuming the conversation proceed to the next step from where you stopped rather than starting over.
Will the tension return after following all the Conversation Map steps?
No, if regular communication between all participants occurs. It is important to celebrate success as well as hold people accountable.
What happens if someone doesn't keep their commitment to the action plan?
This is an opportunity! It's a clear indicator that the person doesn't want to solve it—they need their immediate manager to provide clarity of what right looks like and solve it for them.
When is the appropriate time to use the Conversation Map?
Within 24 hours of the tension or misunderstanding—unless the people involved are breaking a company policy or are too emotional. If a company policy has been broken their manager needs to resolve the misunderstanding.
How can I learn more about effectively influencing people to do their job?
The Ultimate Leader Success online course is a complete resource for getting results with and through people. One side effect of this course is you'll probably be promoted a lot sooner than you think.
Dr. Mary Kay
Creator of The Ultimate Guide to Conflict Resolution
About the Author
Hi, I'm Dr. Mary Kay, the co-founder of About Leaders.
Over my 30 year career as a leadership coach, author, and course creator, I've had the good fortune to work with thousands of leaders at hundreds of companies. My passion is helping people master the art of building high-performing, self-correcting teams.
Using this experience, I've helped thousands of leaders like you to become experts at resolving conflicts. Even conflicts that have festered for years and seem insurmountable.
If you are struggling with conflicts that right now seem unsolvable and want to level up your skills to handle any conflicts no matter how big, I invite you to check out the Ultimate Leader Success course.
I personally guarantee you'll love it!
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