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Reduce Stress and Improve Outcomes: A Conflict Management Primer for Business Leaders

Conflict. The word conjures up images of opposition, fighting, adversaries, and other negative images. Yet, conflict can also be a very positive force, often bringing about critically needed adaptation in response to external changes. Just as with fire or even water, it is not conflict itself that is good or bad. The location, amount, and the degree to which it is controlled are much more significant factors. A key business skill for the twenty-first century is knowing how to manage conflict. How well do you manage conflict? Do you feel you do it as well as or less well than you run a meeting? Would you like to reduce your stress when facing potential conflict? If you want to brush up your conflict management skills, you need to understand and apply six basic principles:

  • Choose your conflicts as carefully as you choose your approach.
  • Let the fact that we have twice as many ears as mouths be a useful reminder.
  • Conflicts and icebergs share a common trait: The surface details may get lots of attention, but they are not the whole story.
  • When you are sure you are right or in the right, you probably shouldn’t be–sure, that is.
  • If you think you have already figured out the best or right solution before you start the conflict negotiations, you are already in trouble–and part of the problem.
  • Strive for an “Aye!” for an “Aye!”, not an “eye for an eye.”

By applying these six principles you can drain much of the stress from many of the conflicts you face and you can transform a high percentage of them from distressing struggles into opportunities. Let’s take a look at each principle in more detail.

Choose your conflicts as carefully as you choose your approach.

This is a principle most people understand instinctually, but may not have intentionally applied it to conflicts. When you and a stranger reach simultaneously toward a bucket full of plastic forks at a fast food restaurant, you probably do not make a big scene out of it and shove him out of the way so you can grab yours first. Similarly, if the other person were your mother, you would probably let her go first, even if there were only one fork left in the bucket.

On the other hand, if you and the stranger were both pursuing the same lucrative business contract, you would probably put your best foot forward to compete for it. However, if the other person were your business partner, you would probably collaborate on how to get both of you a part of the work.

Let’s analyze this a bit. In each scenario there were three “players:” you, the other person, and the object you were both pursuing. The presumed approach to each postulated conflict was more cooperative or less cooperative, depending on the importance of the relationship with the other person, and more assertive or less assertive, depending on the importance of the outcome. Given all the possible combinations of relationships and outcomes, you might choose to avoid a conflict altogether, accommodate the other person’s desire, or compete, compromise, or collaborate with the other person. By thinking intentionally about these two factors you can choose not only which conflicts are worth pursuing, but which approach fits best. These approaches might be charted like this:

Let the fact that we have twice as many ears as mouths be a useful reminder.

The degree to which you sincerely and actively listen can significantly improve your chances for a low-stress, high satisfaction resolution to a potential conflict. Most of us have little difficulty expressing our side of the conflict. Because of the emotions that can be involved in conflict, we often have great difficulty absorbing and comprehending the other person’s side of the conflict so they feel they have been listened to. Although we may claim we understand, in general we rarely do. The next time you think you have listened to the other side of the conflict, grade yourself as honestly as you can on how respectful, caring, curious, accepting, open, and responsible you think you were as you listened. You may even want to ask the other person to grade you in each category, too. Did they agree with your ratings? If you are like most of us, we have a higher opinion of our listening abilities when we are emotionally charged than others might.

Okay. So try again. Next time, make sure you use every listening skill you’ve ever been taught. Put enough effort into listening to their side so that you can reflect it back to them flawlessly and the other person gladly gives you “A+” in how you listened. If you do this part right, you will not find it stressful. You will find your curiosity energizing you and your listening energizing the other person . . . positively!

Conflicts and icebergs share a common trait: The surface details may get lots of attention, but they are not the whole story.

When you are listening, try to listen “between the lines.” What unspoken emotions, concerns, and ideas are behind their words? Does the other person’s body language match what they are saying? What is driving the issue? What is really driving the issue? Conflicts are only rarely about what they appear to be about. To the extent you can listen yourself all the way down to the roots of the conflict, you improve your chances of reducing conflict stress.

When you are sure you are right or in the right, you probably shouldn’t be–sure, that is.

While there is nothing wrong with believing whatever you want to believe about the issues of the conflict, maintaining an open mind is a more valuable contributor to resolution than being sure you are right. To own the only right answer in a situation takes a string of absolutely correct choices with corresponding, combined probabilities that approach those associated with being struck by lightning. First, you have to have selected from all the data available the only real data. Based on that real data, you have to have constructed the only correct beliefs about that data. Finally, you have to have selected the only valid applications of those correct beliefs to this situation. Sorry, friend, but reality does not work that way! It would take longer than you have to actually prove that the data and beliefs and applications you did not choose are wrong! As a matter of fact, it would probably take longer than you have to even list all of them! The best you can hope for is to find some real data, correct beliefs, and valid applications.

The bottom line is that you can be confident that you have about as much grasp of the ultimate truth as does the other person in your conflict. Don’t give up listening until you find theirs! Then work with them collaboratively to search for more.

If you think you have already figured out the best or right solution before you start the conflict negotiations, you are already in trouble–and part of the problem.

The problem in most stressful conflicts is not that there is no acceptable solution. It is that each combatant has already figured out the solution they want and that they are trying to bully the other person into accepting it. It is often the case that the most creative conflict resolutions are not even envisioned until late in the process. Participants in conflict who are functioning more like combatants rarely get to that point. They take a position and stick to it. “Positions” are the formal word we could use for each combatant’s chosen solution. They could be characterized just as easily as “demands.” They come across in words like, “For this to be resolved, you need to…”, or, “For this to be resolved, I want….” This usually boils down to “For this to be resolved, I need to win and you need to lose,” even though we almost never admit that to ourselves. We are more likely to think our solution is best not only for us, but for them, too! (We neatly forget that for them to accept our solution, they need to lose theirs!)

That then makes you part of the problem. Let’s put that another way. The conflict may be as bad as it is because of YOU!!” Whether you believe it or not, it’s often true. No matter how much you want to believe this conflict only exists because THEY are so unreasonable, if you walked in the door to talk about the conflict resolution and suggested a solution to which you still cling, you are indeed part of the problem. So how do you get past that? Interests. What is an “interest?” An interest is a need, desire, concern, or fear that drove your desire for the outcome you chose. Try to help yourself and the other person identify the true interests behind your original positions. Try to discover what there is about what is wanted that meets the real need. Try to understand the motivations behind the demands and assertions. Try to understand the purpose for what someone wants or states. Each of these approaches can help ferret out the real interests of each party. In this way you can move the conflict mightily toward finding a creative resolution that meets all parties’ interests better than any of the original positions did to start with (or the conflict would already have been solved).

After the positions have been translated into interests, spend time brainstorming options that could meet most if not all of the interests. Then you are ready to apply the final principle.

Strive for an “Aye!” for an “Aye!”, not an “eye for an eye.”

Start by finding all the ways you can agree on a solution or parts of a solution. Stay positive. Think about how the “glass is half full,” rather than “half empty.” Make tradeoffs and compromises. Expect to give an “Aye!” to meet one of the other party’s interests in return for their giving you an “Aye!” to meet one of yours, if all interests cannot be met equally. Find all the ways you can collaborate and cooperate. Avoid at all costs any mindset of making sure they give up as much as you do. That only sets a tone for the conversation that undermines your getting your interests met. You’ve probably heard it said that two heads are better than one. It applies in conflicts, too. Two people collaborating to find a resolution that meets your interests (and theirs) generally guarantees better outcomes for each of you than if you are out to get your needs met, no matter what. The latter tends to set a tone that drives the other person also to be out for his or her own interests (only “one head” pursuing each person’s personal interests instead of two).


If you apply these six principles, will all your conflicts magically disappear? No, not in the real world. Will they help reduce stress and improve outcomes? Experience has shown they will if you apply them! Experience has also shown that you are not likely to try to apply them unless you have a healthy attitude about conflict. So start right now. Look back at the principles. Notice that they all presuppose an intelligent, rational, curious person. They presuppose a person who thinks about the situation before deciding it is a conflict to pursue; a person who decides what matters in regard to the outcome and relationship with the other person, and what approach is therefore called for. And finally, they presuppose a person who cares enough about a low-stress, quality resolution to collaborate with the other person, despite initial emotions and feelings to the contrary. If you are not already that person, you can decide to be. Decide today to change your attitude. Then start applying the six principles when approaching your next conflicts. Try it! You may discover conflicts aren’t so bad after all!


Cloke, K. and Goldsmith, J. (2000). Resolving Conflicts at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenberg, M. (1999). Nonviolent Communications…A Language of Compassion. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.


Jerry Straks

Jerry Straks is a management consultant and certified professional coach in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in sustainable leadership development and strategic organization development. Both are aimed at helping organizations respond more nimbly and proactively to competitive challenges in an increasingly dynamic and changing world. In these roles he… MORE >

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