Find Mediators Near You:

What’s a Conflict?

Permission to publish Chapter 1 of Conflict Resolution has been granted by The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Is This a Conflict?

Seamus is about to graduate from a prestigious university
and he already has received two excellent job offers. But
he’s not happy. What should be a happy situation is tainted by
his anxiety about which offer to accept.

The offer from a promising dotcom startup company could
be a fabulous opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the
next Microsoft. He fantasizes about retiring at age 35 on his own
Caribbean Island. But this dotcom could fizzle, like so many
other high-tech startups have fizzled, leaving him on the street
in a few months looking for a new job.

His other offer is from a Fortune 50 smokestack company
that has been in business for over a century, so he’s sure it
won’t disappear into thin air as the dotcom might do. But career
advancements would be slow. And, he fears being left behind in
the technological revolution.

Seamus knows this decision will chart the course of his
career for years, if not decades. “What should I do? … What if I
make the wrong decision? . . . How can I resolve this conflict?,”
he cries in anguish.

Is this a conflict?

No. Seamus is torn between two apparently incompatible
options about which job to take, but this is not a conflict. His
“conflict” is indecision about alternative courses of action, which
can be resolved by using good decision-making tools.

Good decision-making helps to prevent conflict. If Seamus
takes the wrong job and finds himself unhappy and his unhappiness
spills over into his relationships at work, the seeds are
sown for conflict.

Is This a Conflict?

Teammates Susan and Sean are struggling with a difficult technical
problem. Susan describes to Sean an approach to solving
it that she finds compelling. “Doesn’t that make sense to you?”
she asks, hoping that he is persuaded by her logic.

“You make a good case,” agrees Sean, “but I think you’ve
overlooked a critical piece of information. Did you see the
memo from the folks over in research that warned about the
dangers of doing it that way?”

“Yes, I did,” Susan replied. “But they were talking about a
very different kind of situation from the one we’re dealing with.”
They argue back and forth, each teammate adding more
information to support his or her position. Each one considers
the other’s perspective, but they continue to see the problem

Is this a conflict?

Nope. Susan and Sean disagree, but they are not in conflict.
Their “conflict” is the absence of agreement about how to solve
a problem that they share responsibility for solving. They are
communicating well but haven’t yet arrived at a shared view of
the problem. They need to use good problem-solving tools.
Good problem-solving helps to prevent conflict. If Susan and
Sean continue to disagree, they may become frustrated and
each may begin to view the other as stubborn, stupid, and
incompetent. Once their disagreement is personalized in this
way, they’ve crossed the border into the land of conflict.

Is This a Conflict?

Deana comes home from work totally drained after another
hard day at the office. She is nearly in tears with fatigue and
frustration. “I don’t know if I can take another day in that place,”
she complains to her husband, Lowell.

“What went on at the office today, honey?” he asks attentively.
“Oh, that noisy construction is still going on across the
street, and I found out today that it won’t be finished for at least
another month,” Deana replies. “And the deadline is coming up
soon on the big project I’ve been working on. I’m just not sure I
can get it done on time. If I don’t, I’ll let the whole team down.
I’m worried sick that this job just won’t work out. I can’t take
much more of this conflict.”

Is this a conflict?

Nope, not this one either. Deana is experiencing a high level
of job stress, but her situation is not a conflict. Her “conflict” is
her emotional distress about an unpleasant and anxiety-producing
situation. She needs to use good stress-management tools.
Good stress management helps to prevent conflict. If
Deana’s job stress causes her to become irritable and cranky
with her coworkers, they may begin to view her as a “difficult
person” who is unlikable and unpleasant. Conflict is a short step
beyond personal dislike.

Is This a Conflict?

Jon and Donna work closely—or at least they’re supposed to.
Their desks are close. Jon often gets up from his chair to pace
while he’s thinking. This drives Donna crazy. “Can’t you just sit
still for five minutes?,” she asks, her voice tight with tension.
“Do you have a medical problem? How do you expect me to
concentrate with all your commotion?”

“Look, I need to move around to think,” Jon retorts angrily.
“Besides, what right do you have to complain? You wear that
horrendous perfume that pollutes the air I have to breathe. Are
you trying to cover up the
fact that you don’t bathe?”
Jon and Donna typically
talk this way to each

Is this a conflict?

Bingo! Indeed it is. But
why? What is it about this
last scenario that is different
from the first three?

Jon and Donna are experiencing conflict because:

1. They are interdependent. That is, each needs something
from the other and they are vulnerable if they don’t get it.
Donna needs a quiet place to work, but Jon’s pacing disturbs
her. Jon needs to pace in order to think, but Donna’s
complaints about his movement prevent him from doing so.
And . . .

2. They blame each other. That is, they find fault with each
other for causing the problem. Donna criticizes Jon for
being inconsiderate of her need for peace and quiet. Jon
criticizes Donna for being unwilling to accept his need to
move around. Here, their faultfinding has become personal,
going beyond the immediate workplace issue. Donna hints
that Jon may have some kind of medical or personal defect
that keeps him from working quietly like a “normal” person
should. Jon is not so subtle, criticizing Donna’s taste in perfume
and even questioning her personal hygiene.
And . . .

3. They are angry. That is, they feel emotionally upset. Donna
and Jon are openly angry with each other. But in many
conflicts anger is kept hidden. Sometimes we keep up the
appearance of politeness and cordiality so well that our
coworkers might not even be able to see that we are emotionally
upset. Whether hidden or obvious, the emotion we
all know as anger is always present when there’s a conflict.
And . . .

4. Their behavior is causing
a business problem.

That is, each
one’s productivity and
job performance is
affected by their lack
of cooperation. Both
Donna and Jon are
distracted from their
own work by the
other’s actions. The
fact that they don’t like
each other, by itself, is
not the business problem.
The problem that matters to the business is the impact
on job performance caused by the behaviors that each one
uses as they interact.

If we are going to learn how to resolve conflict, we first need
to know what conflict is. Otherwise, we may be using an excellent
tool to fix the wrong problem, like the carpenter who tries to
drive a nail with a screwdriver. This book describes tools for
resolving conflicts that fit this definition.

Kinds of Workplace Conflict

We see in the above scenarios
that the word “conflict”
is commonly used in
everyday speech to label
various human experiences,
ranging from indecision
to disagreement to
stress. To be correctly
understood as a “conflict,”
a situation must contain
each of the four elements
of our definition: A
condition between or
among workers whose jobs
are interdependent, who feel angry,
who perceive the other(s) as being at
fault, and who act in ways that cause
a business problem.

Notice that this definition includes
feelings (emotions), perceptions
(thoughts), and actions (behaviors).
Psychologists consider these three
the only dimensions of human experience.
So, conflict is rooted in all parts
of our human nature.

But there are different types of conflict that fit this definition.
They differ in ways that give us clues about how they can be
resolved. We need to understand what kind of conflict we’re
dealing with before we can select the appropriate conflict-resolution
tool to resolve it.

Let’s use the word “structure” to refer to the ways that we
can analyze conflicts. We must first understand the structure of
a conflict to decide how to resolve it successfully. Fortunately,
there are only six parts of conflict structure that we need to pay
attention to:

1. Interdependency.

How much do the parties need each other
to act cooperatively, to provide resources, or to provide satisfaction
of other needs? If interdependency is high, then the
costs of not resolving it are also likely to be high. (See
Chapter 2 for a way to measure the financial cost of unresolved
conflict.) If interdependency is low, then “watchful
waiting” may be an appropriate conflict-management strategy.
If there were absolutely no interdependency, then conflict
wouldn’t exist at all. So, by definition, conflict occurs only
between parties who need each other and who cannot simply
leave the relationship with no negative consequences.

2. Number of interested parties.

How many distinct parties—
individuals or groups—have an interest in how the conflict
is resolved? If there are only two parties in conflict, and
those parties are individuals, resolving it can often be surprisingly
easy and quick. As the number and size of parties
increase, there are more people to please and the difficulty
of resolving the conflict increases.

3. Constituent representation.

Do the parties represent the
interests of other people (“constituents”) who are not personally
and directly involved in the process of resolving the
conflict? When we speak only for ourselves and do not have
to please others who are not present and involved, resolution
is much easier. Reaching an agreement that is acceptable
to everyone who is affected by how the issue is
resolved, especially those who are not personally involved,
is more difficult.

4. Negotiator authority.

If the parties consist of more than one
individual, say a department within an organization, is the
person or team of people who represent the interests of that
department able to make concessions or reach creative
solutions without going back to their constituents for approval?
If negotiator authority is high, then resolution is easier.
If negotiator authority is low, then the process of resolving
the conflict will take longer and will be more difficult.

5. Critical urgency.

Is it absolutely necessary that a solution be
found in the very near future, i.e., in the next few minutes or
hours, to prevent a disaster? Or is there time to talk together
for an extended time to find the best solution? Even better,
is there no immediate crisis at all, allowing people to
interact with each other in ways that prevent conflicts from
arising in the first place? The greater the critical urgency,
the less likely a consensual solution.

6. Communication channels.

Are the parties able to talk to
each other face to face in the same room? If this is not possible,
can they talk voice to voice on the telephone? Or must
they talk keyboard to keyboard by using real-time (synchronous)
Internet technology, such as an on-line conference or
chat room? Or is it necessary that they communicate
back and forth
using an asynchronous
technology, such as email?
dialogue nearly
always produces far
better solutions than
lesser communication

Every manager, from
time to time, has to deal

with conflicts that are defined by a variety of structures. Let’s
take several kinds of workplace conflicts and examine their

Interpersonal Conflict

The conflict between Donna and Jon is an “interpersonal conflict,”
which is the simplest and easiest kind to resolve. And it is
the most common kind of conflict in workplaces.

Two mediation tools—managerial mediation and self-mediation
—are designed to resolve interpersonal conflicts and will be
described in future chapters. Using these tools results in a
mutually acceptable solution to the business problem about
nine out of 10 times. Considering that the success rate of conflict
avoidance is zero, that’s pretty impressive!

Returning to our tale of woe, I’ll introduce you to Edna, who
is Donna and Jon’s manager. Edna, whose office is just down
the hall from their workstations, is very aware of the conflict
between her two employees. She’s overheard their arguments
firsthand. Their coworkers have also come to her to complain
about the tension between Donna and Jon and about how much
it interferes with their own work. Edna recognizes that Donna
and Jon are both good workers who try to do their best, but the
tension between them is causing their job performance and productivity
to suffer.

Edna can use managerial mediation to resolve their dispute
so Donna and Jon can get back to working together effectively.
Chapter 4 will explain exactly how Edna is going to accomplish
this feat.

But first, Edna will think about the structure of conflict
between Donna and Jon. She’ll ask herself these six questions:
Are they interdependent? Yes, each one needs the other to
avoid doing things that disturb his or her concentration. If
Donna or Jon could be simply relocated so they were not near
each other and their work redesigned so their job tasks were
unrelated (that is, eliminate their interdependency), the conflict
would disappear.

Otherwise, they remain
highly interdependent.
How many interested
parties? Only two—Jon
and Donna. Their coworkers
want their conflict to be
resolved, so they won’t be
distracted by their public
clashes, but the coworkers don’t have a stake (an interest) in
how it is resolved.
Do they represent constituencies? No. Their coworkers
want the problem to be solved, but Donna and Jon don’t have
to get approval from coworkers for how they decide to do that.
Do they have authority to negotiate on behalf of their own
interests? Absolutely. Since there are no constituencies, there’s
no one to please but themselves.
Is this an urgent crisis? Nope. Their behavior is affecting
performance and productivity, but no disaster looms on the
horizon. Although their conflict is happening in the moment, it’s
not a crisis—if they don’t resolve it today, they’ll just spat again
Can they communicate face to face? Certainly. They are in
the same physical area, so direct (same-time-same-place)
communication is possible.

No Third Party?

But what if Edna doesn’t know about the conflict between
Donna and Jon? Maybe her office is in another building, or
another city, far away. Or maybe she just doesn’t know how to
deal with it, and so buries her head in the sand. Does the conflict
stay unresolved?

Not necessarily. Either Donna or Jon can use a mediation
tool, self-mediation, that doesn’t involve a third party. If either
employee knew about the tool and chose to use it, he or she
could initiate a dialogue with the other.

The initiator of self-mediation
plays two roles:
first, as a negotiator who is
trying to get his or her
own interests satisfied, and
second, as a mediator who
is doing some simple
tasks that a third-party
mediator would do, if a
third party were present.
But remember: Edna has
her head in the sand and no one else is there to mediate. So,
Donna or Jon can mediate.

Imagine that you are either Jon or Donna and that your
manager, Edna, is on the other side of the planet. It’s up to you
to mediate this conflict with your frustrating coworker. If you
choose to use self-mediation, you would be the one who analyzes
the conflict structure. Would you arrive at the same
answers as Edna? Yes, you would. Structure is a property of the
conflict, not of the mediator. Structure is in the nature of the
conflict itself.

Team Conflict

Let’s look at a conflict with a slightly different structure.
Karen leads a six-member project team that was created to
develop a new insurance product and bring it to market. Each
member brings a special expertise to the project, but their tasks
must be carefully coordinated so that time is not wasted by any
member going one direction while the rest of the team is going
another. So, the team meets at least once a day for each member
to give progress reports to the others.

A conflict has developed between the members of the team
who are conducting market research and those who are designing
the pricing structure of the new product. Over the past several
days, the team’s meetings have become increasingly divisive.
Todd, who heads the pricing sub-team, complains that

Jeanine, who heads the market research sub-team, is not collecting
market data quickly enough.

“My people have a deadline for submitting the pricing structure
to top management,” Todd declares, “and we aren’t going
to have time to run the necessary tests unless you get the market
data to us. That’s going to make us look really bad. Hurry it
up, will you!”

Jeanine retorts, “We can’t help it if the market sample we
have to study are busy people with jobs to do. They aren’t just
sitting by their phones waiting for us to call. We sometimes
have to play telephone tag for days before we’re able to reach
them. So don’t blame us for things we don’t have any control

Todd and Jeanine lead the argument and the rest of the
team falls in behind them. Karen realizes that a serious rift is
developing on her team that endangers its success.
Let’s help Karen think about the structure of the conflict she
faces. In most respects the structure is similar to the interpersonal
conflict between Donna and Jon. But there is one main
difference—the number of interested parties. That difference has
a big impact on which mediation tool Karen should select to
resolve the conflict.

Now, let’s change another part of the structure of the conflict
in Karen’s team. What if team members were themselves heads
of departments or work
units? So, each team
member is responsible and
accountable to a number of
other people (a constituency).
Would this change
how Karen approached the
conflict on her team?

Indeed it would! As representatives of constituencies, team
members may have varying degrees of negotiator authority, the
power that a constituency gives its representative to make compromises
and engage in a give-and-take exchange to solve the

team problem. Karen’s task as mediator would be a lot more
complicated and challenging if team members had little negotiator

Teams and Conflicts

Research has revealed the following effects of interpersonal
conflicts on teams:

  • The degree of conflict that a team member is experiencing within
    the team does not impact positively or negatively on that person’s
    commitment to his or her organization.

  • A team member’s commitment to the team and the team mission
    decreases if conflict goes unresolved, but can increase if conflict is
    well-managed and resolved.

  • If unhealthy conflict goes unresolved for too long, team members
    are likely to quit or to search for alternatives.

Source: James Wallace Bishop and K. Dow Scott,“How Commitment Affects
Team Performance,” HR Magazine, 42 (2), February 1997, pp. 107-111.

Conflict Prevention

Let’s turn back the clock on Karen’s team conflict several
weeks or months. What might she have done to prevent the crisis
that now threatens the survival of her team?
Might she have established certain skills, behavioral norms,
and shared expectations that would have enabled members of
her team to deal constructively with their differences?
In two words, “very likely.” Karen may have been able to
practice “preventive mediation” so that the destructive and
costly conflict she faces today would never have happened.
We’ll look more closely at preventive mediation in Chapter 7.

Analyzing Conflicts

So, we now understand that the structure of conflict can vary
widely. The mediation tools that are explained in this book will
enable you resolve some, but not all, conflicts. Clearly, resolving
an international dispute or settling a baseball players’ strike is
beyond our scope. Let’s get a better idea of what kinds of conflicts
you’ll be prepared to resolve and what kinds you’d better refer to a professional

What Is Mediation?

Readers who are already knowledgeable about mediation may
be puzzled—even shocked—that I’m using the term to refer to
ways of resolving conflicts without the involvement of a third
party. Mediation is usually defined as a process that necessarily
involves the participation of a neutral third party (a “mediator”)
who helps disputing parties find solutions to contested issues.
Let me explain your puzzlement and ease your shock.

Mediation is an emerging field of professional practice. Most
mediators come from other professional fields—such as psychology,
social work, counseling, employee relations, and law—
that license their members. That is, individuals must demonstrate
a defined level of competency to be permitted to offer
paid professional services to consumers. Mediation is on its way
to becoming such a field.

But most professions that license their practitioners recognize
that there exists a core body of knowledge and skill that the
general public may learn and use for their own benefit, without
paying for the services of a professional. For example, selfhealth
care is widely accepted. All of us “practice medicine” by
getting rest and drinking lots of fluids when we feel a cold coming
on. We also “practice psychology” when we listen compassionately
to a friend who is feeling sad, lonely, or anxious due to
a difficult life situation. Unless a medical or psychological problem
reaches a certain level of severity, we don’t need to pay a
physician or psychotherapist for these services. We can do it
ourselves, once we know the basics—and the limits—of that
field of professional service.

The same is true of mediation. Daily newspaper headlines
report conflicts in business, in society, and around the world that
challenge the abilities of the most expert mediators. But in our
daily work lives, we can “practice mediation” once we know the
basics—and the limits—of the field.

This book gives you, the manager, a basic knowledge of
mediation that enables you to use some of the tools of the professional
practitioner to manage conflicts in your area
of responsibility. It also
alerts you to the limits of
“self-help mediation” so
you can call a professional
when you recognize that
the mediation tools in this
book are likely not to be

So, managerial mediation, self-mediation, team mediation,
and preventive mediation are the names given to self-help
mediation tools that managers can use in their jobs. Reading
this book and using these dialogue tools does not make you a
professional mediator, any more than reading a medical self-

help book makes you a physician. It’s been estimated that 90%
of health problems can be prevented or managed by wise
choices that we can make about our own health—eating a balanced
diet, exercising regularly, maintaining positive social and
family relationships, avoiding tobacco, drugs, and excessive
alcohol, etc. By making wise choices about how we handle conflicts,
especially before they escalate and become crises, we
can also prevent or manage an equal percentage of conflicts. In
this book I intend to give you the information you need to make
wise choices.

Manager’s Checklist for Chapter 1

  • The word “conflict” is commonly used in everyday speech
    to label situations that are not really conflicts. We need to
    know what conflict is before we can successfully resolve it.
    It must involve a condition between or among workers
    whose jobs are interdependent, who feel angry, who perceive
    the other(s) as being at fault, and who act in ways
    that cause a business problem.

  • Different kinds of conflicts have different structural properties,
    depending on six dimensions or elements: interdependency,
    number of interested parties, constituent representation,
    negotiator authority, critical urgency, and communication
    channels. The mediation tools explained in this book
    are designed to help you resolve conflicts with some kinds
    of structure, but not others.

  • Mediation can be done by people who are not mediators.
    Indeed, every manager can use the self-help mediation tools
    described in this book to resolve conflicts for which they are
    designed without additional training.

A Conflict Analysis

Use this worksheet to help
you analyze the structure
of a conflict that you are
dealing with now.

Circle the number that most accurately reflects the conflict situation.
Scoring instructions are below.


1 = low (the parties need to interact occasionally to get their jobs
2 = medium (the parties interact frequently to exchange information
or resources)
3 = high (the parties interact daily and have a high need for voluntary
cooperation to do their jobs satisfactorily)

Number of interested parties

1 = two parties
3 = three or four parties
5 = five or more parties

Constituent representation

1 = none (each party is an individual who is not negotiating on behalf
of others)
2 = one or two other people are being represented by the individuals
who are involved in resolving the conflict
3 = several other people constitute an identifiable team or group that
is being represented by individuals who are directly involved in negotiations
7 = a large disorganized group is being represented

Negotiator authority

1 = absolute (parties are individuals without constituents or they do
not need to get prior approval from constituents to make compromises
with other parties)
3 = high (parties may make compromises with confidence that constituents
will agree)
5 = low (parties may offer compromises but need to check with constituents
for approval)
7 = none (parties can only deliver messages from constituents)

Critical urgency

1 = none (the current situation, although not desirable, can continue
indefinitely without causing great harm)
2 = urgent (a solution must be reached in the next few days)
6 = crisis (a solution must be reached immediately, in the next few
minutes or hours)

Communication channels

1 = parties can meet face to face (same time, same place)
3 = parties can meet only by telephone or videoconference (same
time, different place)
5 = parties can only write asynchronous messages (different time, different


Add the numbers that you have circled while having in mind a particular
conflict that you want to resolve.The possible range is from 6 to
33.The lower the number, the more likely it is that you can resolve
the conflict yourself by using the mediation tools provided in this
book.The higher the number, the more likely it is that you may need a
professional mediator to resolve it satisfactorily.


Daniel Dana

Holding the Ph.D. in psychology, Dan Dana served for several years as a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) Graduate School of Business, and has held faculty appointments at Syracuse University and several other institutions. (A former student once called him "Doctor Conflict," and the moniker stuck!) Dan… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Inside the Mediation Room with Guest Colin Rule

In this episode, Michael and Karen Aurit interview Colin Rule, CEO of and, and global leader in the world of online dispute resolution. Colin has worked in the...

By Colin Rule, Karen Aurit, Michael Aurit

Sidestepping Mediation Confidentiality

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. PollackOnce again, the Ninth Circuit has sidestepped discussing the contours of mediation confidentiality in federal lawsuits based on diversity jurisdiction. In an unpublished (and...

By Phyllis Pollack

Holiday Parenting Doesn’t Have To Be A “War of the Roses” Part I

Kalamazoo Mediation by Jeff MurphyThis is the first in a series of short blogs to help you avoid a parenting problem in the next few weeks – the dreaded “Holidays”....

By Jeff Murphy