Fight Club for Project Managers: 12 Powerful Conflict Resolution Techniques for the Workplace
A happy team is a productive team. However, any time you get a group of diverse people working towards a common goal there’s bound to be conflict. As a project manager, it’s your job to manage people as much as projects, which unfortunately means breaking up the occasional verbal brawl.
(In fact, The American Management Association claims that managers spend around 24% of their time managing conflicts!)
Conflict resolution techniques are one of the many specialty tools you need in your project management toolkit.
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Whether it’s repeatedly saying “no” to out-of-scope requests, dealing with a confrontational stakeholder, or bringing together teammates who are butting heads, it’s essential that you know how to diffuse situations, handle anger with grace, and not lose your cool.
In this post, we’re going to cover some of the most powerful conflict resolution techniques that will help you diffuse dicey situations and build a culture of communication and collaboration, not conflict.
What is conflict resolution and what is it so important for project managers?
Conflict resolution is the process of actively ending a disagreement and finding a peaceful and collaborative way to work towards a common goal. That’s a pretty vague definition, but that’s because conflicts come in so many different shapes and sizes.
As a project manager, you’ll deal with conflicts between members of your team, your team and stakeholders or clients, and even with yourself and the people you work with.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’re on a regular update call with the project owner. But this time, they’ve decided to bring on an executive to hear about your updates. As you’re going through your updates, the executive chimes in with a few suggestions that are way out of scope.
You politely explain the situation and keep moving. But they bring them up again. And again. And again. And then… they slam the phone down and essentially storm out of the meeting.
This is a nightmare scenario for any project manager. And without proper conflict resolution techniques, it’s going to lead to all sorts of negative consequences, such as:
- Low team morale. Your team reacts to tension and conflict with low morale and uncertainty.
- Losing authority. When you don’t deal with conflict properly, it’s hard to be seen as a project leader.
- More personal clashes. Conflict breeds more conflict in your team.
- Low productivity, efficiency, and motivation. Studies have found that toxic and combative workplaces make it harder to do good work and be motivated.
- Missed deadlines and project issues. Conflicts throw a wrench in the gears of your team and can lead to all sorts of knock-on effects that threaten to derail your project.
Conflicts are as much about personality as they are the project.
It doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned for your project if the people working on it aren’t happy working together. As a project manager, conflict resolution isn’t just a soft skill that’s nice to have. It’s an essential part of keeping everything on track.
The 12 best conflict resolution techniques for keeping your team on track
What makes workplace conflicts so difficult to handle is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for conflict resolution. Like the people on your team, each conflict is different and unique and requires you to adapt how you handle them.
That’s why it’s important to have a wide variety of conflict resolution techniques at your disposal. There are a ton of different approaches to conflict management, but a good place to start is with the Project Manager Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
The PMBOK is the technical guide for anyone looking to take their PMP or CAPM certifications (it’s also on our list of the best project management books for upgrading your career). Inside, it lists 5 conflict resolution techniques:
- Withdraw/Avoid: Step back and let the conflict resolve itself.
- Smooth/Accommodate: Choose one side to support, find areas of agreement, and then try to smooth out the rest through discussions.
- Compromise/Reconcile: Take suggestions from both parties and try to partially satisfy everyone.
- Force/Direct: Agree with one side’s view and force everyone else to go with it.
- Collaborate/Problem solve: Remain impartial and discuss the best solution to move forward with.
While these techniques are a great starting point, they’re not exactly practical.
The PMBOK’s conflict resolution techniques focus more on the decision point and less about how to actually deal with the nitty-gritty of conflict resolution.
People aren’t problems. To truly solve a conflict in your team (or with stakeholders, clients, users, etc…) you need to treat them like people.
Here are 12 practical conflict resolution techniques you can use to make sure you’re actually hearing your team and moving through an issue in the most positive way possible.
1. Wait for the conflict “aftershocks” before diving into the issue
Two of your best developers just got in a heated argument during an update meeting with your CEO. Now what?
Dealing with conflict is inevitable in the life of a project manager. But the first thing you need to remember is there’s almost always more to a conflict than just what was said when it boiled over into a public argument.
Treating a disagreement (or worse) as an isolated issue that can be solved on the spot is like sweeping broken glass under a thin rug. Someone’s going to get cut in the future (most likely you).
Instead, pause for a second, take a deep breath, and wait for the aftershocks to pass.
Like an earthquake, the aftershocks of conflict are unknown and can potentially be worse than the initial outburst. So what kind of aftershocks should you be looking for?
- Your own reaction. If you’ve been personally targeted, you’re going to feel an urge to react immediately. Don’t do this. Take a second to acknowledge what’s been said or done and either ask everyone to take a minute to calm down or, if the meeting/project must keep moving, commit to dealing with the issue as soon as possible.
- More conflict. An outburst sometimes is just the tip of the iceberg and can bring up all sorts of other issues and emotions. You don’t want a small conflict to turn into a screaming match. However, it’s important you don’t cut people off before uncovering the root cause.
- Apology and understanding. Sometimes hearing our own words out loud takes the power away from them. Occasionally, an outburst will quickly turn into an apology. While this can be a relief, it’s still important to use it as a launching off point to discover what caused it in the first place.
The worst thing you can do is dive into a conflict and try to “problem-solve” it. Take a second to let the conflict play out, acknowledge what has happened, and move onto the next steps.
2. Recognize that a successful conflict resolution isn’t about anyone “winning”
Despite your best intentions, it’s impossible to be impartial about a conflict. You’ll always feel like you’re leaning one way or the other. But the only successful outcome of a conflict is a mutual one where everyone at least feels heard and understood.
As conflict management specialist Thomas Crum writes:
“When conflict becomes a win-lose contest in our mind, we immediately try to win.”
This is easier said than done (especially when you or your team is directly being attacked). But if the other side feels like you’ve made up your mind before you even hear them out, you’ll never fully resolve this conflict.
The best thing you can do here is to question your thinking and your gut reaction to the conflict.
Whose side do you immediately run to?
Can you understand and empathize with them?
You might not think that your job as a project manager should involve this kind of emotional labor. But one of the most powerful leadership skills you can develop is learning to listen to and connect with everyone on your team.
3. Get to the root cause of the conflict
Ok, someone’s upset. Some things were said. Your team’s on edge. You want to solve the problem. But wait. What is the problem?
As we said before, you need to wait for the conflict aftershocks to dissipate before you can look for their source. And while there are tons of different reasons why a conflict happened in the first place, we’re going to let you in on a little secret.
In more than 90% of cases, the root cause of a conflict is a breakdown in communication.
Listen to the words you hear when someone on your team is upset:
“But you said you were going to do [X]...”
“It was my understanding that [Y] was responsible for that…”
“No no no. You’re not listening to me…”
The common thread through all of these issues is some lack of communication, context, or expectations. Someone on your team believed something different was true than another person.
This is a powerful lens for understanding where this conflict came from but also identifying the workflows and processes you’re using that might be breaking down.
Instead of blaming the individual, look at why they did or said what they did in the first place. Did they have the right information? Did they follow the agreed-upon workflow? Was there some moment where context was lost or the vision got blurry?
Everyone makes mistakes. But as Thomas Isgar, author of The Ten Minute Manager writes:
“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.”
4. Create the right environment for conflict resolution
Conflict resolution shouldn’t (and usually can’t) happen in the same place where the conflict took place. Everyone needs time to cool their heads and get in the right mindset to move forward.
Your environment has a huge impact on how you feel and think. And even just a change in scenery can uproot the most deeply held beliefs.
(Not convinced? Here’s a crazy story that might change your mind: During the Vietnam war, 20% of U.S. soldiers became addicted to heroin. But after returning home, more than 90% of them broke their addiction almost immediately!)
When dealing with a conflict, you need to create a safe space for everyone to clear their thoughts, be open to other perspectives, and reasonably hash things out. Here are a few more tips:
- Choose a neutral location where everyone can hopefully meet face-to-face: Conflicts need to be dealt with in person. And while that’s hard to stomach for introverts, it’s important to attach a face to your feelings and be present to see visual clues and body language.
- Use timing to your advantage: You don’t want to force a conflict resolution when emotions are high. But you also don’t want to wait so long that people get even more upset or feel like “it doesn’t matter anymore.” If you do have to wait, make sure everyone knows this is still an issue and that you have a time set aside to solve it.
- Set some ground rules: Let people know what you’ll be doing, how long this meeting will take place, and how you’re going to structure it. Some take on a meeting agenda can help everyone feel like they’ll have an opportunity to be heard.
- Meet separately beforehand (if you need to): You might need more time to understand the issue. Try connecting beforehand to hear what people have to say and their concerns.
5. Use active listening to understand all sides of the argument
When it comes time to work out the conflict, you need to really hear what people are saying.
Active listening is when you make a conscious effort to pay deep attention to what people are saying and focus on their words, motivation, and even body language. As we said before most conflicts come from some form of communication breakdown. Active listening is what will help you understand what’s really going on.
Even more importantly, active listening shows that person that you’re really listening to what they’re saying. This might seem like a small detail but think back to a time when you were trying to get your point across and started wondering if that person was even listening to you.
Active listening is a powerful tool for project managers. But it’s even more powerful when your whole team practices it.
As the authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader write:
“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.”
We’ll go into a few active listening tips more in-depth below, but for now, you can think of it as being fully present and engaged with the person who is speaking.
6. Echo back their opinions to gain clarity
One of the core parts of active listening is showing that you’re listening. And the easiest way to do that is by echoing back what someone has said.
This doesn’t mean you need to act like a parrot. Simply wait until they’ve made their point and then say something along the lines of:
“As I understand it, what you’re saying is [X]. Is that right?”
This small act does a number of things. First, it legitimizes what the other person is feeling. They see that you heard and understand them and will be more likely to take your advice on how to move forward.
Second, if you misunderstood what they were saying it lets them clarify. Communication isn’t always easy (and especially not when things are heated). Maybe they said something they didn’t mean. Or the way that you explained it back made them think differently.
Lastly, it lets everyone hear the conflict from a different voice. The goal of these conflict resolution techniques is to separate the problem from the person. Sometimes the easiest way to do that is to hear it coming out of someone else’s mouth.
7. Make sure you’re using the right communication style
Active listening also depends on understanding the communication styles of the people you’re engaged with. We all have different ways we communicate, specific approaches we connect to, and words and phrases that set us off.
We’ve quoted this stat before, but a 2016 Harvard Business Review study found that 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees. That’s not good. And a lot of it comes down to feeling like you can’t communicate properly.
But as we wrote in our Guide to Navigating Different Communication Styles, understanding the characteristics of different styles grounds you in a conversation and helps you know how to approach moving forward.
Don’t just dive into a conflict resolution session. Make sure you know the type of people you’re working with and the best way to communicate with them.
8. Learn to love silence (it’s where you learn someone’s true motivations)
Some conflicts are loud. While others are deathly silent. Both require a delicate touch to de-escalate and resolve.
On the other side of learning to actively listen is also learning to coax people to speak and reveal their motivations (even when they don’t want to). In these scenarios, there’s an old journalistic trick you can use for when you’re dealing with a difficult subject: just shut up.
The majority of people can’t stand silence and will do anything to fill that space. If you can’t seem to dig into the motivations behind the conflict you’re resolving, try just being quiet for a bit.
9. Keep people and problems separated
As both parties express their issues, make sure they keep the problem separate from the person. This means changing the language from “you did this” to “when this happens, I feel this way.”
For example, instead of “You never listen to feedback from the development team.”
You might say something like: “When our team’s feedback isn’t included in the updated project document, it feels like we aren’t given the opportunity to influence the next sprint and might end up with too much out-of-scope work.”
This small change can de-escalate conflict and turn them from aggressive to insightful. As the famous American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote:
“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
Make sure everyone understands that an attacking or aggressive attitude won’t be tolerated in conflict resolution and give them the tools to express themselves in a better way.
10. Maintain your authority as decision-maker (but respect the power dynamics of the conflict)
Conflicts don’t just magically sort themselves out or disappear.
Someone needs to see this conflict through and that means making a decision. If you’ve followed these steps up to this point, you should be in a good position to help make a choice that everyone’s at least a little happy about.
This is where some of the PMBOK’s conflict resolution techniques come in handy.
Use what you’ve learned so far and think about the right approach: Smooth/Accommodate, Compromise/Reconcile, Force/Direct, or Collaborate/Problem solve.
It’s not always easy to make a decision (especially when you know one party is still going to be upset). But this is your job. Whatever approach you take, remember these unavoidable truths about making any decision:
- Every decision has a tradeoff. It’s a rare occasion when a conflict gets resolved without someone feeling like they gave up something important. Understand that even if you move forward, there may be lingering resentment or issues that will need attention in the future. This is just part of life. Don’t let the tradeoffs deter you from doing what’s best for your team and the project.
- You probably won’t always get it right. When it comes to conflict resolution, you need to let go of perfectionism. Yes, you will get things wrong, side with the wrong person, or push for a solution that doesn’t actually work. That happens. Don’t let the fear of getting it wrong derail you and your team. The more you’re seen as someone who works through conflict, the better off everyone will be.
- Bad results don’t necessarily mean you made a bad decision. You work with the information you have. And sometimes that’s not enough. As long as you’ve done the proper steps, listened to everyone, and feel confident in how you want to move things forward, that’s the best you can do.
11. Know when an issue is beyond your control and you need extra help
Even if you follow all of these steps, you still might not be able to de-escalate and resolve the issue. And that’s OK. If a conflict is personal, one of the people involved is especially stubborn, or you can’t seem to get to the root cause, it might take someone else intervening to get sorted.
Make sure you know the people on your team who you can escalate a situation to if you have to. This could be someone on your People team, HR, or even a higher-level manager or executive who has the power to decide what steps to take.
This isn’t an excuse to avoid conflict or pass the buck. Be prepared to share what you’ve done and your thought process to this point so they can (hopefully) resolve it in the best way possible.
There’s almost always more to a conflict than just what was said when it boiled over into a public argument.
12. Make sure you “close the loop” by turning the conflict into a lesson learned
No matter the outcome of your conflict resolution, you should document what happened (maybe as a lesson learned) and find a way to close it out. Have a private conversation with each person and then send everyone a note thanking them for coming together and reiterating what was decided.
In a recent article by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelley, he listed out 68 things he’s learned in 68 years. His number one piece of advice is:
“Learn how to learn from those you disagree with or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.”
Use this as an opportunity for growth. Explain the next steps and how the team will be using this outcome to change workflows or processes. Maybe these conflicts make their way into a future project’s risk management plan or change one of your other documents or processes.
As Albert Einstein famously said:
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
What’s better than these conflict resolution techniques? Managing conflicts before they happen.
There’s no getting around the fact that conflicts suck. But the more you deal with them in a positive and constructive way, the better your whole team will become at identifying and escalating potential conflicts in the future.
The process and conflict resolution techniques we’ve outlined above are a great place to start. But better than following a process is learning how your unique team works and operates. Treat them as people, not problems, and they’ll treat you the same.