Conflict Management vs Conflict Resolution

When people are in conflict, they can choose either conflict resolution or conflict management.  While some people see the two options as the same, they are actually different processes that can shape the way conflict is dealt with and if it is resolved.  The two processes have different objectives and will often achieve different outcomes through different processes.  However, many people still believe that conflict management and conflict resolution are synonymous and this leads to confusion when discussions around the two processes are had.  Here at ADR Times, many of our articles revolve around the idea of conflict resolution and how to solve problems.  But what happens when the parties are okay with the conflict and just need some rules or parameters on how to interact amid the conflict to continue to do well?  This article will focus on the difference and how conflict resolution and management can be used effectively to solve conflict or make life easier for parties who are dealing with long-term conflicts.

Defining Conflict:

Before discussing the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management, it is important to discuss the definition of the common factor between each one—conflict.  Conflict is used often as a catch-all for any disagreement between people; however, a more accurate definition would include differentiation between conflict and disputes.  There are many different definitions of each, but most experts agree that disputes are typically short-term disagreements that are relatively easy to resolve if the parties are willing to work together. Disputes can often be solved by a solution that meets the needs of both sides, at least partially. On the other hand, conflict is often a long-term problem that is held deeply within each side.  Conflict often involves issues that are seen as non-negotiables and the parties are often resistant to change or resolution.

Disputes often arise out of conflict or take place within a larger conflict.  During the life of a conflict, it may bubble up into disputes or will stay silent. Conflict will move in and out of view as the parties learn to adapt and gather themselves for the next round of dispute.  Occasionally, this ebb and flow may be interrupted if a dispute within the conflict is settled effectively and sets the parties up to move forward with their lives.  This is effective dispute resolution that may also interrupt the conflict.  However, not all conflicts can be resolved, even with the best dispute resolution practitioners, and parties may need to establish a new state of being to coexist during the life of the conflict.  This is where conflict management enters the scene.

Good and Bad Conflict:

Another important distinction is the difference between good and bad conflict.  Conflict is a part of life, and certain types of conflict can inspire positive change within an organization.  However, other types of conflict can end up hurting an organization if it lasts.  This distinction is important because the type of conflict will likely influence how the organization deals with the conflict—through resolution or management.  If conflict is destructive, it can best to try and resolve the conflict as quickly as possible to mitigate the damage.  But if a conflict is good, it may actually benefit the parties to practice conflict management and allow the conflict to shape the relationship moving forward.

Understanding whether a conflict is constructive or destructive takes skill and practice, but some general characteristics may help determine the type of conflict. These characteristics include:

  • Issues or People: Destructive conflict will focus on the people in the dispute.  This is when people with a different opinion will be seen as an enemy rather than a person with an opinion.  Constructive conflict, in contrast, will focus on resolving the issues and the people will be professional toward each other.
  • Past or Future: Constructive conflict will focus on what the parties can achieve together in the future and how to resolve that conflict to realize this vision.  Destructive conflict will look at what has happened between the parties in the past and will seek to punish the parties for what they have done.
  • Cooperation or Polarization: Constructive conflict will encourage cooperation and how to bring the parties together to solve problems.  Destructive conflict will create an “us vs them” mentality and drive people apart based on how they think.

Keeping these characteristics in mind, it will be easier to identify if a conflict is constructive or destructive and determine the best plan to deal with a conflict.

Conflict Resolution vs Conflict Management:

Resolution:

Conflict resolution seeks to heal the conflict at the heart of a dispute.  It focuses on finding creative solutions and common ground between the parties.  It seeks to view conflict as a neutral source, rather than a negative one and harnesses the possible positive outcomes of the conflict to create a solution.  Conflict resolution is usually focused on the short-term disputes that are present in the current moment, but it seeks to find a way into the larger conflict through an understanding of these disputes.  Once the conflict is understood, the parties will seek to find a way to resolve the conflict and stop it from coming up again.  Conflict resolution may be helpful when there are disputes or conflicts surrounding tasks, job functions, minor employee conflicts, or miscommunications.  It will likely not be beneficial in larger, long-term issues.

Management:

When parties have a long-standing conflict that cannot be easily resolved, they will need to learn how to continue being in the same space without reverting to the behaviors present at the height of the conflict.  Conflict management is a system that handles differences and disputes positively and constructively to encourage the parties to work together, even during their conflict.  Instead of seeking a solution to the conflict and looking for a way to solve the dispute, conflict management will seek to mitigate the negative effects of conflict in the environment the parties are in.  The use of conflict management is beneficial when the differences between the sides are based on differences in fundamental morals and principles that the parties cannot see eye to eye on the issue.  However, if there is a chance that a dispute may have the potential to settle, it may be better to try conflict resolution instead or alongside.

Working Together

Conflict resolution and conflict management can often work together on a certain conflict or dispute.  When a dispute surfaces, the parties may start looking into conflict resolution to solve the dispute.  They may look at mediation or negotiation to get to the root of the conflict and find a way to move forward.  However, many of these formal procedures take time to implement and set up.  When the conflict interferes with productivity or the relationship between the parties, this can be an issue.  In this instance, conflict management can be beneficial to help the parties continue to work with each other until they can work through the conflict resolution process.  While conflict resolution seeks to reduce or eliminate conflict, conflict management helps the parties to create an open-mindedness within their relationship.  This can often lead to resolution as the parties learn to listen to each other and be more open to other experiences.

Using Conflict Resolution and Management Effectively:

Once an understanding of conflict resolution and conflict management are understood, a strategy to efficiently use conflict resolution and management can be created.  There are some general tips for preparing for conflict management and resolution that can be helpful when developing a strategy.  These tips include:

  • View people as people, not issues. As discussed above, destructive conflict conflates people and their ideas until people are seen as the problem.  An important part of any strategy for conflict resolution requires that every party agrees that they disagree about the issues and not the people.  A practical way to do this is to keep the good aspects of the relationship between the parties at the forefront of thinking about the other party and focusing on the issues presented.
  • Recognize the biases.  Everyone comes to a discussion with their own experiences and sees the world a little differently. This experience will affect the way that each party sees the issues.  Often people will come to a conflict resolution believing they are right.  This is why each person needs to acknowledge their bias and agree to approach the discussion with an open mind.
  • Create neutral ground. When the parties are discussing the issue and possible solutions, they must be in a safe and neutral space that supports them both.  Without a neutral ground, biases will start to drive the conversation.  This can include finding a mediator to help lead the parties through the discussion.
  • Highlight the common goal.  It is easy to fall into an “us versus them” mentality when in discussions around disputes.  This behavior can be eliminated or lessened by encouraging the participants to identify the common goals, even if the only common goal is to find a solution.  This can help the parties see commonalities rather than othering the people who disagree with them.
  • Refuse to threaten the other party when ignored.  When a party finds themselves being ignored by another or when it feels like the discussion is moving farther away from what they need, it is common for the party to make threats of leaving the table and going to court or making life hard.  This will often escalate tensions and make it harder for the parties to come together effectively.
  • Collaborate to find possible solutions.  While it is likely that each side will come to the discussion with a list of ideas for how to solve the problem, the conflict is most likely to be solved when the parties work together to find a solution.  This situation is also the most likely to find a solution that is beneficial to both parties.
  • Identify the underlying issues. An important aspect of any conflict resolution practice is the ability to identify the underlying issues driving the conflict, both for oneself and the opposing party.  By understanding where the parties are coming from helps everyone identify more creative solutions that benefit the broadest range of people.  This can also strengthen the relationship between the parties because it requires active listening to achieve, which helps everyone feel like they are included.
  • Know when negotiation is not the best option.  Occasionally, a dispute will involve a disagreement over morals or family ties that cannot be negotiated.  It is necessary to determine when this is the case, because conflict resolution processes may not be the best option.  This allows the parties to focus instead on managing the conflict and moving forward.
  • Find an agreeable solution and follow it.  Once the parties have identified a solution that works for everyone, they will need to put the agreement in writing and agree to follow it. Following it helps build credibility between the parties that allows them to continue to negotiate with each other moving forward.  Ignoring an agreement will likely result in legal and relational challenges down the road.

Practicing effective conflict management and resolution will ensure that conflicts that arise within an organization or relationship are dealt with efficiently and will build credibility and trust between the parties.

Conclusion

Conflict is a part of everyday life, but it takes practice to master effective conflict resolution and management.  It is important to understand if the conflict is constructive and may help the relationship grow or if it is destructive and may cause issues within the relationship if not resolved quickly.  Conflict may be dealt with through conflict management or resolution or a combination of the two.  Conflict management allows parties to continue to work together, even in the face of conflict, while conflict resolution will seek to eliminate or mitigate the conflict.  Conflict resolution or management is best when the parties are committed to each other and the process—doing so will ensure that the parties move closer to a resolution that is great for all involved.

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