Don’t Fear Deadlock, Embrace and Learn From It

When organisations undertake critical projects, the sheer scale of the undertaking provides ample opportunity for conflict and disputes to occur, deepen and escalate. Each stage is a potential incubator of misunderstanding, circumstantial change, ‘grey areas’, and unforeseen occurrences whose effects ripple throughout an industry or project.

The initial shock of encountering conflict is not the only problem. Disrupting a project that may cost millions (or indeed, billions) of pounds, employs thousands and has been planned for many years carries significant implications. One must consider how, for example, a dispute with a project’s building contractor might affect the delivery of concurrent commitments (such as those with architects or infrastructure suppliers) and those planned for the future. Adding on the financial and other associated costs of solving these disputes through litigation in many cases serves to compound the existing problems.

When conflict becomes uncontrollable, parties will most often get entrenched in their positions, and relationships enter deadlock. So how exactly can one embrace these conflictual situations, and not only “break deadlock”, but bring out a better outcome?

From Competition to collaboration

One approach is to try and harness the energy and dominance of the personalities involved by engaging in some form of collaborative working. It is widely recognised that the most effective outcome is reached when individuals can be both competitive and cooperative, providing a pragmatic approach which requires some form of collaboration. This can only be achieved by individuals pooling resources, enhancing creativity and engaging in a dialogue that demonstrates developing trust. Collaboration is not easy,  it forces individuals to consider alternative options, while listening to opposing views. It requires time, patience and the willingness to admit that there is a better alternative and demands that those engaged in the negotiation move away from a person centred ‘personality’ paradigm to that of a broader solution-focused approach.

The collaborative approach is achievable and has been used in some very difficult and protracted negotiations. It provides an opportunity for a hypothetical discussion about how a slightly more unorthodox approach may be applied, in order to acknowledge the potential for dissent and difficulty, introducing a mechanism to overcome deadlock.

Focus on interests, not positions

Normally, you would work hard to identify and acknowledge the interests of all involved with the goal of moving everyone from their original fixed positions. However, when the positions are so fixed and the drama of personalities  involved it is essential that individuals understand why each party has become so positional. This requires that people be honest and open about how they have become so positional and potentially the message has become so muddled that in order to save face, it is much easier to keep using the same strategy.

Think outside the box

This assumes that individuals are willing to share ideas and that these are potentially mutually beneficial, requiring a certain amount of trust. In a situation where trust has been completely eroded either because of the personalities of those involved or where there is a perceived need to adhere to pledges made to significant stakeholders, there will be very little desire to be creative. There may also be an unwillingness to see any need in achieving an agreement that is mutually beneficial. One of the main challenges is that any proposal will be immediately rejected because of suspicion and reactive devaluation. Therefore, individuals need to take one step back and consider developing options for individual gain. This process of creative option generation could start to move individuals away from being so fixed in their position without the challenge of having to think of the other party.


While deadlocked conflict within and between organisations can have dire consequences, this can also be an opportunity to rethink processes, relationships and ways of working. These, if handled correctly, offer an opportunity to analyse a situation, and consider alternative options and possibilities that will, in the future, facilitate the avoidance and the resolution of similar issues. Embracing collaboration as a business attitude rather than a simple workplace value can have positive consequences that will echo at all level of the business, from commercial difficulties to boardroom disputes and litigious crises.

If you would like to learn more about this subject, we have a collaboration guide:


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Daniel Kershen
Daniel Kershen is the Foundation Project Co-ordinator for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).