Resolving Conflicts At Work

Organisational conflicts can occur at several levels: between individuals, between groups and between organisations. Let’s face it—we cannot avoid conflicts in life, but have to face them every day. Since we live in a highly industrialised little island called Singapore, it would be useful to explore how conflicts arise, and how to resolve them.

By Ken Tan

Four stages of conflict

Phase 1: Latent conflict
When two or more parties must cooperate with one another in order to achieve a desired objective, there is potential for conflict. Latent conflict is often created whenever change occurs, such as a budget cutback, change in organisational direction, personal goals or values, or a new crisis project added to an already overloaded work force.

Phase 2: Perceived conflict
This is the point when members become more aware of a problem even if they are not sure where it comes from. Incompatibility is perceived and tension begins.

Phase 3: Felt conflict
The parties involved begin to focus on differences of opinions and interests, sharpening perceived conflict. Internal tensions and frustrations begin to crystallise around specific, defined issues and people begin to build emotional commitments to their particular positions.

Phase 4: Manifested conflict
The outward display of conflict occurs when the opposing parties plan and follow through with actions to frustrate one another. With each phase, conflict resolution becomes more difficult. People become increasingly locked into their positions and more convinced that the conflict must be a win-or-lose situation. One of the best solutions that organisations advocate is mediation. Mediation is when a neutral third party acts as a listener who tries to calm the situation down, thereby allowing both parties to voice out their displeasure and craft possible solutions.

Apart from mediation, there are five basic behaviours that you can adopt to resolve conflicts in almost any situation. They will enable you to benefit from positive disagreement which does not escalate into out-of-control personality conflicts that damage the morale and productivity of the organisation.

Five behaviours for conflict resolution

1. Openness
State your feelings and thoughts openly, directly and honestly without trying to hide or disguise the real object of your disagreement. Don't attribute negative statements about the other person to unknown others. Use “I” statements and talk about how you feel and what you want. Focus on current specifics and on identifying the problem.

2. Empathy
Listen with empathy. Try to understand, feel what the other person is feeling, and see the situation from his point of view. Demonstrate your understanding and validate the other person's feelings. Statements such as "I appreciate how you feel", "I understand your feelings", and "I'm sorry I made you feel that way" can make a huge difference. Let the other person know that you are sincere in understanding his views.

3. Supportiveness
Describe the behaviours you have difficulty with, rather than evaluating them. Express your concern and support for the other person. Let him know you want to find a solution that benefits both of you. State your position tentatively with a willingness to change your opinion if appropriate reasons are given. Be willing to support the other person's position if it makes sense to do so.

4. Positivity
Try to identify and emphasise areas of agreement. Look at the conflict as a way to better understand the entire situation and to possibly find a new and better solution. Be positive about the other person and your relationship. Express your commitment to finding a resolution that works for everyone.

5. Equality
Treat the other person and his ideas and opinions as equal to yours. Give the person time and space to completely express his ideas. Evaluate all ideas and positions logically and without regard to ownership.

Conflicts have never been simple or easy. That’s why we have people voicing their displeasure through words and actions. There are some who view certain conflicts as "personal attacks", and some who only blame others but not themselves. Ultimately, discretion and “emotional intelligence” are key when it comes to handling most situations.

The successful resolution of small conflicts can diffuse the possibility of more serious conflicts and result in better relationships. To prevent conflicts from occurring, one has to foresee and bravely address the problem first. We all come from different backgrounds, adopt different values and have individual personalities. Only by understanding the fundamentals and character of the other party, and with patience and better understanding, will the conflict become an opportunity for friendship.

Ken Tan is a freelance career coach who guides and advises people, especially students, towards the right career path. View his blog at

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