From Conflict to Collaboration

Norb Slowikowski / June 2016

Is it always best to “agree to disagree?” Or is there a better way to move past conflict to a desired result? “Conflict” is defined as unresolved differences or controversy when two or more parties discover that what each one wants is incompatible with what the other wants. Being able to manage and navigate conflict is a true skill that gets to the heart of interpersonal differences.
Typically, there are varied approaches to conflict. Let’s break down some examples.
Aggressive/Competitive. This type of person works hard at getting what they want. He is primarily a “taker” who is indifferent to other’s needs and/or wants. This approach can create animosity.
Cooperative/People-Pleaser. Also called the “cave-in” approach, this style is geared to creating harmony above all else.
Business-like Compromise. This approach splits the difference, so to speak. You don’t get exactly what you want, but both parties get partial satisfaction out of the deal.
Now that we know some general approaches and “conflict personalities,” let’s take a look at what I call, “The Four Phases of Conflict.”
Phase One is called the “Latent Phase.” Under-the-surface issues are generally kept inside and not communicated. The result of this phase is grudge-holding from all involved.
Phase Two is known as “Perceived Conflict.” It’s one person’s perception about what they see as the problem. He is not really sure as to why the problem exists, because there is no investigation involved. The conflict is based on assumptions without fact-finding. So, in effect, perception becomes reality, and this creates a conflict.
Phase Three is the “Felt Phase,” which means the conflict stems from ongoing frustration that leads to arguing and personal attacks. This phase can be very emotional, and a difference of opinion can settle in without hope of resolution.
Finally, there is the “Manifest Phase.” For example, someone involved in the conflict might say, “I know you talked to Joe about our conversation about him. I thought we agreed to keep this between ourselves. Now Joe is really upset with me.” The result of this situation is a strained relationship based on a lack of trust—a very ripe state for grudges to take hold.
When we know and understand the Four Phases of Conflict, we can move on to look at some different guidelines for conflict resolution. By identifying some of these, you will see where people often go wrong in trying to resolve the problem.
Avoiding conflict. “Let’s leave well enough alone.” In other words, the “just don’t deal with it” approach. Basically, one of the people involved retreats from the conflict situation. Is there any real benefit to this approach? It probably make sense if you need more time to collect information, enlist support or get additional resources. If it helps you “live to fight another day,” then it might be worth it. In reality, you’re only putting it off to deal with it later though.
Smoothing. The “don’t worry, be happy” style. Everything will be OK, let’s just get the two parties to focus on similarities and agree to disagree on the rest. This can often lead to just covering up the core problem because there is no actual solution offered. On the other hand, the benefit of this approach is that it preserves harmony, which can sometimes be more important than the conflict situation (depending on the nature of the problem).
Compromising. Essentially, “Let’s split the difference.” This might end in only partial satisfaction for each of the differing parties, but “half a loaf is better than nothing.” Also, the relationship can be preserved for the future. Ongoing communication and cooperation will lead to further good outcomes.
Forcing. “It’s my way or the highway!” This is a bold approach based on making demands of the other party while also closing off the listening process. Typically, animosity occurs on the part of the “loser,” and the relationship quickly deteriorates. All that being said, there is some benefit to this style. It may be useful in an emergency situation when you have to act right away and know you are right. You have to decide if it’s worth possibly losing the relationship over.
Collaborating. Finally, a win-win approach! The concerns and wants of both parties are taken into consideration, and they join forces to really work through differences. Now, this can’t always be done depending on the parties involved and the nature of the conflict, but when collaboration is employed, both parties can move past compromise to a higher functioning relationship. In order to really buy in to collaborating, the following traits are required: openness/trust, empathy, a positive attitude, emotional control, active listening and creativity.
Of course, it’s not always easy to employ these traits when dealing with people, but when you can, it will lead to the best possible outcome for all involved. You might just have to check your ego at the door!

Norb Slowikowski is president of Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., Darien, Ill. To contact him, email