Mastering Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: 5-Step Model Explained [Part 3]

Written by Darren Kanthal

December 21, 2023

mastering conflict resolution

This is Part 3 in our Conflict Resolution series. You can read Part 1 here – A New Take On Conflict Resolution, and Part 2 here – Let’s Jug It Out, Conflict Resolution In Relationships


In my previous two blogs, I outlined two approaches I’ve taken to resolve some conflicts with a business partner and also my life partner at home. Both were taken from the multitude of conflicts I’ve resolved over my life — along with many of the strategies I’ve been taught through my 20+ years of being a Coach and HR leader.

If you’re like me, maybe you thought and wondered:

“Yeah, that’s great you took all these strategies to create your own — but that might not work for me.” OR “How about something more succinct that I could follow?”

What’s been lacking is a “how-to” guide. And I’d like to remedy that. What follows is exactly that – a specific, structured, and step-by-step approach that is not only repeatable but also applicable to just about any person, in any situation, at any time.

Navigating Conflict Resolution in Today’s Workplaces

In today’s fast-paced professional world, the ability to navigate and resolve conflicts is more important than ever. Effective conflict resolution isn’t just about smoothing over disagreements — it’s about fostering a collaborative environment where diverse ideas and perspectives can coexist harmoniously.

We need to be able to disagree (i.e., engage in conflict) without it being a fight, blowing up, or feeling as though our job is on the line for sharing and advocating for our contrarian beliefs.

In this blog I’m going to explore a five-step model that provides a structured yet flexible approach designed to address conflicts constructively. This model stands out for its practicality and adaptability — making it an ideal tool for a variety of workplace scenarios.

By understanding and applying this framework, professionals can transform potential clashes into opportunities for growth and innovation. I hope you find this model a game-changer for managing workplace conflicts.

Step One: Articulate Your Viewpoint

Embracing Clarity and Fact-Based Communication

conflict embracing clarity

When you embark on the path of conflict resolution, the first step is to articulate your viewpoint with precision and empathy. Present your understanding of the situation by focusing on facts rather than interpretations or emotions. With my clients, I often suggest they “minimize or exclude hyperbole.” Leave your interpretation out as best you can and embrace your inner Dragnet “Just the Facts, Ma’am” (bonus points if you know this line from the show or movie).

Clarity involves being explicit about what happened, what actions have been taken, and their direct consequences. Stick to your observations and avoid assumptions about others’ intentions.

I want to emphasize this point: if you start sentences with “you did this…” or “you did that” or “you made me feel….” — you’re not only giving your power away, but you also give them a point to argue. Often enough, someone may reply to those statements with, “I didn’t make you feel anything,” or “NO, I did NOT do that.” You get the point.

Rather, focus your viewpoint on “I” statements — “I feel this, or I experienced that….” Why? Because it’s very hard for someone to effectively argue or debate how you feel or see the world. Make sense?

The Role of Non-Toxic Language and Empathy

Using non-toxic language is essential in this step. Choose words that avoid provoking defensiveness or aggression. I mean, who the hell wants to get further provoked when you’re already in the heat of the moment?!?!

Opt for neutral language that focuses on your experiences and reactions instead of accusatory or judgment-laden phrases. Incorporate empathy by acknowledging and trying to understand others’ viewpoints. With this approach, you’ll foster an open and respectful atmosphere.

Steering Clear of Blame

Now, let’s get one thing straight — avoiding blame means not pointing fingers or making accusations. Address issues or behaviors that contributed to the conflict, but focus theimpact they had on you and what you experienced rather than casting accusations.

Step Two: Actively Listen

The Essence of Listening

Listening is an art often overshadowed by the appeal of speaking. When it comes to effective communication, it’s essential to listen with the intent to comprehend — not just to reply. This shift from a response-oriented to an understanding-driven approach can transform interactions, particularly in conflict situations. By actively listening, we step into the shoes of the speaker (even if they’re stinky!), seeing the world from their viewpoint and appreciating their perspectives and emotions.

Applying the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) offers a valuable framework in this context. Developed by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, this tool assesses an individual’s behavior in conflict situations.

TKI identifies five conflict-handling modes: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. Each mode reflects a different level of assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Understanding these modes is pivotal in conflict resolution. The collaborating mode, for example, hinges on the ability to listen actively. It encourages a deep understanding of the conflicting perspectives, promoting a problem-solving attitude that benefits all parties.

The key here practically is empathy, achieved through attentive listening. When we listen to understand, we recognize the emotions and thoughts behind the words — allowing us to respond more effectively and compassionately.

Active Listening in Practice

Here’s where things get interesting. Active listening is more than just hearing words — it involves full engagement with the speaker. Let’s take a look at a few actionable steps you can follow:

    1. Body Language: Show you’re listening by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and adopting an open posture. These non-verbal cues are as powerful as verbal acknowledgment.
    2. Paraphrase: Reflect on what has been said by paraphrasing. This not only shows that you’ve listened but also helps clarify any misunderstandings. Do your best to include the very words that were spoken instead of using your words of interpretation.
    3. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Pose open-ended questions about the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. This demonstrates your interest and encourages a more detailed explanation. Questions that start with ‘What’ are highly effective. Be mindful that sometimes questions starting with ‘Why’ can come off as harsh or with negative connotations.
    4. Avoid Interruptions: Resist the urge to interrupt or formulate your response while the other person is still speaking. Give them space to express their views fully. If necessary and applicable, make a note as a reminder to come back to the point you want to address.
    5. Empathize: Try to feel what the speaker is feeling. Empathy builds a bridge of understanding, which is vital in resolving conflicts and fostering positive relationships.

Incorporating these practices into our daily interactions can lead to more meaningful and productive conversations — especially in conflict situations. Active listening can reveal underlying issues and emotions that might otherwise remain obscured.

It’s about creating a space where all voices are heard and respected to make way for collaborative solutions and stronger relationships.

Through active listening, we move beyond surface-level interactions to create deeper understanding and cooperation. It’s not just a skill but a pathway to building connections and resolving conflicts with a sense of shared understanding and respect.

Step Three: Learn and Find Common Ground

Embracing Shared Learning in Conflict Resolution

conflict shared learning

The journey of conflict resolution is a mutual learning process. It’s about stepping beyond personal viewpoints to explore shared interests and objectives. It’s about bridging gaps and creating an environment where collective learning leads to meaningful solutions.

Learning in conflict resolution is two-fold: Understanding the other person’s perspective and uncovering common goals. When parties in a conflict take the time to learn about each other’s positions, they often discover that their underlying objectives aren’t as divergent as they initially appeared. The sooner you realize that the sooner you’ll find common ground.

Here are some typical examples to help you understand:

    1. Workplace Scenario: Consider a typical office dispute where two departments are vying for the same resources. Initially, each department focuses on its needs, creating a competitive atmosphere. However, through discussions and shared learning sessions, they realize that their ultimate goal is the same: the success of the company.
      This realization leads to a collaborative approach where they jointly develop a plan that optimizes resource allocation, benefiting both departments and the company.
    2. International Relations: On a larger scale, countries often face conflicts due to differing national interests. They’re commonly known as diplomatic negotiations, where representatives learn about each other’s cultural, economic, and political contexts — finding common ground in shared global challenges like climate change or economic stability. This understanding paves the way for cooperative agreements and peace treaties.
    3. Community Disputes: In community conflicts, like neighborhood disagreements over land use, learning about each other’s concerns and aspirations can lead to mutually beneficial solutions. For instance, a conflict over a proposed park development may be resolved when residents and developers come together, understand each other’s desires for community improvement and green space, and agree on a development plan that incorporates both.

In each of these examples, the process of learning plays a vital role. It’s not just about gathering facts — it’s about empathetically understanding the other side’s viewpoint. This process often reveals that the underlying values and interests of conflicting parties are not so different after all. Eventually, it’s not just about winning an argument but achieving a shared goal.

All this to say, the learning process in conflict resolution is a powerful tool. It transforms perspectives, alters narratives, and opens up new avenues for collaboration. By focusing on shared learning, both parties in conflict can move from a stance of opposition to one of cooperation — where the collective objective is to find a sustainable solution that benefits all.

Step Four: Creative Problem Solving

The Role of Brainstorming in Conflict Resolution

Brainstorming stands as the key element in creative problem-solving, especially within the context of conflict resolution. This process involves generating a wide range of ideas, free from immediate judgment or criticism. The aim is to foster an open and creative environment where all parties can contribute their perspectives. In conflict resolution, brainstorming serves as a platform to explore innovative solutions while keeping shared goals at the forefront.

Encouraging Open Communication

The first step in effective brainstorming is creating a space where all participants feel comfortable voicing their ideas. To achieve that, you need to create an atmosphere of trust and openness. In a conflict situation, ensuring that each party feels heard and valued is essential.

Techniques like brainstorming, where each person takes turns to speak and no idea is immediately ruled out or criticized — or idea mapping, where thoughts are visually represented, can be particularly effective. With these methods, you’ll ensure that all voices are heard and ideas are captured.

Divergent Thinking

divergent thinking

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “divergent?” Divergent thinking is the cornerstone of brainstorming. It’s like thinking expansively without constraints to generate a variety of solutions. But in terms of conflict resolution, divergent thinking allows parties to move beyond their initial positions and consider alternative possibilities. It’s about looking at the problem from multiple angles and considering solutions that might initially seem unconventional.

Transitioning to Convergent Thinking

Once a broad range of ideas has been generated, the next step is convergent thinking. This involves evaluating the brainstormed ideas, refining them, and converging on feasible solutions. When it comes to conflict resolution, convergent thinking is critical as it moves the process from ideation to taking actionable solutions.

Criteria-Based Selection

The transition from divergent to convergent thinking involves setting criteria to evaluate the ideas. These criteria might include feasibility, impact on all parties, alignment with common goals, and resource availability. By applying these criteria, the most promising solutions emerge. It ensures that the final solutions are practical and acceptable to all involved.

Collaborative Decision-Making

Ultimately, the process of creative problem-solving in conflict resolution is collaborative. It’s about pushing all parties to work together in evaluating and selecting solutions. This collaboration not only leads to more effective solutions but also strengthens relationships and builds mutual respect. Through this collaborative process, parties learn to view the conflict not as a battle to be won but as a problem to be solved together.

Step Five: Moving Forward Together

Formulating Collaborative Action Plans

After navigating through the initial stages of conflict resolution, the final step is to agree on actions for moving forward. It’s about asking the ultimate question of it all — what do you and I want to achieve??

Entering this phase is about transforming the ideas and solutions generated during the problem-solving process into practical, collaborative action plans. It’s about creating resolutions agreed upon and ensuring they’re implemented effectively.

That being said, a collaborative action plan means clear steps, responsibilities, and timelines. But it’s not just about creating actionable plans — it’s also about making sure both parties understand their part in its execution. Clear communication is key here, as misunderstandings at this stage can lead to setbacks and can potentially reignite the conflict.

An important aspect of these action plans is shifting the focus on future cooperation rather than dwelling on past issues. By centering on what needs to be done moving forward, these plans create a sense of progression and optimism. When you keep at this forward-looking approach, you’ll maintain a momentum of resolution and prevent further similar conflicts from recurring.

Moreover, these plans should be flexible and open to adjustments. As situations evolve and new information emerges, the action plan may need to be revisited and revised. This adaptability ensures that the solutions remain relevant and effective over time.

In essence, creating collaborative action plans is a critical step in conflict resolution. It signifies a transition from resolving the conflict to actively working towards a harmonious and productive future. These plans serve as a roadmap for how the parties will work together moving forward, laying a foundation for lasting solutions and strengthened relationships.

Putting It All Together: The Five-Step Model in Action

conflict putting it together

Step One: Identifying the Conflict

Let’s consider a real-world scenario in a corporate setting where two teams are clashing over resource allocation. The first step involves identifying the root of the conflict. Both teams believe they deserve a larger share of resources for their respective projects. Recognizing this as a conflict of interest and not just a series of complaints is vital for moving toward resolution.

Step Two: Actively Listen

The next phase is active listening. Each team is given a platform to express their viewpoints and needs. The key here is to listen with the intent to understand, not just to prepare a rebuttal. This helps in understanding the reasons behind each team’s stance and opens up avenues for empathy.

Step Three: Learn and Find Common Ground

In step three, both teams engage in a learning process. They explore each other’s challenges and discover that they both aim to contribute significantly to the company’s overall growth. This shared goal becomes the common ground from which they can start building a solution.

Step Four: Creative Problem Solving

Once a common goal is established, the teams engage in brainstorming sessions. They propose various solutions, like sharing resources on a rotational basis or collaborating on certain aspects of their projects to maximize resource utilization. Here, creativity is key in formulating effective solutions.

Step Five: Moving Forward Together

Finally, the teams agree on a collaborative action plan. They decide on a resource-sharing schedule and set up regular meetings to assess the effectiveness of this arrangement. This plan includes clear steps, responsibilities, and timelines, ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Integrating Leadership Coaching

In situations like this, leadership coaching can be a game-changer. For those keen on improving their leadership and conflict resolution skills, I recommend visiting our Leadership Coaching article archives. This resource is packed with insights and strategies that can elevate your approach to handling conflicts.

Key Points of the Five-Step Model

The Five-Step Model is more than just resolving conflicts — it’s about transforming the way we interact and collaborate. It starts with identifying conflicts and actively listening to understand — not just merely responding. It progresses through learning about each other’s perspectives to find common ground, followed by brainstorming creative solutions. Only with a crafted united game plan can everyone move forward.

In Closing

Here are my two cents: Embrace these strategies in your professional and personal life because conflicts are inevitable, necessary, and often lead to great things. But they don’t have to be roadblocks. With the right approach, they can be the prime reasons you achieve growth, innovation, and strengthened relationships. Remember, every conflict is an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and emerge stronger.
My challenge to you is to give these steps a try in your next workplace challenge and watch the magic happen. You’ve got this!


Enjoying this read about Conflict Resolution? This is Part 3 in our Conflict Resolution series. You can read Part 1 here – A New Take On Conflict Resolution, and Part 2 here – Let’s Jug It Out, Conflict Resolution In Relationships

Darren Kanthal

Darren Kanthal, Founder of The Kanthal Group, is a values-driven leadership and career coach with over 20 years of experience in HR and Talent Acquisition. Darren is intensely passionate about helping mid-career leaders cut through the BS, do the foundational work, and achieve their greatness.


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