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date: 28 September 2023

Conflict Managementfree

Conflict Managementfree

  • Patricia Elgoibar, Patricia ElgoibarUniversity of Barcelona
  • Martin EuwemaMartin EuwemaKatholieke Universiteit Leuven
  •  and Lourdes MunduateLourdes MunduateUniversity of Seville


Conflicts are part of nature and certainly part of human relations, between individuals, as well as within and between groups. Conflicts occur in every domain of life: family, work, and society, local and global. Conflict management, therefore, is an essential competency for each person. People differ largely in their emotional and behavioral responses to conflict and need to learn how to behave effectively in different conflict situations. This requires a contingency approach, first assessing the conflict situation, and then choosing a strategy, matching the goals of the party. In most situations, fostering cooperative relations will be most beneficial; however, this is also most challenging. Therefore, constructive conflict management strategies, including trust building and methods of constructive controversy, are emphasized. Conflict management, however, is broader than the interaction of the conflicting parties. Third-party interventions are an essential element of constructive conflict management, particularly the assessment of which parties are intervening in what ways at what escalation stage.


  • Organizational and Institutional Psychology
  • Social Psychology

Definition of Conflict

Conflicts are part of nature, and certainly part of human relations. People experience conflict with other persons, in teams or in groups, as well as between larger entities, departments, organizations, communities, and countries. Conflicts appear at home, at work, and in our spare-time activities with friends, with people we love and with people we hate, as well as with our superiors and with our subordinates and coworkers. Parties need to accept conflicts as part of life dynamics and learn to deal with them effectively and efficiently. Conflict management refers to the way we manage incompatible actions with others, where others can be a person or a group.

Conflict is a component of interpersonal interactions; it is neither inevitable nor intrinsically bad, but it is commonplace (Coleman, Deutsch, & Marcus, 2014; Schellenberg, 1996). In the 20th century, Lewin (1935) concluded that an intrinsic state of tension motivates group members to move toward the accomplishment of their desired common goals. Later on, Parker Follett (1941) explored the constructive side of conflict and defined conflict as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions or difference of interests. Deutsch (1949) developed this line of thought and analyzed the relation between the way group members believe their goals are related and their interactions and relationships.

A common definition of conflict argues that there is a conflict between two (or more) parties (individuals or groups) if at least one of them is offended, or feels bothered by the other (Van de Vliert, 1997; Wall & Callister, 1995). Traditionally, conflict has been defined as opposing interests involving scarce resources and goal divergence and frustration (Pondy, 1967). However, Deutsch (1973) defined conflict as incompatible activities: one person's actions interfere, obstruct, or in some way get in the way of another's action. Tjosvold, Wan, and Tang (2016) proposed that defining conflict as incompatible actions is a much stronger foundation than defining conflict as opposing interests, because conflicts also can occur when people have common goals (i.e., they may disagree about the best means to achieve their common goals). The key contribution of Deutsch’s (1973) proposal is that incompatible activities occur in both compatible and incompatible goal contexts. Whether the protagonists believe their goals are cooperative or competitive very much affects their expectations, interaction, and outcomes as they approach conflict (Tjosvold et al., 2016).

Characteristics of Conflict

Euwema and Giebels (2017) highlighted some key elements of conflict.


Conflict implies dependence and interdependence. Parties rely to some extent on the other parties to realize their goals (Kaufman, Elgoibar, & Borbely, 2016). This interdependence can be positive (a cooperative context), negative (a competitive context), or mixed. Positive interdependence is strongly related to cooperative conflict behaviors, while negative interdependence triggers competitive behaviors (Johnson & Johnson, 2005). Interdependence also reflects the power difference between parties. A short-term contractor on a low-paid job usually is much more dependent on the employer than vice versa. Many conflicts, however, can be seen as “mixed motive” situations.


Conflicts are mostly mixed motive situations because parties have simultaneous motives to cooperate and motives to compete. Parties are, on the one hand, dependent on each other to realize their goal, and, on the other hand, they are at the same time competitors. For example, two colleagues on a team are cooperating for the same team result; however, there is competition for the role as project leader. In a soccer team, the players have a team goal of working together to win, but they can be competing to be the top scorer. The mixed motive structure is very important to understand conflict dynamics. When conflicts arise, the competitive aspects become more salient, and the cooperative structure often is perceived less by parties. Interventions to solve conflict, therefore, are often related to these perceptions and the underlying structures.


Conflict is a psychological experience. Conflict is by definition a personal and subjective experience, as each individual can perceive and manage the same conflict in a different manner. Conflict doesn’t necessarily have an objective basis (Van de Vliert, 1997). It depends on the perception of the specific situation, and the perception is by definition subjective and personal.


Conflict concerns cognitive and affective tension. When someone perceives blocked goals and disagreements, he or she can also, although not necessarily, feel fear or anger. Many authors consider that conflict is emotionally charged (Nair, 2007; Pondy, 1967; Sinaceur, Adam, Van Kleef, & Galinky, 2013), although the emotion doesn’t need to be labeled necessarily as a negative emotion. Some people actually enjoy conflict. Emotional experiences in conflict are also scripted by cultural, historical, and personal influences (Lindner, 2014).


Conflict can be unidirectional. One party can feel frustrated or thwarted by the other while the second party is hardly aware of, and doesn’t perceive the same reality of, the conflict.


Conflict is a process. Conflict is a dynamic process that does not appear suddenly, but takes some time to develop and passes through several stages (Spaho, 2013). Conflict is the process resulting from the tension in interpersonal interactions or between team members because of real or perceived differences (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003; Thomas, 1992; Wall & Callister, 1995).

Type of Conflict: Task, Process, and Relationship Conflict

Early conflict and organizational research concluded that conflict interferes with team performance and reduces satisfaction due to an increase in tension and distraction from the objective (Brown, 1983; Hackman & Morris, 1975; Pondy, 1967; Wall & Callister, 1995). Jehn (1995) differentiated between task and relational conflict, and later also included process conflict (De Wit, Greer, & Jehn, 2012). Task conflict refers to different opinions on content (Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Examples of task conflict are conflict about distribution of resources, about procedures and policies, and judgment and interpretation of facts (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). Process conflict refers to how tasks should be accomplished (Jehn, Greer, Levine, & Szulanski, 2008). Examples are disagreements about logistic and delegation issues (Jehn et al., 2008). Finally, relationship conflict refers to “interpersonal incompatibility” (Jehn, 1995, p. 257). Examples of relationship conflict are conflict about personal taste, political preferences, values, and interpersonal style (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). All three types of conflict—task, process, and personal (relational) conflicts—are usually disruptive, especially personal conflict, which is highly disruptive (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003; Jehn, 1995, 1997). A review and meta-analysis by De Wit et al. (2012) showed that, under specific conditions, task conflict can be productive for teams. Moreover, conflict can wreck a team’s efforts to share information and reach a consensus (Amason & Schweiger, 1994). Therefore, research supporting the benefit of task and relationship conflict is not conclusive and each situation varies. What seems to be clear is that managing conflict efficiently to avoid escalation is a priority for teams.

Conflict Behavior, Conflict Management, and Conflict Resolution

Conflict behavior, conflict management, and conflict resolution are different layers of a conflict process and therefore should be distinguished. Conflict behavior is any behavioral response to the experience of frustration, while conflict management is the deliberate action to deal with conflictive situations, both to prevent or to escalate them. Also, conflict management is differentiated from conflict resolution, which is specific action aimed to end a conflict.

Conflict Behavior

Conflict behavior is the behavioral response to the experience of conflict (Van de Vliert et al., 1995). Conflict behavior is defined as one party’s reaction to the perception that one’s own and the other party’s current aspiration cannot be achieved simultaneously (Deutsch, 1973; Pruitt, 1981; Rubin, Pruitt, & Kim, 1994). It is both what people experiencing conflict intend to do, as well as what they actually do (De Dreu, Evers, Beersma, Kluwer, & Nauta, 2001; Van de Vliert, 1997). In conflict situations people often respond primarily, following their emotions, more or less conscientiously.

Many factors affect how people respond to the experience of conflict. Social psychology shows the processes are largely unconscious (Wilson, 2004). For example, how people respond to intimidating behavior by their supervisor might be primarily influenced by the context and individual perception, as well as previous relations with persons in authority, including parents and teachers (Gelfand & Brett, 2004; Van Kleef & Cote, 2007). These natural behavioral responses are also referred to as “conflict styles.” They are rooted in our personality and can differ in context. Some people will naturally respond by being friendly and accommodating, where others will start arguing or fighting (Barbuto, Phipps, & Xu, 2010; Kilmann & Thomas, 1977; Van Kleef & Cote, 2007).

Conflict behavior becomes more effective once we are more aware of our natural tendencies and are also able not to act upon them, and instead to show flexibility in behavioral approaches. This is where conflict behavior becomes conflict management. Therefore, one can be a naturally highly accommodating person who will spontaneously give in to others who make demands, but one will be more effective after learning to assess the situation at hand and to carefully decide on a response, which might be quite different from the natural or spontaneous reaction.

Dual-Concern Model

The dual-concern model holds that the way in which parties handle conflicts can de described and is determined by two concerns: concern for self (own interests) and concern for others (relational interests) (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Pruitt & Rubin, 1986; Rahim, 1983; Thomas, 1992; Van de Vliert, 1999) (see Figure 1). Usually, the two concerns define five different conflict behaviors: forcing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and problem solving or integrating. These behaviors are studied at the level of general personal conflict styles, closely connected to personality, as well as at the level of strategies and tactics (Euwema & Giebels, 2017).

The different conflict styles have been studied intensively, with three approaches. A normative approach, wherein integrating (also known as problem solving) is seen as the preferred behavior for conflict resolution; a contingency approach, exploring conditions under which each of the behaviors is most appropriate; and a conglomerate approach, focusing on a combination of the behaviors (see “Conglomerate Conflict Behavior”).

Figure 1. Dual-concern model.

(Source: Blake & Mouton, 1964; Pruitt & Rubin, 1986)

In forcing, one party aims to achieve his or her goal by imposing a solution onto the other party. Concern for one’s own interests and own vision is what matters. There is little attention and care for the interests and needs of the other party, or the relationship with the other (Euwema & Giebels, 2017). This style is appropriate when the outcome is important for one party but trivial to the opponent, or when fast decision making is necessary. It becomes inappropriate when issues are complex, when both parties are equally powerful, when the outcome is not worth the effort for one party, or when there is enough time to make a collective decision. Moreover, forcing decisions can seriously damage a relationship and contribute to bullying in the workplace (Baillien, Bollen, Euwema, & De Witte, 2014); however, normative forcing, which is referring to rules and imposing them, can be effective (De Dreu, 2005). Note that some alternative terms that have been used for forcing in the literature are competitive, contending, or adversarial behavior.


With avoiding, one party aims to stay out of any confrontation with the other. This behavior prevents efforts to yield, to negotiate constructively, or to compete for one’s own gains. The conflict issue receives little attention, usually because the avoiding party thinks he or she won’t gain from entering into the conflict (Euwema & Giebels, 2017; Van de Vliert, 1997). Avoiding may be used when the benefits of resolving the conflict are not worth confronting the other party, especially when the problem is trivial or minor; when no good solutions are available for now; or when time is needed (Van Erp et al., 2011). An important motive for avoiding also is to prevent loss of face and to maintain the relationship. This is particularly true in collectivistic cultures, particularly in Asian societies (Oetzel et al., 2001). Avoiding is inappropriate when the issues are important to a party, when the parties cannot wait, or when immediate action is required (Rahim, 2002). Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim (1994) distinguished between long-term avoidance, which is a permanent move to leave the conflict, and short-term avoidance, defined as temporary inaction.


Accommodating is giving in or going along with the ideas, wishes, and needs of the other party. Accommodating usually is the result of a low concern for one’s own conflictive interests combined with a high concern for the interests and needs of the other party. Giving in often is related to a strong need for harmony and a sensitivity to the needs of the other. Accommodation is useful when a party is not familiar with the issues involved in the conflict, when the opponent is right, when the issue is much more important to the other party, and in order to build or maintain a long-term relationship, in exchange for future consideration when needed. Giving in also can be an educational strategy, giving space to the other to find out what the effect will be. Accommodating is less appropriate when the issue is of great concern, when accommodation creates frustration, or when accommodation reinforces dynamics of exploitation (Spaho, 2013). Note that an alternative term for this concept that can be found in the literature is yielding.


Compromising involves searching for a middle ground, with an eye on both one’s own interest and the interest of the other. The premise is that both parties must find a middle ground where everyone receives equal consideration, meaning that each party makes some concession (Van de Vliert, 1997). Compromising is appropriate when a balance of forces exists and the goals of parties are mutually exclusive (Buddhodev, 2011). Compromise leads to a democratic solution; however, it may prevent arriving at a creative solution to the problem and a limited effort to increase resources before distributing them (Spaho, 2013).

Problem Solving or Integrating

Problem solving is a win–win strategy aimed at “optimizing rather than satisfying the parties” (Van de Vliert, 1997, p. 36). Great value is attached to one’s own interests and vision, but also a lot of attention is given to the needs, ideas, and interests of the other. One looks for open and creative solutions that meet both interests. Problem solving or integrating is useful in dealing with complex issues, and it allows both parties to share skills, information, and other resources to redefine the problem and formulate alternative solutions. It is, however, inappropriate when the task is simple or trivial, and when there is no time. Also, it is more difficult to develop when the other party does not have experience in problem solving or when the parties are unconcerned about the outcomes (Pruitt & Rubin, 1986). Note that some alternative terms that can be found in the literature for this concept are cooperation and collaboration.

The dual-concern model is used as a contingency model, describing which conflict behaviors are used best under what conditions (Van de Vliert et al., 1997), and also as a normative model, promoting integrating behaviors as the most effective style, particularly when it comes to joined outcomes and long-term effectiveness. Forcing, in contrast, is often described as a noncooperative behavior, with risk of escalated and unilateral outcomes (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Burke, 1970; Deutsch, 1973; Fisher & Ury, 1981; Pruitt & Rubin, 1986; Rahim, 2010; Thomas, 1992). As a result, authors define forcing and integrating as two opposed behavioral approaches (Tjosvold, Morishima, & Belsheim, 1999). Following this model, many scholars during the 1970s and 1980s proposed that individuals use a single behavior in conflict, or that the behaviors should be seen as independent. Therefore, the antecedents and effects of different conflict behaviors are often analyzed separately (Tjosvold, 1997; Volkema & Bergmann, 2001). However, parties usually try to achieve personal outcomes, and try to reach mutual agreements by combining several behaviors in a conflict episode (Van de Vliert, 1997). This is the basic assumption of the conglomerate conflict behavior (CCB) theory (Van de Vliert, Euwema, & Huismans, 1995), which established that conflict behaviors are used in a compatible manner, sequentially or simultaneously.

Conglomerate Conflict Behavior (CCB)

In the dual-concern model, a contrast is made between forcing (contending with an adversary in a direct way) and integrating (reconciling the parties’ basic interests) as two opposed behavioral approaches (Tjosvold et al., 1999). However, the CCB framework assumes that individual reactions to conflict typically are complex and consist of multiple components of behavior (Van de Vliert, 1997, Van de Vliert et al., 1995). The CCB theory covers the idea that behavioral components may occur simultaneously or sequentially and that the combination drives toward effectiveness (Euwema & Van Emmerik, 2007; Medina & Benitez, 2011). The theory has been supported in studies analyzing conflict management effectiveness in different contexts, such as in managerial behavior (Munduate, Ganaza, Peiro, & Euwema, 1999), in military peacekeeping (Euwema & Van Emmerik, 2007) and by worker representatives in organizations (Elgoibar, 2013).

The main reason that people combine different behaviors is because conflicts are often mixed-motive situations (Euwema, Van de Vliert, & Bakker, 2003; Euwema & Van Emmerik, 2007; Walton & McKersie, 1965). Mixed-motive situations are described as situations that pose a conflict between securing immediate benefits through competition, and pursuing benefits for oneself and others through cooperation with other people (Komorita & Parks, 1995; Sheldon & Fishbach, 2011). Therefore, a person's behavior in a conflict episode is viewed as a combination of some of the five forms of conflict behaviors. An example of sequential complex behavior is to first put the demands clearly (forcing), followed by integrating (searching for mutual gains, and expanding the pie), and finally compromising, where distributive issues are dealt with in a fair way. An example of serial complexity can be found in multi-issue conflict, when for some issues conflict can be avoided, while for high priorities, demands are put on the table in a forcing way. Another CCB pattern is the conglomeration of accommodating and forcing. This pattern is sometimes referred to as “logrolling” (Van de Vliert, 1997, p. 35), and it is a classic part of integrative strategies, to maximize the outcomes for both parties. Logrolling behavior consists of accommodating the high-concern issues of the other party and forcing one’s own high-concern issues. This approach is usually helpful in multi-issue trade negotiations; however, it requires openness of both parties to acknowledging key interests.

How to Explore Your Tendency in Conflict

The most famous and popular conflict behavior questionnaires are:

MODE (Management of Differences Exercise). MODE, developed in 1974 by Thomas and Killman, presents 30 choices between two options representing different conflict styles.

ROCI (Rahim's Organizational Conflict Inventory). The ROCI is a list of 28 items that measures the five styles of conflict behavior described.

Dutch Test of Conflict Handling. This list of 20 items measures the degree of preference for the five styles (Van de Vliert & Euwema, 1994; De Dreu et al., 2001, 2005). It has been validated internationally.

Conflict Management

Conflict management is deliberate action to deal with conflictive situations, either to prevent or to escalate them. Unlike conflict behavior, conflict management encompasses cognitive responses to conflict situations, which can vary from highly competitive to highly cooperative. Conflict management does not necessarily involve avoidance, reduction, or termination of conflict. It involves designing effective strategies to minimize the dysfunctions of conflict and to enhance the constructive functions of conflict in order to improve team and organizational effectiveness (Rahim, 2002).

Conflicts are not necessarily destructive (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008; Euwema, Munduate, Elgoibar, Pender, & Garcia, 2015), and research has shown that constructive conflict management is possible (Coleman, Deutsch, & Marcus, 2014). The benefits of conflict are much more likely to arise when conflicts are discussed openly, and when discussion skillfully promotes new ideas and generates creative insights and agreements (Coleman et al., 2014; De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008; Euwema et al., 2015; Tjosvold, Won, & Chen, 2014). To make a constructive experience from conflict, conflict needs to be managed effectively.

Deutsch’s classic theory of competition and cooperation describes the antecedents and consequences of parties’ cooperative or competitive orientations and allows insights into what can give rise to constructive or destructive conflict processes (Deutsch, 1973, 2002). The core of the theory is the perceived interdependence of the parties, so that the extent that protagonists believe that their goals are cooperative (positively related) or competitive (negatively related) affects their interaction and thus the outcomes. Positive interdependence promotes openness, cooperative relations, and integrative problem solving. Perceived negative interdependence on the other hand, induces more distance and less openness, and promotes competitive behavior, resulting in distributive bargaining or win–lose outcomes (Tjosvold et al., 2014).

Whether the protagonists believe their goals are cooperative or competitive very much affects their expectations, interactions, and outcomes. If parties perceive that they can reach their goals only if the other party also reaches their goals, the goal interdependence is positively perceived and therefore parties will have higher concern for the other’s goals and manage the conflict cooperatively (De Dreu et al., 2001; Tjosvold et al., 2014). On the contrary, if one party perceives that they can reach their goals only if the other party fails to obtain their goals, the interdependence becomes negatively perceived and the approach to conflict becomes competitive (Tjosvold et al., 2014). Goals can also be independent; in that case, conflict can be avoided (the parties don’t need to obstruct each other’s goals to be successful). Therefore, how parties perceive their goals’ interdependence affects how they negotiate conflict and whether the conflict is constructively or destructively managed (Alper et al., 2000; Deutsch, 1973; Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Tjosvold, 2008).

Successfully managing conflict cooperatively requires intellectual, emotional, and relational capabilities in order to share information, to contribute to value creation, and to discuss differences constructively (Fisher & Ury, 1981; Tjosvold et al., 2014). In contrast, a competitive-destructive process leads to material losses and dissatisfaction, worsening relations between parties, and negative psychological effects on at least one party—the loser of a win–lose context (Deutsch, 2014).

Deutsch’s theory proposes that emphasizing cooperative goals in conflict by demonstrating a commitment to pursue mutually beneficial solutions creates high-quality resolutions and relationships, while focusing on competitive interests by pursuing one’s own goals at the expense of the other’s escalates conflict, resulting in imposed solutions and suspicious relationships (Tjosvold et al., 2014).

In summary, Deutsch’s theory states that the context in which the conflict process is expressed drives parties toward either a cooperative or a competitive orientation in conflicts (Alper et al., 2000; Deutsch, 2006; Johnson & Johnson, 1989). In other words, a cooperative context is related to a cooperative conflict pattern, and a competitive context is related to a competitive conflict pattern. When parties have a cooperative orientation toward conflict, parties discuss their differences with the objective of clarifying them and attempting to find a solution that is satisfactory to both parties—both parties win (Carnevale & Pruitt, 1992). On the contrary, in competition, there is usually a winner and a loser (Carnevale & Pruitt, 1992) (see Table 1). In the CCB model, the patterns can include cooperative (i.e., integrating) and competitive (i.e. forcing) behavior; however, the cooperative pattern will be dominated by integrating while the competitive pattern will be dominated by forcing (Elgoibar, 2013).

Table 1. Characteristics of Cooperative and Competitive Climates

Cooperative climate

Competitive climate

Effective communication is exhibited.

Friendliness, helpfulness, and lessened obstructiveness.

Feeling of agreement with the ideas of others and a sense of basic similarities in beliefs and values, as well as confidence in one’s own ideas and in the value that other members attach to those ideas.

Recognizing and respecting the other by being responsive to the other’s needs.

Willingness to enhance the other’s power (e.g., knowledge, skills, and resources).

Defining conflicting interests as a mutual problem to be solved by collaborative effort.

Communication is impaired as the conflicting parties seek to gain advantage by misleading the other (e.g., false promises, disinformation).

Obstructiveness and lack of helpfulness lead to mutual negative attitudes and suspicion of one another’s intentions.

The repeated experience of disagreement and critical rejection of ideas reduces confidence in oneself as well as the other.

The conflicting parties seek to enhance their own power and to reduce the power of the other.

The competitive orientation stimulates the view that the solution of a conflict only can be imposed by one side on the other.

Source: Coleman, Deutsch, and Marcus (2014).

How to Manage Conflicts Constructively
The Need for Trust

Trust is commonly defined as a belief or expectation about others’ benevolent motives during a social interaction (Holmes & Rempel, 1989; Rousseau et al., 1998). Mutual trust is one important antecedent as well as a consequence of cooperation in conflicts (Deutsch, 1983; Ferrin, Bligh, & Kohles, 2008). As Nahapiet and Ghoshal pointed out, “Trust lubricates cooperation, and cooperation itself breeds trust” (1998, p.255). There is ample evidence that constructive conflict and trust are tightly and positively related (Hempel, Zhang, & Tjosvold, 2009; Bijlsma & Koopman, 2003; Lewicki, Tonlinson, & Gillespie, 2006).

Successful constructive conflict management requires maximal gathering and exchange of information in order to identify problems and areas of mutual concern, to search for alternatives, to assess their implications, and to achieve openness about preferences in selecting optimal solutions (Bacon & Blyton, 2007; Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Tjosvold, 1999). Trust gives parties the confidence to be open with each other, knowing that the shared information won’t be used against them (Zaheer & Zaheer, 2006). Various studies revealed that trust leads to constructive conglomerate behaviors and to more integrative outcomes in interpersonal and intergroup conflicts (Lewicki, Elgoibar, & Euwema, 2016; Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998; Ross & LaCroix, 1996).

How can trust be promoted? Developing trust is challenging (Gunia, Brett, & Nandkeolyar, 2014; Hempel et al., 2009). Numerous scholars have noted that trust is easier to destroy than to create (Hempel et al., 2009; Meyerson et al., 1996). There are two main reasons for this assertion. First, trust-breaking events are often more visible and noticeable than positive trust-building actions (Kramer, 1999). Second, trust-breaking events are judged to have a higher impact on trust judgments than positive events (Slovic, 1993). Furthermore, Slovic (1993) concluded that trust-breaking events are more credible than sources of good news. Thus, the general belief is that trust is easier to destroy than it is to build, and trust rebuilding may take even longer than it took to create the original level of trust (Lewicki et al., 2016).

However, there is room for optimism, and different strategies have been shown to promote trust. As held in social exchange theory (Blau, 1964), risk taking by one party in supporting the other party has been found to signal trust to the other party (Serva et al., 2005). Yet, fears of exploitation make trust in conflict management and negotiation scarce. Therefore, the use of trust-promoting strategies depends on the specific situation, and parties need practical guidance on how and when to manage conflict constructively by means of promoting mutual trust.

How does the possibility of trust development between parties depend on the conflict context? Based on this practical question, some strategies for trust development have been proposed (Fisher & Ury, 1981; Fulmer & Gelfand, 2012; Gunia, Brett, & Nandkeolyar, 2012; Lewicki et al., 2016). In relationships where trust is likely, the following strategies can help: assume trustworthiness, prioritize your interests and give away a little information about them, engage in reciprocity (concessions), highlight similarities and spend time together, get to know your counterpart personally and try to be likable, behave consistently and predictably, and paraphrase your counterpart’s positions. In relationships where trust seems possible: emphasize common goals; focus on the subject, not on the people; look to the future and find a shared vision; mix questions and answers about interests and priorities—the fundamental elements of information sharing—with making and justifying offers; take a break; suggest another approach; call in a mediator; and forgive the other party’s mistakes. In relationships where trust is not possible, more cautious strategies can help: make multi-issue offers; think holistically about your counterpart’s interests; engage in reciprocity (concessions); express sympathy, apologize, or compliment your counterpart; and look for preference patterns in your counterpart’s offers and responses.

Constructive Controversy

Constructive controversy is defined as the open-minded discussion of conflicting perspectives for mutual benefit, which occurs when protagonists express their opposing ideas that obstruct resolving the issues, at least temporarily (Tjosvold et al., 2014). Indicators of constructive controversy include listening carefully to each other’s opinion, trying to understand each other’s concerns, and using opposing views to understand the problem better. These skills are considered vitally important for developing and implementing cooperative problem-solving processes successfully and effectively.

Deutsch (2014) stated that there haven’t been many systematic discussions of the skills involved in constructive solutions to conflict, and he proposed three main types of skills for constructive conflict management:


Rapport-building skills are involved in establishing effective relationships between parties (such as breaking the ice; reducing fears, tensions, and suspicion; overcoming resistance to negotiation; and fostering realistic hope and optimism).


Cooperative conflict-resolution skills are concerned with developing and maintaining a cooperative conflict resolution process among the parties involved (such as identifying the type of conflict in which the parties are involved; reframing the issues so that conflict is perceived as a mutual problem to be resolved cooperatively; active listening and responsive communication; distinguishing between effective relationships between parties and positions; encouraging, supporting, and enhancing the parties; being alert to cultural differences and the possibilities of misunderstanding arising from them; and controlling anger).


Group process and decision-making skills are involved in developing a creative and productive process (such as monitoring progress toward group goals; eliciting, clarifying, coordinating, summarizing, and integrating the contributions of the various participants; and maintaining group cohesion).

Tjosvold et al. (2014) and Johnson et al. (2014) also elaborate on the skills needed for facilitating open-minded discussions and constructive controversy. They developed four mutually reinforcing strategies for managing conflict constructively:


Developing and expressing one’s own view. Parties need to know what each of the others wants and believes, and expressing one’s own needs, feelings, and ideas is essential to gaining that knowledge. By strengthening expression of their own positions, both parties can learn to investigate their position, present the best case they can for it, defend it vigorously, and try at the same time to refute opposing views. However, expressing one’s own position needs to be supplemented with an open-minded approach to the other’s position.


Questioning and understanding others’ views. Listening and understanding opposing views, as well as defending one’s own views, makes discussing conflicts more challenging but also more rewarding; therefore, the parties can point out weaknesses in each other’s arguments to encourage better development and expression of positions by finding more evidence and strengthening their reasoning.


Integrating and creating solutions. The creation of new alternatives lays the foundation for genuine agreements about a solution that both parties can accept and implement. However, protagonists may have to engage in repeated discussion to reach an agreement, or indeed they may be unable to create a solution that is mutually acceptable, and then they can both learn to become less adamant, to exchange views directly, and to show that they are trying to understand and integrate each other’s ideas so that all may benefit.


Agreeing to and implementing solutions. Parties can learn to seek the best reasoned judgment, instead of focusing on “winning”; to criticize ideas, not people; to listen and understand everyone’s position, even if they do not agree with it; to differentiate positions before trying to integrate them; and to change their minds when logically persuaded to do so.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution processes are aimed at ending a conflict. So, while conflict management can also include escalation, conflict resolution searches for a way of ending the conflict. The difference between resolution and management of conflict is more than semantic (Robbins, 1978). Conflict resolution means reduction, elimination, or termination of conflict.

To find a resolution, parties have to bring an extra piece of information, relate the information they have differently, or transform the issue, change the rules, change the actors or the structure, or bring in a third party (Vayrynen, 1991). The most popular conflict resolution processes are: negotiation, mediation, conflict coaching, and arbitration (Rahim, 2002). Conflict resolution can also be accomplished by ruling by authorities. Integration of the different techniques sequentially or simultaneously has been shown to support optimal conflict resolution (Jones, 2016).


Negotiation is a process in which the parties attempt to jointly create an agreement that resolves a conflict between them (Lewicki & Tomlinson, 2014). Walton and McKersie (1965) were the first to identify the two polar yet interdependent strategies known as distributive and integrative negotiation. Distributive negotiation means that activities are instrumental to the attainment of one party’s goals when they are in basic conflict with those of the other party. Integrative negotiation means that parties’ activities are oriented to find common or complementary interests and to solve problems confronting both parties. Other scholars also focused on the opposite tactical requirements of the two strategies, using a variety of terms, such as contending versus cooperating (Pruitt, 1981), claiming value versus creating value (Lax & Sebenius, 1987), and the difference between positions and interests (Fisher & Ury, 1981).

If a distributive strategy is pursued too vigorously, a negotiator may gain a greater share of gains, but of a smaller set of joint gains, or, worse, may generate an outcome in which both parties lose. However, if a negotiator pursues an integrative negotiation in a single-minded manner—being totally cooperative and giving freely accurate and credible information about his/her interests—he or she can be taken advantage of by the other party (Walton & McKersie, 1965). The different proposals that have been formulated to cope with these central dilemmas in negotiation are mainly based on a back-and-forth communication process between the parties, which is linked to the negotiators’ interpersonal skills (Brett, Shapiro, & Lytle, 1998; Fisher & Ury, 1981; Rubin et al., 1994).


Mediation is process by which a third party facilitates constructive communication among disputants, including decision making, problem solving and negotiation, in order to reach a mutually acceptable agreement (Bollen, Munduate, & Euwema, 2016; Goldman, Cropanzano, Stein, & Benson, 2008; Moore, 2014). Using mediation in conflict resolution has been proven to prevent the negative consequences of conflict in the workplace (Bollen & Euwema, 2010; Bollen et al., 2016), in collective bargaining (Martinez-Pecino et al., 2008), in inter- and intragroup relations (Jones, 2016), and in interpersonal relations (Herrman, 2006). However, mediation is not a magic bullet and works better in conflicts that are moderate rather than extreme, when parties are motivated to resolve the conflict, and when parties have equal power, among other characteristics (Kressel, 2014).

Conflict Coaching

Conflict coaching is a new and rapidly growing process in the public as well as private sector (Brinkert, 2016). In this process, a conflict coach works with a party to accomplish three goals (Jones & Brinkert, 2008): (a) analysis and coherent understanding of the conflict, (b) identification of a future preferred direction, and (c) skills development to implement the preferred strategy. Therefore, a conflict coach is defined as a conflict expert who respects the other party’s self-determination and aims to promote the well-being of the parties involved. Giebels and Janssen (2005) found that, when outside help was called in, parties in conflict experienced fewer negative consequences in terms of individual well-being than people who did not ask for third-party help.

Sometimes, the leader of a team can act as conflict coach. A study by Romer and colleagues (2012) showed that a workplace leader’s problem-solving approach to conflicts increased employees’ perception of justice and their sense that they had a voice in their workplace, as well as reduced employees’ stress (De Reuver & Van Woerkom, 2010; Romer et al., 2012). In contrast, the direct expression of power in the form of forcing behavior can harm employees’ well-being (Peterson & Harvey, 2009). A forcing leader may become an additional party to the conflict (i.e., employees may turn against their leader; Romer et al, 2012).

Conflict coaching and mediation are different processes. First, in conflict coaching, only one party is involved in the process, while in mediation, the mediator helps all the parties in conflict to engage in constructive interaction. Second, conflict coaching focuses on direct skills instructions to the party (i.e., negotiation skills). In that, conflict coaching is also a leadership development tool (Romer et al., 2012). There is a growing tendency to integrate conflict coaching and workplace mediation, particularly in preparation for conflict resolution, because the coach can help the coached party to investigate options and weigh the advantages of the different options (Jones, 2016).


Arbitration is an institutionalized procedure in which a third party provides a final and binding or voluntary decision (Lewicki, Saunders, & Barry, 2014; Mohr & Spekman, 1994). Arbitration allows the parties to have control over the process, but not over the outcomes. Therefore, arbitration differs from negotiation, mediation, and conflict coaching, in which the parties decide the agreement themselves (Posthuma & Dworkin, 2000; Lewicki et al., 2014). In arbitration, the third party listens to the parties and decides the outcome. This procedure is used mainly in conflicts between organizations, in commercial disputes, and in collective labor conflicts (Beechey, 2000; Elkouri & Elkouri, 1995).

Decision Making by Authorities

The strategies of negotiation, mediation, conflict coaching, and arbitration have in common that the parties together decide about the conflict process, even when they agree to accept an arbitration. This is different from how authorities resolve conflict. Decision making by authorities varies from parents’ intervening in children’s fights to rulings by teachers, police officers, managers, complaint officers, ombudsmen, and judges. Here, often one party complains and the authority acts to intervene and end the conflict. This strategy is good for ending physical violence and misuse of power. However, the authorities’ decisive power is limited, and therefore in most situations authorities are strongly urged to first explore the potential for conflict resolution and reconciliation among the parties involved. The authority can act as an escalator for the process, or as a facilitator, and only in cases of immediate threat can intervene or rule as a last resort. Authorities who employ this strategy can improve the learning skills of the parties and can impose upon the parties an acceptance of responsibility, both for the conflict and for the ways to end it.


It is important to emphasize the natural and positive aspects of conflict management. Conflict occurs in all areas of organizations and private lives and its management is vital for their effectiveness. Through conflict, conventional thinking is challenged, threats and opportunities are identified, and new solutions are forged (Tjosvold et al., 2014). Therefore, when conflict occurs, it shouldn’t be avoided but should be managed constructively.

Further Reading

  • Coleman, P., Deutsch, M., & Marcus, E. (2014). The handbook of conflict resolution. Theory and practice. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
  • De Dreu, C.K.W., Evers, A., Beersma, B., Kluwer, E., & Nauta, A. (2001). A theory—based measure of conflict management strategies in the workplace. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22(6), 645–668.
  • Elgoibar, P., Euwema, M., & Munduate, L. (2016). Trust building and constructive conflict management in industrial relations. Springer International.
  • Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationship and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23, 438–458.
  • Pruitt, D. G. & Rubin, J. Z. (1986). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and settlement. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Van de Vliert, E., Euwema, M.C., & Huismans, S.E. (1995). Managing conflict with a subordinate or a superior: Effectiveness of conglomerated behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80(2), 271–281.
  • Wall, J. A., & Callister, R. R. (1995). Conflict and its management. Journal of Management, 21, 515–558.


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