Know that conflict is normal. How to come to conflict resolution for different aspects of collaboration


Conflict is about differences; it exists when two or more parties disagree, compete, or perceive that their interests are incompatible.  Conflict is both an inevitable and necessary aspect of human interaction. It is impossible to imagine a collaborative venture in which conflict does not occur.  But conflict does not automatically mean there is something wrong with a team. In fact, social cohesion emerges from engaging in and resolving conflicts.

Scholarship is competitive by nature and this can generate conflict.  Many people, including scholars, fear conflict and tend to avoid it.  Many scholars are both competitive and conflict avoidant--a potentially counterproductive combination especially for members of a team.  Ignoring problems and avoiding conflicts can undermine the research endeavor. This is particularly the case if competitiveness leads to engaging others in ways that elicit conflicts.  If you avoid acknowledging and addressing these conflicts, you cannot understand what led to them, which is necessary for resolution.

Team leaders and members should learn not to fear conflict even though they may never enjoy it.  We have seen that surfacing differences and talking them through is the only way to manage the disagreement and if handled well, can strengthen the team.

Understanding Conflict

In Phase 1 we wrote about the importance of self-awareness and awareness of others. … One arena in which it is especially useful to be aware of your emotions and reactions is in the way you handle and respond to disagreements or other types of conflict.  A well-known inventory of conflict styles, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Thomas and Kilmann, 1974, updated in 2007), may help you identify your most natural style of resolving conflict as well as other conflict resolution styles that may be useful in different situations.

A particular conflict resolution style may be more effective in some circumstances and a liability in others. One example where an approach can be a liability follows.  Imagine the head of a research laboratory whose preferred mode of handling conflict is avoidance, a common trait among scholars. If there is discord among the scholar in his laboratory, and he is reluctant to address it, the conflict can fester, undermining the research endeavor and possibly derailing the project.  Recognizing your conflict style preference(s) and understanding the ramifications of the other styles can be helpful in guiding the way you approach future conflicts.

The most successful team players and leaders do not hold themselves captive to their dominant conflict resolution style(s).  Instead, they adapt their reaction to conflict according to the issue at hand, the styles of those with whom they disagree, and the ends they hope to achieve.  They recognize and are adept at using all styles as appropriate for each situation.

Man and woman arguingHow to engage with conflict

If you are leading or participating on a team, consider the following steps for managing and resolving conflict:

  • Understand the culture and the context of conflict--seek out the meaning of the conflict for yourself and/or the other parties.
  • Actively listen--assure others you have heard what they said and ask questions to confirm your understanding.
  • Acknowledge emotions--they will likely be part of the conflict, but expressing them and hearing them can help lift barriers to resolution.
  • Look beneath the surface for hidden meaning--hidden fears, needs, histories, or goals may be the underlying source of the problem.
  • Separate what matters from what is in the way--get away from discussion who is right or wrong and focus more on how to satisfy mutual interests.
  • Learn from difficult behaviors--let those experiences help you develop your skills in managing difficult situations and having empathy for and patience with others.
  • Solve problems creatively and negotiate collaboratively--This also means committing to action.
  • Understand why others might be resistant to change--the problem could be an unmet need.

(adapted from Cloke and Goldsmith, 2000)

When dealing with conflict, it is important to recognize people’s tendencies to overemphasize the importance of personal and interpersonal dimensions and underestimate the significance of organizational factors.  Personal and interpersonal factors are usually quite visible and in conflict situations, often quite dramatic. By contrast organizational factors often operate outside of our immediate awareness. For example, if there were to be a conflict between two team members, your first instinct may be to consider the personalities of each person, citing the aggressiveness of one or the reclusiveness of the other.  However, an alternative approach that may get to the root of the conflict would be to consider the competition that the two feel in vying for the team leader’s favor. Not surprisingly, it is less common to identify ways in which the leader may have inadvertently sparked the conflict by failing to ensure roles and responsibilities were clearly defined. The leader may have neglected to discuss how each team member’s contributions integrate into the greater whole and are important for the overall vision of the team’s research endeavor.

By itself, diversity of thought, opinion, approach, or identity is neither good nor bad; what matters is how it is handled.  Critically examining the culture of a team can often provide insight into understanding why differences in personal attributes that could be an asset for a team instead develop into a source of conflict and disharmony.

Conflict Resolution Styles

When you encounter conflict, you may rely more heavily on one style than on others, whether because of temperament or practice. But everyone is capable of using all five conflict resolution styles.  Think about how different styles could be used in different situations.

  • Competing: When competing, you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position.  Competing can involve “standing up for your rights,” defending a position you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.
  • Accommodating: When accommodating, you neglect your own concerns to satisfy the concerns of others.  Accommodating might take the form of selflessness or yielding to another person’s direction or point of view.
  • Avoiding:  When avoiding, you sidestep the conflict altogether.
  • Collaborating: When collaborating, you attempt to work with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both.  It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the individuals.
  • Compromising:  When compromising, you attempt to find an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially and even fully satisfies the concerns of all parties.

(Adapted from Thomas-Kilmann, 2007)  [See the links at the end of this set of pages to the instruments and toolkit.]

Questions to explore when facing conflict

Who is involved and what are their personalities, emotions, thoughts, motivations, values, ideologies, and/or identities?

What are the interpersonal dynamics, including communication, intimacy, rivalry, competition, power, and hierarchy?

How are the organization structure and dynamics (such as roles and responsibilities, rules, policies, and procedures, and organizational norms and values) contributing?

Listening:  The First Step Toward Problem Solving

Skillful listening helps you to gather the information you need to reframe the conflict as a joint problem and build the rapport and trust that is necessary to begin a process of jointly solving the problem through the collaboration of the disputants.

When approached for help in resolving a conflict, the best place to start is by listening.  Instead of immediately trying to solve the problem, interrogating people or prematurely analyzing the problem/situation, ask the person to explain to you what has happened and listen.  If there are things you do not understand, ask questions to gain more information. You may need to seek out others and ask them for their account of the situation as well, before you can come to a decision about what next steps to take.

True listening is a far more comprehensive endeavor that simply hearing someone talk.  It is a multifaceted effort that includes attending to the speaker’s words, tone of voice, and body language.

There are several components to effective listening.

Visibly “Tune-in” --Face others directly, adopt an open posture, make eye contact ,and relax.

Active Listening--Focus exclusively on the person speaking, make efforts to connect, and be open to what others have to say.

Accurate Listening--Paraphrase others’ points to assure that you understand and, if something is unclear, ask for more information.

Listening for Meaning--Restate the issue and problem and request feedback on your understanding, and ask as many questions as needed for a full understanding.

(Adapted from Egan, 2001.)

Principled Negotiation

In a team setting, the assumption that conflict is bad or that two people in conflict are necessarily adversaires can be incredibly destructive.  Rather, if all parties can see their conflict as a joint problem, they can entertain the idea of working together toward a joint solution where both people can benefit.  The end goal is to negotiate in a principled way rather than in a manner that resembles fighting.

Principled negotiation has five steps:

  • Separate the people from the problem.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Invent options for mutual gain.
  • Insist on using objective criteria to evaluate options.
  • Be focused on the future.

The aim of such negotiation is to find a solution that is attractive to all parties and leaves them feeling that they have achieved something.  In addition, an ideal outcome is that all parties believe that their ability to manage and resolve conflict has been enhanced by the very way they have negotiated.

(Adapted from Fisher, Ury, et al., 1991)”

Cloke, K. and Goldsmith, J. (2000)  Resolving personal and organizational conflict:  Stories of transformation and forgiveness.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Eagen, G. (2001) The Skilled helper:  A problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping.  Brooks/Cole Pub. Co.

Fisher, R. W., Ury, W., and Patton, B. (1991)  Getting to yes:  Negotiating agreement without giving in. New York, Penguin Books.

Thomas, K. W., and Kilmann, R. H. (1974)  Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.  XICOM.

Quoted from page 100-110 in Bennett, L. M., Gadlin, H., Marchand, C. (2018). Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide. 2nd edn., National Institutes of Health Publication No. 18-7660, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, United States of America.

This material was written in the context of team science.  Our emphasis is broader.  Therefore we substituted "scholarship" or "research" for "science" in the text.  We left the title of the manuscript quoted as Team Science so it can be found.



Here is the Thomas Kilmann inventory to assess what kind of conflict management  you do.