29 August, 2022

Conflict Management: Do You Know the Practical Steps to Make Things Better?

When relationships start to go wrong, it is often your job to fix them. Conflict management is not always a welcome part of a Project Manager’s role. But it is an important part.

Because conflict is an inevitable part of projects. Stakeholders will resist change, sponsors will want different things, and team members will care passionately about how to implement your project. Indeed, I could argue that conflict is a good thing.

Without creative challenge, you won’t get the best solutions to the problems your project is set up to address. If stakeholders don’t care enough to argue about what you are doing, they may not care enough when you deliver it. Conflict is not just inevitable: it’s desirable.

Guide to Conflict Management

Conflict Management: Do You Know the Practical Steps to Make Things Better?

This is the second of a two-part series. In our previous article, we looked at the foundations of conflict management. In this one, we’ll focus on the practical steps you can take, to make things better. Here’s a summary.

Part 1: The Foundations
Managing Conflict: Do You Know the Foundations that Get Great Results? 

  1. What is Conflict?
  2. What are the Sources of Conflict
  3. Spotting the Signs of Conflict Escalation
  4. The Principles of Conflict Management
  5. Five Strategies for Managing Conflict
  6. Mechanisms for Managing Conflict among Team Members

Part 2: Practical Steps
Conflict Management: Do You Know the Practical Steps to Make Things Better?

  1. The Steps of Conflict Management
  2. Tips for Conflict Management
  3. Helpful Attitudes for Conflict Management
  4. Rebuilding Relationships after They Have Broken Down

If you have not read part 1, I strongly recommend you do. It’s easy to see a heading that describes this article as ‘practical steps’ and think the first part is just wooly theory. Nothing can be farther from the truth. You’ll find lots of good, effective advice there.

But, let’s suppose you’ve read Part 1.

We have a lot to get through in part 2 as well. So let’s start…

The Steps of Conflict Management

Conflict is complex. And when you find yourself in conflict, there are three things to address:

  1. The personal part
    Feelings and emotions are important. If you don’t acknowledge them, you will make a misstep. There are likely to be emotions like anger, frustration, remorse, bitterness, and pride, to handle.
  2. The substance of the conflict
    For many project managers, this can be where you most comfortably focus. On the other hand, some people have a tendency to try and soothe emotions and fail to address this one.
  3. The resolution process
    If you keep your process in mind, then it will be your guide. Trust it. There will be bumpy moments, but a sound process and goodwill can get you a long way. A sound process can rebuild relationships and address the substance of the conflict.

We are going to work from a seven-step conflict management process for making things better.

Step 1. Make the choice to engage positively.

This is, perhaps, the hardest step. When you are upset, angry, and full of wounded pride, it can be hard to decide to reach out and look for a resolution. But remember that you are in a leadership role. So, it’s your responsibility.

Step 2. Make contact.

Approach the other person and declare a willingness to resolve the conflict. You may not be ready to move from your position, but I would advise you to apologize for any bad behavior on your part without reservation. And it is certainly good to express your regret that you have both ended up in conflict.

Step 3. Appreciate the courage that your resister is showing.

Demonstrate that you understand the other person’s concerns – or at least that they have them. Make it clear that you are willing to take the time to understand and explore their concerns properly.

If they too choose to engage in resolution, that is a brave decision. They are putting their reason ahead of their immediate emotions. They have just as much chance of losing face as you so. So, show appreciation for their first steps in engaging with you to resolve your shared conflict.

Step 4. Understand each other’s points of view.

You need to understand each other’s points of view. You can only resolve this situation when you work from a shared basis of facts about the situation, your definitions, your emotional responses to it, and your concerns and hopes. Work together, uncritically, to itemize all of the relevant facts and feelings. And take care to distinguish facts from opinions. Acknowledge the value of each other’s opinions, whilst agreeing that they need to be assessed against the evidence.

Be respectful of their feelings. These are the hardest things for us to share, but will be the key to unlocking the conflict.

Step 5. Agree on the criteria for a resolution.

Discuss your respective requirements for a good resolution. You may decide that agreeing with each other is not necessary, or desirable. Remember that it is the conflict you need to resolve and you may not be able to agree on the substantive matter.

Make a joint commitment to work together towards a resolution. You can start this off by saying what you are committed to doing.

Step 6. Explore options and possible solutions.

Once you have your criteria, have a wide-ranging discussion about what solutions could meet them.   Ask questions about what:

  • resources do you have?
  • you can agree on?
  • is missing?
  • are the possibilities for creating agreed solutions?

Step 7. Offer a resolution.

Through a series of offers and counter offers, you can move towards an agreement for the next steps and promises to one another. When you have come to a decision, agree on the next-step actions, and document them.

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Dealing with Conflict in Projects

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

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Tips for Conflict Management

Within the seven steps for conflict management, there is plenty that can go well, or go wrong. So here are some of my favorite tips.

Before you start

  • Choose the conflicts that are worth engaging with. Walk away from the rest.
  • Determine what you want to achieve and what a good outcome will look, sound, and feel like.
  • Distinguish the person from the problem. Even if you detest their behavior, continue to respect them. The person is rarely the problem. Even if you think they are, don’t treat them that way.


  • Listen more than you speak, and practice intense listening. Wait until you have heard the whole message before framing your response.
  • Respect what you hear: listen hardest when the message is toughest.
  • Use the power of silence to encourage them to say more. How people interpret a silence often betrays their own doubts.
  • Check and re-check your understanding of their feelings, opinions, and position, to avoid compounding the conflict with further misunderstanding.

Defuse Tension

  • To help reduce personal conflict, avoid using the word ‘you’ which can sound accusatory or as if you know what I am thinking. Use the word “I” to take responsibility for your opinions, interpretations, and actions.
  • If the conflict is about opinions and interpretation, rather than facts, consider getting other stakeholders involved to create more opinions and thus reduce the tension, and to see if the weight of opinion can change their mind – or yours.

The Substance

  • Look for information or data that one party is missing. This will give them a face-saving chance to re-evaluate their position, rather than change their mind.
  • Find common ground; facts and opinions you can agree on. It’s easier to build more agreement from an agreement.

The Basis for Agreement

  • Stay flexible and integrate ideas from many sources. Keep an eye on your goal and be prepared to try any ideas, if they might help. Specialize in joining your ideas with those of others.
  • Focus on the future. This will help you generate solutions. If you focus on the resent, you’ll be talking about values. This can help where you share values but hinder you if you don’t. Avoid the past tense: this will focus you on blame.

Your Behavior

  • Make positive commitments to change or to actions that underscore your personal sense of responsibility for resolving the conflict.
  • If you realize you are wrong, own up to it immediately and take responsibility for your error. Put progress ahead of pride.
  • And also put progress before pride in granting credit for ideas that move you forward – whether they are yours or not.
  • Be prepared to credit the other person with resolving the conflict. Recognition is less important than resolution… and you will always know.

What are your tips for successful conflict management? Share them in the comments below, and I’ll respond to every thought we get.

What are your tips for #project #conflict management. #PM Share on X

Helpful Attitudes for Conflict Management

Conflict management is not just about process and technique. Some people are just better at it.

This isn’t because they are born that way. Rather, it is because they have acquired a set of attitudes to conflict that are helpful. Other people find they accumulate unhelpful attitudes, like pride, the need to be right, fear of failing, or the desire to avoid conflict.

So, what are the attitudes that are helpful in conflict management? Here are my top eight, in order of (approximate) increasing importance.

8: Flexibility

Let’s start with the necessity to remain adaptable. But, of course, total flexibility can compromise your goals, so…

7: Focus

More important still is the need to really know what you want from the situation and avoid getting caught up in superficial details.

6: Attention

To stay focused, you need to be able to notice what’s happening and read the situation accurately. Focused awareness is vital.

5: Generous

You won’t resolve conflict unless you are prepared to be generous. You’ll need to give up something and make the other person feel like they have gained.

4: Cool

None of this will be of any use if you cannot stay in control of your emotions and your temper. A calm demeanor and constant courtesy will optimize your chances of success.

3: Curious

If you really want a good resolution, be curious… Be curious about the other person and their point of view. Be curious about what options you’ve been missing. And be curious about your future self.

2: Respectful

Any lasting resolution to conflict has to be built on respect for one another. I’d also argue that the desire for true conflict resolution must stem from respect.

1: Integrity

Number one and non-negotiable: integrity. A project manager who is prepared to sacrifice their integrity for their project will, at best, be like a firework. Bright and exciting for a short time, but they will ultimately burn out and lie, discarded, on the ground.

The Most Important Attitude to Conflict and Conflict Management for Project Manager

Do you have a different set of attitudes? Or a different order of priority? Share your thoughts below, in the comments, and I’ll respond to every message.

8 helpful attitudes for #project #conflict management. #PM Share on X

Rebuilding Relationships after They Have Broken Down

This is perhaps the hardest part. Pride is badly hurt – maybe yours; maybe theirs. They don’t want to engage anymore. But you know you need to engage them. How can you recover from a broken relationship?

By the way, this method is not designed for close personal relationships, but it can’t hurt to try it!

If you want to reverse a breakdown, you need to build back trust and a commitment to work together. What makes breakdowns difficult, is that rapport has gone. Declaring the Breakdown is important because it is something both of you can agree on. It is therefore a basis for starting to re-build rapport. The process below is one you can drive, one stage at a time, to try and build back your relationship.

Let’s look at a process for resolving a broken relationship. This is taken from my book, How to Speak so People Listen.

Conflict Management - Relationship Breakdown Process

Conflict Management – Relationship Breakdown Process

The Ten Step Relationship Breakdown Process

1: Declare the breakdown

You need to state that a breakdown has occurred and what you perceive it to be. Getting this bit right will be the first step in building trust, so talk about why it matters to you.

If you did something wrong, say so and apologize.  But don’t ask for or expect forgiveness or approval.  That is not the purpose of this process.

“Last time we spoke, things went wrong”

2: State your outcomes

Set out the goal you want to work towards.

‘What I would like to achieve is …’

3: Invite my outcomes

Ask me what I want to work towards. I may be content to let the breakdown stand, but this is unlikely.  Mending our relationship will be based on the overlap between your and my desired outcomes.

‘What would you like us to achieve?’

4: Share the facts

Be honest about what happened, your own shortcomings, and your emotions. Give examples if they are not obvious to both of you, but avoid blame.  Be prepared to acknowledge your different interpretations of events and how you contributed to the problem.  Take care to distinguish facts from opinions, and share how you feel about the situation.

‘What happened last time was …’

5: State your commitments

This may include a recap of what you have been committed to in the past but must focus on what you are committed to now, to help achieve your outcome.

‘I am committed to …’

6: Invite my commitments

Again, be prepared for me to decline to make any at this stage. However, if you do have shared outcomes, and you have got this far, there is probably some rapport and I will probably feel that I do want to offer some commitments of my own, in return for yours.

‘What are you committed to, now?’

7: Look for what is missing

There may be missing information, a step in the process, an understanding of how each of us feels, or there may be a gap between our perceptions of what is possible. Steer clear of assuming you know what I intended or was thinking, or offering recriminations.  If you do, I will stop being honest with you.

‘What was missing for me was …’

8: Look for options

What are the different ways we could mend the breakdown? If we agree we cannot mend the breakdown, what are our alternatives?  Is there a way to deal with things we both need to contribute to, without a good relationship?  How?

‘Here are some possible ways forward for us…  What ways can you suggest?’

9: Put together a plan

What are the actions, requests, promises, resources, and timing that we commit to, to mend our relationship?

‘This is what I propose to do… and this is what I would like from you.’

10: Reiterate your commitment

Explicitly state what you are committed to doing, and then invite me to do likewise.

‘I think this plan is a good one, and I am committed to pursuing it as best I can.’

So, what do you think?

In part 1 of this guide, we quoted Ambrose Bierce:

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.’

Now, when you are rational and reading an article, you can god advice to your future self. What is that advice?

Please do share it in the comments below, and I’ll respond to every contribution.

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Dealing with Conflict in Projects

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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