What is Conflict and Conflict Resolution?

Understanding Conflict

What are the main stages and causes of conflict?

Conflict is usually caused by triggers such as poor communication, personality differences and environmental factors. 

When people disagree with another person or become unhappy with a situation we react according to our own personality type, background conditioning, and beliefs about ourselves and others.


There are four primary stages to conflict:

  1. Potential conflict 
  2. Perceived Conflict
  3. Actual Conflict
  4. Outcomes or Intervention

1. Potential Conflict

An action or inaction (whether verbal or physical) has the potential to cause a negative experience from another person’s perspective.

2. Perceived Conflict

Another person has had a negative experience which relates to the action or inaction, and this has become an issue for the individual.

3. Actual Conflict resulting in a dispute

The individual reacts to the negative experience by doing an act or expressing verbally their position. This causes a reaction from each person involved with each adding to the situation and hardening their positions. The conflict has come to a head and both sides communicate their perspective in some way. 

Outcomes or Intervention

Conflict resolution can take many forms and does not always require third party intervention. Where the people involved are committed to finding a way forward, an outcome can be reached which will benefit some if not all individuals. Where one or more people do not want to move forward, intervention should be considered to help decide one or more outcomes.

Intervention can be neutral for example where a mediator works with everyone equally or decision-based where a third party such as an expert, adjudicator, arbitrator or judge makes a decision. 

The Stages of Conflict

These four stages interlink with acts and behaviours. 

Potential Conflict can be seen in most situations when something happens which has the potential to be perceived by another as a negative experience. 

Actual conflict arises when one or more of the people involved take action or alter their behaviour to the detriment of the situation or one or more others involved. 

Conflict will usually continue to escalate if there is inaction or incorrect actions to manage the situation.

Does conflict always mean a bad outcome?

Conflict is not always bad. Sometimes it can lead to greater understanding and improved outcomes. But if not managed properly it can have a negative and detrimental effect on relationships. Outcomes can include an escalation of tensions resulting in aggressive or passive-aggressive abusive or violent behaviour. Relationships can be damaged and the unresolved conflict can lead to the end of personal or professional relationships.

A bad outcome is likely if the conflict is left to deteriorate or those involved do not want to resolve the issues amicably.

What are the signs of conflict escalation?

The signs of conflict escalation involve both internal and external factors. Recognition of your own behaviours towards a situation or another person is as important as understanding how others act towards you.

  • Key internal elements include how your feelings may have changed to become more negative; your behaviours may show a lack of interest in engaging with another person or in a situation; whether you feel that some action or avoidance should be considered; whether you want to discuss the situation with another person.
  • Key external factors relate to the others who are involved. They may be communicating differently; they may be behaving differently towards you; changes to processes or procedures may be being considered or suggested; others may make you feel differently. 

What is Conflict Resolution?

Conflict resolution is the process of working through the conflict or a dispute between two or more people in order to find peace or an acceptable resolution. Conflict Resolution is also known as Dispute Resolution when the issues have crystallised or escalated into a formal dispute.

What are the main methods of Conflict and Dispute Resolution?

There are three categories of conflict and dispute resolution methods. Each has different ways to deal with the issues between those in dispute.

Localised or Direct Resolution Approaches

  • Direct discussion between the people involved to reach an understanding or negotiate a resolution.   
  • Assistance for the individuals to deal with their reaction to the conflict: e.g. 
    • Conflict Coaching
    • Individual Counselling
    • Friends or Family
    • Managers or Internal workplace professionals
    • Lawyer negotiation 

Third-Party Neutral Facilitation

  • Facilitated direct discussion or assisted communication of offers and proposals in order to reach an understanding or negotiate a resolution. 
  • Third-Party Neutrals do not have the power to impose a decision but depending on the approach, they may provide opinion or advice (make sure they are qualified if you take this option!)  Here are some examples of some of the third-party neutral processes:
    • Mediation
    • Family Dispute Resolution 
    • Family Group Conferencing 
    • Restorative Practice 
    • Evaluative Mediation 
    • Conciliation

Third-Party Decision-Making Intervention

  • Formal procedures or third-party decision-making interventions give the power to determine how the conflict will be resolved to someone other than those who are in conflict. The disputants may choose or have imposed on them a type of resolution which will result in an outcome being decided for and on their behalf.  
  • Here are some examples of formal processes that may apply:
    • Legal process (litigation)
    • Company procedures such as investigations and disciplinary procedures
    • Arbitration
    • Adjudication
    • Expert Determination
    • Parenting Coordinator (this process involves some elements of third-party facilitation plus some determination power)   

How can I self-manage Conflict?

Self-managing conflict relies on your ability to manage your responses and reactions to the other person.

Sometimes that is possible and sometimes there are benefits of using a third party to help facilitate the negotiation of a resolution or even have someone determine the outcome.

The best approach will depend on your specific situation.   

Conflict resolution generally relates to a disagreement or problem that has escalated into a dispute and a dispute resolution approach is required to resolve the issue. 

Conflict management is mainly about looking inwards and changing our own behaviours whilst recognising those of others and working together to reduce future conflict. For example, identifying triggers and causes, as well as behaviours and being respectful of the values and beliefs of those around us.

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