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10 Necessary Skills to Resolve Project Conflicts
By Ray W. Frohnhoefer

Ever have your project conflicts get far out of hand? Needless to say, conflicts are a normal part of life. Often they stem from interpersonal issues. There are many other sources, though, including disagreements on requirements, design, work assignments, technical disagreements, and more. With appropriate management, conflicts can be healthy for organizations, promoting change and innovation.

I think it goes without saying that conflicts are always best resolved at the lowest level of the organization or project team. Normally that would be the two people in conflict. But sometimes it’s possible they cannot resolve the issue themselves and as Project Managers, we need to step in. Here are the 10 necessary skills all Project Managers should have to be able to successfully resolve conflicts and harness the benefits:

  1. Provide the right Emotional Temperature: Maintain a positive attitude and choose postures that radiate positive energy. Smile!
  2. Create Rapport and Empathy: Start with simple introductions and ice breakers before moving to more difficult topics. A genuine interest will go a long way toward building trust between you and the parties in conflict. Once the air is cleared a little, communicate your feelings and understanding of the situation.

  3. Active Listening: While 80% of the Project Manager’s job may be communications, this doesn’t mean just distributing information. We need to listen as well! Set prejudices, relationships, and the environment aside and listen without obstacles.

  4. Reframing: Those in conflict will often be overly emotional, negative, or predict dire consequences. These statements may be revealing about what the parties value, but we need to reframe into a positive message. Listen for these messages and repeat them back; retain the key messages, but with the negativity removed.

  5. Uncover Needs: Gather the information necessary to come to a resolution. Use close ended questions (“Would you like things to be different?”) to defuse emotions. Use open ended questions (“How would you like things to be different?”) to focus on feelings and explore issues further. Finally, avoid “why” questions as these will just escalate emotions. Use active listening skills to be sure you are getting the needed information.

  6. Handle Difficult Emotions: Focus on issues, not emotions or people, and don’t get drawn into the negativity. Be sure to clarify everything with more open ended questions and reframe as necessary. Find out what will generate a “win” for everyone.

  7. Watch your Body Language: Posture, stance, gestures, and the use of eye contact all play a role. Plus choose your words carefully!

  8. Understand Cultural Differences: There are at least 10 areas where cultural differences such as perception of time, truth, and space can play a major role. We will look at these in a future article.

  9. Develop Options: Find the needs, desires, and fears behind the positions of the participants. State as a “how” problem and then share and discuss ideas.

  10. Under Promise, Over Deliver: Make an honest appraisal and avoid telling people what they want to hear. Don’t promise anything you are not sure can be delivered. For complex issues, these may be taken in small steps. Remember that trust will be built on successful delivery.

Many of these skills, such as active listening, can be used in non-conflict situations as well, so these are skills worth mastering for other situations and circumstances.

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at You can read more from Ray on his blog.

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