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10 Tips for Handling Conflict
By Susanne Madsen

Conflict is a situation where people have contrasting feelings, needs, perceptions and interests. It often occurs when people feel they are losing something they value. This could be anything from material to immaterial possessions, such as ideals, standards, aspirations, reputation, status or self esteem.

As a project manager you are more than likely to come across situations of difficulty and conflict. The more complex and high profile your project is, the higher the likelihood may be. Disagreements can arise between a group of stakeholders and yourself, or it may be that several stakeholders disagree between them and that your role becomes that of a mediator. In some cases your stakeholders would have already worked together elsewhere, and any personal disputes between them could flare up as political clashes on your project.

Disagreements are likely to arise as a consequence of unexpected changes on your project, or during the initiation phase, when the foundations have to be agreed upon. It could relate to anything from the project’s goals, objectives and success criteria to scope, requirements, solution or approach. Later in the project, conflict can arise when constraints and agreements are breached, such as budget, time or quality.

Remember however, that conflict is not necessarily bad. Sometimes a situation can only really be uncovered by getting all opposing emotions, opinions and views out into the open. Be resourceful and calm, and diplomatically deal with the situation before it escalates out of control.

In situations of conflict, seek to use to following tips:

  1. Do not pre-judge the situation. Become aware of your own emotions and interests and open your mind to the fact that you could be the one who is wrong.
  2. Take on the role of a mediator even if you are an active part of the conflict. Listen, speak and carry yourself the way a respected mediator would.

  3. Where possible negotiate with people in isolation instead of letting a conflict flare up at a meeting. No one likes to come across badly in a forum so give people a chance to resolve the conflict before the meeting.

  4. Do not attack, blame or defend anyone. See both sides of the situation. As the mediator your role is to calm the situation down and invite to rational thinking.

  5. Identify the root cause of the disagreement and get all parties to agree to what the underlying problem is. Focus all discussions and conversations on the way forward.

  6. Make a big effort to listen and understand the other parties. Assess what their underlying fears, motives and aims are.

  7. Only speak up about your own views once you fully understand the others’ position. This will help you identify mutual grounds and build respect around you as a person.

  8. Summarize everyone’s position as accurately as you can. Use vocabulary such as “I understand” and repeat the exact words and phrases which each party is using.

  9. Make people feel good and look good by taking their interests into account.

  10. Maintain an open and positive mind throughout and aim to find a resolution which works for everyone; not a compromised agreement, but an expansive win-win solution which is better than either party had thought of when the conflict started.

Susanne Madsen is a project & program manager, mentor & coach, and author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook. She has over 15 years experience in managing and rolling out large change programs. You can read more from Susanne on her blog.

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