6 Ways to Transform Conflict

Lawrence W. Wilson is a thinker, author, and senior pastor from Fishers, Indiana. He writes about the challenge of Christian leadership in a postmodern world. You can connect with him through his blog, Suburban Pastor, or on Twitter.

Conflict is an almost daily event in organizational life. Wherever two or three are gathered, one is likely to disagree!

6 Ways to Transform Conflict

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/gregobagel

Most people choose one of two classic ways of handling conflict: management or resolution:

  1. Conflict management assumes that conflict is a constant feature of group life. The idea is to keep it within boundaries, not to eliminate it.
  2. Conflict resolution sees conflict as an interruption of normal life. The idea is to find a solution—usually a compromise—as quickly as possible.

In most cases, neither approach adequately deals with the issue. I learned that the hard way several years ago when dealing with a conflict between several employees in our church’s preschool and the school’s director. As pastor, I was called into help find a solution.

At first I tried conflict management, listening patiently to each party and coaching them individually on how to accept one another’s differences. But the complaints and ill will only increased.

Then I switched to conflict resolution mode, calling a meeting to identify a compromise. I asked everyone to listen non-defensively and state his or her grievances in a straightforward matter. We identified problems, named solutions, and by meeting’s end there seemed to be unanimity. I thought it was a perfect meeting.

Within three weeks, however, the director and a third of the staff had resigned, leaving the preschool in a tailspin. Obviously, the conflict had not been either managed or resolved. It simply went underground where it gained strength and then exploded.

Conflict Transformation is a third way to view conflict. It sees conflict not as a problem to be managed or resolved but as an opportunity to strengthen the common life of any group.

Here are six keys to moving from a management or resolution mind-set to conflict transformation.

  1. View conflict as opportunity. We usually see conflict as a problem and, therefore, dread dealing with it. Learn to see conflict for what it is, a valuable look beneath the surface of your organization.
  2. Respect your adversary. Pride is the primary obstacle to transforming conflict. When you are sure you’re right, the other person is wrong, and—even worse—see them as the problem, the conflict is sure to escalate or stalemate.
  3. Identify primary issues. Married couples don’t really fight about money. Control is the true concern. Always look beyond the presenting issue to name the real problem.
  4. Envision a shared future. Begin with the question “How can we create something better for both of us?” If you can’t envision your adversary as part of your future, you can’t transform your conflict.
  5. Know when to quit. A conflict cannot be transformed unless both parties are willing to negotiate in good faith. If the other party is committed to being contentious, you may need to walk away—or at least maintain a holding pattern. Conflict transformation is not the same as capitulation.
  6. Capture the learning. Conflicts are symptoms of underlying tension, so they are likely to resurface at some point. How will you capture—and communicate—the lessons from the current conflict so they help you navigate a future one?

Conflict is inevitable, but fallout from that conflict can often be avoided. By opening your mind to see possibilities other than either winning or losing, you may be able to transform your current conflict and the culture of your organization.

Question: What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with conflict? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://plantcityladyandfriends.blogspot.com/ Carol Noren Johnson

    I appreciate Ken Sande’s book “The Peacemaker” for his insights on this topic.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Carol, you might also enjoy The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach.

    • http://www.dianeyuhas.com/ Diane Yuhas

      BEST book on the subject ever!

  • Mike Griffin

    I find in conflict both sides believe they are right or correct. Therefore I think it is important not to assume bad intent of the other party in conflict with you. Better to ask and clarify their intent early on, this often leads to a big AH HA! and on to defuse the conflict. Mike Griffin twitter mjgleadeship 

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      That’s so right on, Mike. To me, that’s the importance of respect, believing that the other side has something to offer.

  • http://chrisvonada.info/ chris vonada

    This is excellent and fitting for our day Michael. Interesting that Carol commented on Ken Sande’s book. His work is like a Bible on the topic of conflict resolution. Very informative and helpful. I’ve always said that winning an argument is absolutely meaningless. Our sense of pride holds us back when we feel like we have to win an argument or conflict, which is just plain silly when we stop and think about it. If the other party is unreasonable and can’t communicate it’s always the one who is willing to shelve the unresolved conflict and soldier one that really wins.
    “Forgiven people have a much easier time forgiving.” Andy Stanley

    • http://chrisvonada.info/ chris vonada

      I should say thank you Lawrence, I breezed right over Michael’s intro when reading this guest post early this morning. Yikes!!

  • http://daveleingang.com/ Dave Leingang

    Dealing with conflict is one of my weaknesses. I try to avoid it, and yes, it has bitten me in the rear, almost always. So now, I hope, I’ve learned my lesson and deal with it.

    One of the first things I do is to make sure we’re on common ground, I like to ask questions to see what their assumptions are. Some times folks want the same outcome, just disagree on how to get there, and how silly is that. They see different ways because they have different strengths.

    Combine them, and we all win.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Good point, Dave. And the real “win” is that the group is changed for the better. 

      I’m curious, how have you managed to overcome your reticence to deal with conflict? I think that’s something we all struggle with.

      • http://daveleingang.com/ Dave Leingang


        If it’s a
        behavior problem that’s affecting the individuals performance I have to remind
        myself that they may not even know that it’s an issue.

        As leaders,
        it’s important to remember that our job is to add value to others by helping
        them achieve their goals or raise their skills and abilities to another level. Unfortunately,
        sometimes you need to do that by raising their awareness to the cause and effects
        of their actions, and sometimes that hurts and causes conflict.

        But, if you
        have a high level of trust and they know you have their best interests in mind,
        conflict will seldom occur.

        Thank you for
        letting me share.

        • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

          Good thoughts, Dave. Our own self-awareness is critical in this process, isn’t it?

          • http://daveleingang.com/ Dave Leingang

            Leading starts by leading self first!

      • Eliza

        Lawrence, personally, I am working on changing my fear of conflict into an opportunity.  The Make your Mark course dealt with this straight on in a very visual way.  I have a broken arrow taped to my monitor and when I am confronted with what to do, I look at it and say to myself, “no fear.”  Fear of the consequences is what stops us from addressing an issue early on before it gets out of hand.  Even if it does, the mantra, “no fear” helps to deal with it head on.

        • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

          Fear is really a paralyzing force. I like the strategy, Eliza. 

    • http://carolcarrollauthor.wordpress.com/ Carol

      I like your take on this topic, Dave. Nobody is 100% right all the time and nobody is 100% wrong either. Good communication skill is the key.

  • http://www.thadthoughts.com/ Thad Puckett

    Excellent post.  Ignoring conflict only causes it to fester and then pop up somewhere else, usually worse than it was originally.

  • Daniel Hayes

    Great guest post! This post should constitute a large portion of every sovereign nation’s foreign policy.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Daniel, I agree. In fact, Lederach and others who distilled these concepts do apply them to international conflicts. Do you see some nations already doing this? 

  • Jack

    I do not disagree with your six, but sometimes there’s a couple more steps. I’ve found it important to discern if one of the parties habitually creates conflict. If so, that person must own their part in the problem and either correct their behavior or move on.
    Additionally, I try to listen long enough to hear the real problem. People cite “personality differences” but that’s a smokescreen. As you mentioned, someone is looking for control.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Jack, you’re right that  a person who is committed to causing conflict can derail this process. Any insights for dealing with that “habitual contender”? I think we all run into them!

  • Owen D Baker

    Conflict is a matter of agenda. It’s either my agenda or your agenda – and frankly I think my agenda is better than yours, right? But what if we learned the art of yielding? What I tell my clients is that the art of yielding does at least two things: it signals to the other party that you are setting aside your own agenda to truly listen to what it is the feel is important. Their side of the conflict is important to them – as important to them as your view is to you. Secondly, yielding does not suggest resignation, you’re not abandoning your position (yet). If both parties truly yield, set aside their own agenda, consider their opponent’s viewpoint and appreciate their viewpoint (critical), you can not only diffuse conflict – you begin to move forward. Owen D Baker http://asquarecup.com/ 

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      I like that … both parties really need to be aware of their own goals. You mentioned clients–what type of consulting do you do? 

  • Festusomotara

     Conflict is inside of us (Mrk.7:21-23)It makes us to collide with others and vice-versa. Another problem with man is that it is difficult  to say sorry for an offense committed against our fellow man. It is one’s responsibility to be annoyed or agree with those who offended us. There is always a difference between a reaction and a response. What turns you on? What turns you off? A proper evaluation of these would help us in settling conflict before it arrives

  • http://www.corynikkel.com/ Cory Nikkel

    3 Tier Understanding.  1-What previous event or action led to…, 2- An inner reaction to a past occurrence, and then… 3- outputted conflict which produces anger, frustration, concern, sadness, etc. This has always helped me understand conflict in my own life and in others.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Great paradigm!

  • http://www.douglasoakes.com/ Douglas Oakes

    I have found one of the big keys for handling conflict is to properly determine what conflict is worth engaging in.  A professor of mine once said that you have to really care about the issue and the person before a conflict is worth engaging.  I unpacked this earlier in the week on my blog, putting the process into a decision-making matrix.  I’ve found it extra helpful in my relationship with my wife where often the little issues create conflict.  Every time I reflect on the argument and I look at her and  reflect on the issue at hand…I can’t believe I would risk the health of our relationship over something so insignificant.  

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Douglas, understanding the stakes is so important. Good insight.

  • http://www.justinbuck.com/ Justin Buck

    So often conflict becomes a matter of gamesman- or brinksmanship. A conflict among leaders on your team (whether executives or simply opinion influencers) will invariably split your office into two competing camps. Thats why it is so important that leaders get involved early and personally rather than “wait it out” to see who comes out on top.

    And as a peer to someone in conflict rather than his or her superior, refuse to get caught up in coddling your preferred party; share frank advice that helps expediate a solution to the problem’s root.

  • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

    Lawrence, thanks for the post. I remember Donald Miller talking about conflict, saying that it’s what makes any story (and our stories) good stories. Like you said, it’s a real opportunity for change. Enduring unity is often forged in conflict.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Well said, Aaron. We’ve lost sight of that truth. Could this be why we see so little unity in churches today? 

  • http://www.jackiebledsoe.com/ jbledsoejr

    Great post @LawrenceWWilson:disqus !  I am a regular reader of Michael’s blog and implement his teaching in my own platform building and blogging.

    So, when I read that today’s guest post is from a Pastor in Fishers, I thought, “this is awesome!”

    My family has lived in the northeast Indy/Fishers area since 2004.  Our daughter used to play soccer for HSE S.P.O.R.T.S right near your church at Fall Creek Intermediate, my nephew is a 2012 HSE grad, and my wife and I currently direct a homeschool community in Fishers.

    After reading this post, I’m looking forward to connecting with you online and checking out your blog!  GREAT stuff!!

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Jackie, great to meet another person from Fishers here! Hope we’ll get connected soon.

  • MyHelpSource

    This is right on the money, and better yet, timely! I am presenting a series of conflict management and resolution lessons to my high school and university students, and the conflict transformation aspect will help me wrap the concepts we’re discussing in a useful, “take home” package. 

    Thank you, Mr. Wilson!


    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Guy, I’m glad this will be helpful. In the classroom, I’m betting conflict issues are more than an abstract concept. Would I be right!?

      • http://www.myhelpsource.com/ Guy

        Greetings, Lawrence! You are absolutely right; conflict issues are part of the landscape in my high school–much more than an abstract concept. 



  • MyHelpSource

    Lawrence — 

    I forgot to thank you for the reminder that not all conflicts will have WIN-WIN outcomes. There are times when the sides must simply separate, despite our best efforts. Capitulation all too often leads to temporary respite that is soon followed by more damaging conflict.

    Onward and Upward!


  • Mark Richardson

    An awesome book entitled Hope in the Face of Conflict by Dr. Kenneth Newberger, and the model he has developed to help churches have a mediation ministry in place to deal with conflict when it arises and before it escalates into broken relationships and disaster, called the First Responders Model.  Our church has implemented it after working through the book, and we have 9 trained mediators from the congregation who are capable of helping people make peace with each other the way God makes peace with us.  Mark Richardson, Senior Pastor, New Life Church of God, Pittsburgh, PA

  • Canonseth

    Dear Michael
    This is really interesting because many people deal with conflict with authorotative conviction which results in strikes !But conflict as an opportunity is seen later may be when one sees why he has been struggling . In many circumstances corruption does influence ,and the corrupting and the corrupted force the innocent to accept and enure consequences ,and will never see the future together ,some decide towalk away!
    Hope your wisdom will help me tomorrow  as I will be dealing with conflict tomorrow between two parties ,I will appreciate your prayers,
    Canon Seth from Burundi

  • Loistague

    Totally agree with the statement about looking towards a future…Often younger couples struggle with issues like budgets, children, work, etc.  Just the exercise of goal setting together can re-focus them towards a future with a hope.  As they set long term dreams, then begin to fill in the short term goals that will get them there, they begin to move toward the same distant point.  Often, misunderstandings in motives and issues of control begin to dissapate and contention can wane. 

    Thanks for your articles. 

    L. Tague

  • http://www.ericdingler.com/ Eric Dingler

    I always try to start with number 3.  You need to know the reason behind the reason.  Otherwise, you’ll be using a bandaid instead of doing the surgery that will actually cure the conflict.  

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      That’s a good starting point, Eric. Seeing those reasons clearly is critical for understanding and respecting the other party.

  • Steveoboh

    The transformation approach trills me

  • http://www.leadingyourlife.net/ Jason Pulley

    “A conflict cannot be transformed unless both parties are willing to negotiate in good faith”

    This is the most common problem I find in resolving conflicts. We are naturally too “big headed” to say we’re wrong or to show “weakness”(as it is often wrongfully viewed as). This problem is like trying to motivate those who don’t want to be motivated. Or a marriage where one spouse does not want to work at thier marriage. It will most always fail. Cutting the losses saves a whole lot of headache.


  • http://www.dianeyuhas.com/ Diane Yuhas

    I’ve always loved that saying, “It takes two to tango.” Both parties must be willing to work through conflict. There are few things in life as frustrating as conflict with someone who simply will not do his or her part to resolve it.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Thanks for the positive thoughts, Emily. BTW, I tried to check out your blog post but the link doesn’t seem to be working. 

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

    #2 is a big deal.  Two questions I have learned to ask myself when faced with conflict…is there ANY chance I am wrong?  And if I am wrong, what is the impact?

  • http://www.NateAnglin.com/ Nate Anglin

    Conflict is an important part of innovation and growth. Could you imagine how boring life would be if we all agreed on everything…no thank you. I try to deal with conflict by actively listening. By doing this I can hear what the other party has to say, process it and then make my remarks. If I don’t listen, then conflict will turn ugly and no growth will come out of it. 

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Great summary, Nate: “Conflict is an important part of growth … “

  • http://www.principlesofexecution.com/ Gerald Leonard

    I usually refer to Stephen Covey’s method of using the Indian talking stick that he shared in his book, “The 7 habits of highly effective people.” As long as the person speaking has the talking stick they have the floor and they are not to hand it over until the person listening can repeat what is being said with the mindset of seeking first to understand, then to be understood.

  • shelleymolitor

    1. Don’t accept or deflect blame in the middle of conflict
    2. Listen longer
    3. Ask advice on what would fix it
    4. Admit mistakes quickly and gracefully, and give others space to do the same.

  • Jayne Clement

    Beautiful post on conflict resolution.  This past weekend I completed a seminar called the Landmark Forum…incredible!  I was left was such an extraordinary feeling of peace, happiness, and my own personal freedom and power.  Many of the “problems” that I went into the seminar with, had to do with conflicts with clients, family members.  I came out with such love for my so-called adversaries and a willingness to work with them and love them!  This post underlined all of the content of the seminar and added new.  Beautiful!

    Delighted to have found Laurence Williams.  No, I’m not a Christian.  And, I love your point of view.  Glad to meet you.  ;-)

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Glad to meet you too, Jayne!

  • Margaret Feinberg

    great tips!

  • http://www.intentionalcareer.com/ Henrieta Riesco

    Nice article, it made me stop and think :-)
    What I find useful is similar to the point #3, but I call it “underlying interests”. I want that big tree because I value privacy, you may want to cut it, because you want more sun in your yard… (a hedge?) interest based negotiation invites parties to share what’s important to them. Another point I would add is looking for the common goal – when I can imagine a scenario where we are pulling on the same side of the rope, I stop seeing you as my enemy and become more open to discussing options.

  • http://askjeremyjones.com/theblog Jeremy Jones

    It’s true many people would try and avoid conflict, but we can look at it as an opportunity to grow or for great innovation.  Really enjoyed this one.

  • Pierre Sharboneau

    I have found that addressing conflict too quickly can sometimes add to the problem.  It is very easy to be judgmental.  If you are truly in observation mode toward conflict that is arising, then you have time to relate before addressing the issues at hand.  This also seems to give you the right mind set as not to attribute more to the temperature of the conflict.

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  • http://twitter.com/jonathonpost Jonathon Post

    Love learning from you! I think in the paragraph starting with Conflict transformation the 2nd sentence might be missing the word “be” in, ” It sees conflict not as a problem to [be] managed or resolved…” Hope that is helpful.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for catching that missing word. It is now corrected.

  • Tracey L. Moore

    This was such a timely article. I needed the insight you provided.  Thank you. The Bible says don’t let the sun go down on your anger. I think that is good advice. I try to adhere to that, but it’s not always easy to do. I think if we ask God what He wants us to learn from the situation when conflict arises, He will show us, and the pain that we are experiencing won’t be wasted.
    Tracey L. Moore
    Author of the upcoming book, Oasis For My Soul: Poems and Inspirational Writings for Spiritual and Personal Growth

  • Ernest Dempsey

    Excellent thoughts.  As a school counselor, I see conflict between students and teachers, students and other students, teachers with other teachers.  It can be a real mess.  And it always seems there is conflict, of some kind, brewing.  
    I think the biggest key comes from number 4, the shared vision.  
    What is best for both of us?  Acknowledging there are two perspectives and two motives is the first step into seeing things from the “other person’s shoes.”  
    If people can do that, then you’ve got a chance for the transformation.  
    I really like this.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://twitter.com/RobbSadler Robb Sadler

    I found Dale Carnegie’s advice in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to be really helpful. He recommended that you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and look at the issue from how it affects them, and find out why. 

    With that perspective, you can then hopefully identify ways that address their fear, discomfort, or objection and your final position is probably stronger and more tempered for seeking out the new perspective.

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  • BudgetMindedOrg

    Hi Michael and thank you for such a great, insightful article.  My husband and I have suffered through cycles of conflict that never seem to get resolved.  Your article provides just the shift in perspective that we need to transform our conflicts and actually heal from past, unresolved issues.  How refreshing! We’ve also started reading Michael Singer’s book, “Untethered Soul”. It is life changing.

  • Eliza

    This is a wonderful post!  Conflict is so destructive to an organization and to the people involved.  I think the first thing that you have to do is to look inward and see if/what you personally contributed to the issue.  Recognize your own conflict resolution style.  For example, I know that I internalize and not as proactive to resolve the problem.  Knowing this, gives me the knowledge that isn’t going to work and I have to take responsibility for my own actions/inactions and forge ahead and work to resolve  the issue.  Another way, is to offer management courses to staff members in order to help. I just took a great course from Make Your Mark by Colin Sprake. It has helped me tremendously.  Believe it or not, it is a 3-day course and all you have to buy is a $20.00 book to qualify for the course!

    One of the biggest things that I keep remembering is what I was told years ago.  The things you like about another person are the qualities that you have and the things you dislike about a person are the qualities that you dislike about yourself.  This realization helps you to address issues a little more dispassionately and helps you to focus on the good things embodied in the other person and a little more understanding of the things you don’t like. Then you can aske this really important question, “how would I like to be treated and how would I like this resolved?” I hope I have made myself clear.

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