3 Steps to Successful Conflict Management

By Molly Herber

Mar 11, 2016

Camp in the Wind River Range
Photo by David Morgan.

It happened again—it's the fourth morning of your camping trip, and your friend slept through the alarm and barely has her shoes on. You, on the other hand, popped out of your tent the moment the alarm went off, started boiling water, and are nearly finished packing your backpack.

You're trying not to make a big deal out of it, but leaving camp late for the fourth day in a row is driving you crazy. You're twenty miles from where you planned to be, meaning you might have to cut this dream trip short. Even though you've dropped a number of hints, your friend doesn't seem to get it. What's your next move?

Even on trips with friends, conflict is nearly inevitable. Conflict can come up when folks have different expectations, preferences for the way tasks are done, or don't communicate clearly. Since you're likely to see conflict at some point with any group, knowing how to manage it in a healthy way is a valuable skill for work, school, and (of course) your next trip to the outdoors.

We use the steps below to teach our students conflict management (you can find more details in our Leadership Educator Notebook). You can use them to manage conflict with your friends, coworkers, and teammates.

Step 1: Ventilation

This is the part when you explain your frustration to your friend, and, just as important, when you pause and listen to her perspective. She might have no idea why you've been grumpy for the last four days. You might learn that she didn't know you were behind schedule—perhaps you both started the trip with different expecations.

Gathering all parties involved to express their concerns is a useful place to start managing a conflict. You can't resolve a fight if the people involved don't know each other's full story. As everyone speaks, you have the opportunity to articulate and put a name to your feelings, as well as understand the other person's perspective.

Strategies for Ventilation

  • Take turns; make sure everyone speaks

  • Actively listen

  • Paraphrase to make sure everyone is on the same page

  • Expect to hear a different version of the situation from what you’re experiencing

  • Avoid sacrasm or bringing up cheap shots that aren't related to the conflict (accusing your friend of burning last night's dinner on purpose, for example, will not help you resolve this conflict)

  • Accept the other person's point of view and feelings about the situation (just because she sees it differently, or expresses herself differently than you would, doesn't mean her point of view is wrong)

Step 2: Owning and Empathy

In this stage, you may realize that your "advice" has actually been stressing out your friend as she gets ready in the morning, rather than helping. At the same time, she might now grasp the impact leaving late has had on the trip. You're both getting a handle on the impact your behavior has had on the other, and imagining what it was like to be in their place.

During this stage, once everyone has a chance to express their concerns, it's time to acknowledge the ways you both contribute to the conflict. Each of you "owns" your actions. As you do that, you imagine what it’s like to be the other person and empathize with the way they see the conflict.

Strategies for Owning and Empathy

  • Own what you believe you did or said—nothing more or less

  • Take some time to set aside your own perspective and imagine the other person’s experience

  • Accept your contribution to the conflict

Step 3: Planning

Planning phase of conflict management
Photo courtesy of Alex Chang - Cornell Leadership Expedition.

What can you and your friend do moving forward that will help keep this conflict from continuing for the rest of the trip?

This is the stage where you formulate action steps. Before moving to this step, make sure that everyone is done speaking and understands their role in the conflict. If you're still airing out your frustration, then you're not ready to make an action plan.

To make the plan, discuss what each person wants, expects from each other, and is willing to do to avoid the same conflict in the future. Follow-through is important here, so be realistic in your commitments and hold yourselves accountable to your agreement. Maybe your friend needs to adjust her morning routine, and maybe you need to adjust your goals for the trip, or try a different way of communicating your expectations.

Strategies for Planning

  • State your expectations clearly

  • Make sure you understand everyone else’s expectations

  • Expect that you will occasionally slip up with your new plan, and that's ok

  • Accept that the other person has a choice whether he or she can meet your expectations

Every conflict and group is different, but with these steps you'll have a framework for managing conflict and helping your group move beyond it. 

Bring leadership training to your team with NOLS Custom Education. 

Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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