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Seven Steps for Conflict Resolution Using Collaboration

By Terry H. Hildebrandt, PhD

In my last post, Do you know your Conflict Style?, I discussed the five possible approaches to conflict resolution as defined by Kenneth W. Thomas (2002) and Ralph Kilmann including: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaboration. Of all of these options, collaboration holds the promise of a win-win outcome which is more creative and robust than solutions we might be able to come up with on our own. While we often talk about the virtues of collaboration, actually doing it is often more challenging that we think.

Below are seven steps to collaboration along with key tools and techniques that leaders can use to facilitate a group through collaboration.

1) Raise the Conflict Issue

While this might seem obvious, in reality we must first own up to the fact that we have a disagreement with another. By being willing to surface and name the issue, we are then able to move to the next step.

2) Get Curious

Holding an attitude of curiosity enables us to move away from defending our own position to exploring other’s perspectives with an open mind. It is helpful to balance advocacy (presenting our own views) with inquiry (seeking to understand others’ views through questioning).

3) Identify Underlying Concerns

One of the biggest challenges with conflict is a lack of understanding or appreciation of others’ perspectives. While we may think that we understand the root of the issue, often times we are incorrect or have partial understanding. Below are several best practices which will help you move to greater awareness.

• Separate “positions” from “concerns.” Positions are the actions we want to take; concerns are the underlying worries or issues that have led us to take the positions.
• Listen to each person’s position, concerns, interests, and needs.
• Step into each other’s shoes and restate the other’s position as it is heard.
• Help clarify the other person’s underlying concern
• Work with more, rather than less, information

4) Develop a Shared Purpose statement

This is the essence of collaboration: We move from having my concerns and your concerns to our concerns. In developing a shared purpose, include all parties concerns, interests, and needs. Look for and document areas of common ground. Deeper values are often a rich source of commonality. Create common goals to rally around. This sets the stage for creative brainstorming.

5) Generate Solutions

Now we get to the fun part. All parties work together to brainstorm solutions that can meet all the needs, address the concerns, and reach the goals defined in the Shared Purpose. Be sure to use brainstorming rules to avoid premature judgment of ideas. We have the potential of creating a holistic solution that is greater than the sum of the parts. By collaborating, we can develop novel and creative proposals that go beyond the original positions that created the conflict.

6) Rank the Options and agree on the Best Solution that Works for Everyone

Using the brainstormed list of solutions, rate each idea based on how well it meets the Shared Purpose criteria. Decide on a decision making process as a group. This could be consensus with qualification, consultative decision making, or other agreed upon process. A formal process such as Kepner-Tregoe Decision Analysis or pair wise comparisons could be helpful.

7) Devise a Plan for Implementation and Evaluation

This is where project management takes over. The hard work of collaboration can really pay off at this step, since you have strong alignment and support for the plan of action. Take advantage of the momentum from the collaborative exercise to quickly develop an implementation plan to see the fruit of your labor!

I hope you find these seven steps for collaboration helpful. If you would like to better understand your own preference for conflict modes, you can take a short online survey, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), through my online assessment website for a modest fee. I also offer a half-day to full-day workshop on exploring Conflict and Teams and Collaboration which can be customized for your organization. See or call me at 720-318-6625.


Thomas, K. W. (2002). Introduction to conflict management: Improving performance using the TKI. Mountain View, CA: CPP

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