Academic Leadership Support - University of Wisconsin - Madison Office of Quality Improvement

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Common Problems


Q: How can you negotiate with someone when that person doesn't want to do so?
A: Let's accept the reality that it is much better if both people are interested in negotiating a solution to the conflict. So, if we can transform the situation into one where the resistant person recognizes the potential benefits of a negotiated process, it may be helpful. This is where the "8 Step Model" can be pretty beneficial: By focusing first on listening to the other person, and seeking to understand the sources of their resistance, you set the stage for clarifying the conditions he or she requires in order to talk things out. This isn't about being 'right' or 'wrong' in the situation, but a practical strategy for getting the other person engaged as a partner in the negotiation process.

However, the other person may still resist the idea of negotiating a solution! In such situations, shift away from substantive needs and focus first on procedural needs to be negotiated. Remember that procedural needs are those that relate to the process we are using to negotiate.

Another alternative is to focus on things we can do to influence conflicts in the future, rather than putting initial energy into understanding (or solving) problems we have had in the past. By remaining relatively flexible about the agenda - taking on topics you care about, but not necessarily the most pressing issues - you create an opportunity to reduce the fears associated with resistance. While you may not be able to truly resolve the conflicts, you will still be able to manage some of the key issues that exist and prevent those issues from getting worse.

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Q: How can I negotiate with my boss, or someone else who has significant power over me?
A: Power is an important and complex issue facing anyone seeking a negotiated solution to a conflict. Before negotiating (in Step #2, where you are assessing your needs in the conflict), clarify the true sources of power in the room: Your boss has position power, associated with the "carrots and sticks" that come with the role. She or he may also have coercive power, supported by contracts or statute, that compels you to behave in certain ways and do certain tasks associated with your job. You may have a great deal of expertise power, accumulated from doing your job over a period of time. Either of you may possess normative power, through which you know "the lay of the land" in your department and, therefore, how to get things done. And either of you may possess referent power, through which others refer to you with respect for the manner in which you conduct yourself. Generally, referent power accrues to those who demonstrate a mature willingness to seek collaborative solutions.

We provided this summary of power sources because it is important not to unfairly simplify the power as only existing with "the boss." Everyone has power, and negotiation involves the exercising of these multiple types of power towards a collaborative outcome. If you feel that it is very difficult for you to negotiate with your supervisor, for fear of retaliation or other exercises of the power she or he possesses, it is important to clarify the conditions you need in order to negotiate as the first order of business. Perhaps this includes a written statement of intention, or the presence of a mediator or facilitator or the support of an advocate or union steward. Perhaps it merely includes the establishment of ground rules that respond to this concern. But it is important to honestly raise the concern and have it addressed (or know clearly that it cannot be addressed at this time), so it doesn't lurk beneath the surface of the conversation, sabotaging good faith efforts to solve the problems at hand. [See video clip on "Sources of Power in Conflict" for more information ( : windows media ) ]

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Q: The part that really frustrates me is when we get totally stuck. We go around and around, and it just sucks the air out of the discussion. Then someone walks out of the room, and it's worse than if we had never tried. How do you get out of that kind of cycle?
A: This sense of being "stuck" is what we call impasse. Impasse is the point within a dispute in which the parties are unable to perceive effective solutions. People feel stuck, frustrated, angry, and disillusioned. As a result, they might either dig their heels in deeper, anchoring themselves in extreme and rigid positions, or they might decide to "take their marbles and go home," withdrawing from negotiation. Either way, impasse represents a turning point in our efforts to negotiate a solution to the conflict. As such, rather than avoiding or dreading it, impasse should be viewed with calm, patience, and respect.

At such times, it is important to refocus efforts on the underlying needs, interests and concerns of the conflict:

  • What do I really need here?
  • What are my desired outcomes of this discussion?
  • What are my alternatives if I decide to withdraw from further negotiations?
  • Does impasse mean that we have to forget about the other issues we need to discuss, as well as other solutions we have already negotiated?

Strategies for managing impasse offer a useful starting point for an effective response to the situation.

In addition, it is important to recognize what is truly happening in the situation: Is the impasse a genuine expression of differing ideas about the substance of the problem, or is it a stance that is taken to "save face" in an embarrassing stand-off? Creating a safe space in which to retreat from an untenable position may provide the first step in a new effort to negotiate an agreement. So try to be patient, stay open to new (and surprising) ideas, reflect upon your own opportunities to "extend an olive branch" to the other person, and look for ways to keep the dialogue open for another day.

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Q: What do you do when you have several people, or an entire staff, in conflict?
A: Multi-party disputes are complex situations, and they require careful attention and persistence. However, the same "8 Step Process" can be applied to such disputes… just expect everything to take a bit longer than if you have only two or three people. Patiently make sure that all points of view are heard, that issues are clarified (on a board, preferably) for all to see, and that all members in the group accept the agreements being negotiated. If there are limits to the group's decision-making power, then it is important to acknowledge those limits and understand how they are perceived by all members of the group. Department chairs, managers and others who are attempting to facilitate resolution of such conflicts from a third-party perspective, should consult "Guidelines for Mediating Multi-Party Disputes" for additional strategies appropriate to that role.

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  We welcome additional questions to include in this section. Contact Harry Webne-Behrman with additional questions.

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