Lessons in resolving business conflict from a diplomat

There are important differences between the conflicts encountered in life. Whereas conflict is the driving force of politics (without conflict there would be no politics), in other spheres, from business to family, conflict should be avoided. Neither your business nor your family will benefit from it (or appreciate it). However, should you become involved in a conflict, keep an open mind and don't fall prey to emotions.

1. Even (and particularly) if you dislike the other person, don't take it personally

Love thy enemy - you may understand their perspective. Even if you disagree with your opponent's ultimate goals, approach the situation rationally and devoid of emotion, you may appreciate their viewpoint making negotiations both more amicable and more productive.

2. Establish your interests

A conflict occurs when seemingly opposing interests come to blows. Know precisely what you want and why you want it. It may be that there is no real conflict, or that one can be easily avoided.

3. Determine the interests of the opposing party

Unless we are talking about major politics, most people won't hide what they want. However, sometimes people find it difficult to clearly explain their interests. If at any point you are unsure about what someone is asking of you or where their interests lie, simply ask. Never assume.

Know your enemy. Research into the background and previous interests of your opponent is essential when preparing for business 'conflict'. However, only after you meet your adversary personally, can you begin to appreciate who they are. Body language is also key. If you can visibly see that someone is feeling uncomfortable try to put them at ease. They will appreciate this and it will make for smoother negotiations.

4. Certain conflicts won't be resolved in the foreseeable future

All wars end in peace - even the Hundred Years War. Conflicts based on national or religious grounds are almost impossible to resolve. You may ask the other side a hundred times what they want, invariably receiving the same response: that you abandon your obviously incorrect perspective.

Divide the problem. In business as in families, if you don't want to divorce, you can always try therapy. In business, if there are a range of issues that require attention try to divide the problems into more manageable chunks. If some topics become more heated than others, discuss something less contentious and come back to the original issue after other problems have been resolved and both parties are in better, more cooperative moods.

Although it is never a good idea to involve more people than necessary in a conflict, it can be a good idea to introduce an objective arbitrator (if one exists!). They can ensure that each side remains calm and is being afforded a fair chance to be heard.

5. Help the opposing party to save face

Historically, victors often completely exterminated the vanquished. Fortunately, times change. The opposing party is not your nemesis, regardless of your differences. You don't have to become friends, although it can happen. Maintain eye contact and, if you can, shake hands.

6. Always remain a gentleman (or lady!)

You'll regret it otherwise.

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