Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Resolving Conflict in Teams

Even in the best of circumstances, people will occasionally disagree or rub each other the wrong way. Conflict can be a particular issue in team situations, where people are expected to prioritize team goals over their own individual interests. Conflict can arise for a variety of reasons, from competition for resources to disagreements over goals or work methods to personality differences.

The conflict-resolution skills your students are learning in class can benefit them now in both their academic and personal lives, particularly if they’re adjusting to virtual teamwork and learning from home for the first time. If they encounter conflict in a team setting, encourage them to follow these five steps to resolve it in a positive and constructive way:

  1. Decide if the conflict is worth addressing. Resolving conflict takes time and energy and can temporarily disrupt activities and relationships. If the conflict is minor or will disappear on its own (such as when a temporary team disbands), it might make more sense to live with it.
  2. Examine your own beliefs and behaviors. If you are involved in a conflict that you want to resolve, examine your own stance before taking any action. You might be contributing to the conflict in ways you hadn’t considered.
  3. Identify where the conflict truly originates. As you have probably experienced in your personal life, conflicts aren’t always about what they appear to be about; the real difference may lie below the surface. For example, two team members might be arguing about work methods when their real conflict is deeper. They could have different cultural priorities, for instance, such as the importance of group harmony versus individual success.
  4. Establish common ground Figure out what everyone does agree on, and then use that foundation to build a solution. For example, if people disagree about the team’s work methods, dig deeper and find out if they agree about the team's overall goals and strategies. If they agree at that level, you can use that to launch a discussion about how to adapt work methods to everyone’s satisfaction.
  5. Choose a strategy for resolving the differences. You have four basic choices here. (1) You can avoid the circumstances that create conflict, such as not assigning people who don’t get along to the same tasks. Avoidance isn’t always possible and doesn’t solve the underlying conflict, of course, but it can be the most efficient solution in some cases. (2) One side can choose to accommodate or sacrifice for the good of the team or to maintain harmony in a relationship. If two people disagree about the best way to approach a project, one might decide to accept and support the other’s approach. (3) The two sides can choose to compromise, with both sides giving up something. Balanced compromise is one of the hallmarks of successful teams. (4) Both sides can choose to collaborate on a new solution that satisfies everyone’s needs and expectations—a win-win strategy. Collaboration in this sense can be a rewarding experience because it makes conditions better for everyone and gives a team or group the satisfaction of a shared accomplishment.

Whichever approach you take, practice and encourage respectful, calm communication. Everyone should choose their words and nonverbal gestures carefully to maintain focus on the problem at hand and to avoid further inflaming an already uncomfortable situation. Use active listening to better understand what other people have to say.

Note that this approach isn’t limited to formal teams. It can work with roommates, marriages, partnerships, and any other relationship in which people need to coordinate their efforts for a common good.

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Five Tips for Better Listening

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Making Difficult Requests

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away


Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th Edition, 2021, pp. 39–40.


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