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Critical thinking and conflict resolution

Critical thinking and conflict resolution


Have you ever wondered how critical thinking can help in terms of conflict resolution? Critical thinking is a powerful tool, but does it play a role when people are butting heads?

Whether at home or in the office, critical thinking has an enormous amount of power to reduce conflict, improve clarity, and focus on the problem, rather than the emotions surrounding the problem. Critical thinking helps everybody involved to evaluate the arguments, rationalize, explore the facts, and come up with optimum solutions.

We are going to use this article to look at how conflict resolution can be improved by applying critical thinking methods. Managers everywhere can benefit from exploring this technique – so let’s learn more about it.

How Does Critical Thinking Help With Conflict Resolution?

Conflicts are an inevitable part of life. At times, people are bound to disagree, because we are all individuals and we approach problems in different ways. What seems like a great idea to one person may seem like a really bad idea to another.

Recognizing this puts you in a powerful position, because it helps you to see that conflicts must be managed – not avoided. Most of us would rather steer clear of conflict and not approach it head-on, but if you are prepared to handle conflicts the right way, you’ll find they are far less problematic.

Critical thinking helps with conflict resolution in several significant ways, which we will explore below.

  • It Focuses On Facts

Critical thinking is grounded heavily in facts. People who have learned how to think critically always start by looking for data. What supports or undermines an argument? What figures help guide your decisions? What stats are important to consider?

By doing this, you remove some of the biggest problems in conflict: politics and emotions. You never want business decisions to be guided by politics, and you don’t want emotions and egos getting in the way of making the right choices.

Instead, it’s important to soundly evaluate the facts, and use these to guide the path forward. Critical thinking allows you to do that, and removes the other noise that might cloud the decision-making process.

2. It Highlights Problems

Whenever conflict arises, it can be very tempting to look for blame in other people, rather than focusing on the actual problem. For example, if a contract has been sent late, there is a temptation for employees to blame each other. Instead, critical thinking will help you to assess the problem and look for concrete solutions.

The solution might be to send an apology to the client and then implement processes that ensure future contracts aren’t late. This approach avoids the focus on blame, and instead explores what the problem is so that it can be resolved.

3. It Increases Objectivity

It is hard to be objective when something goes wrong. Often, subjectivity gets in the way of finding good solutions. You need to take an approach that involves stepping back and looking at the issues the way that an outsider would look at them, without emotions or preconceptions.

Critical thinking demands that you look at alternative perspectives, rather than just focusing on your own. This inevitably makes you better at solving problems, because it encourages you to consider multiple solutions. With more solutions available, you’re more likely to reach the optimum one, and implement it effectively.

It can be very difficult to achieve objectivity when conflicts arise, but critical thinking will help you to do so. It encourages you to step away from the problem so you are no longer a part of it – and then you can instead be a part of the solution. When you are mired deeply in all the problems and not thinking critically, it’s impossible to be objective.

4.It Improves The Evaluation Of Arguments

When you can get everybody on the team to assess arguments without ego and emotions, you are much more likely to get a high-quality assessment. Everybody can offer their opinions without their personal agenda getting in the way, and this will maximize the evaluation process.

With good critical thinking, people are encouraged to empathize with the other arguments, and to consider them as fully as if they had put them forward themselves. This is the best way to properly assess, weigh, and consider solutions, because it maximizes the amount of thought that goes into them.

5. It Highlights The Importance Of Finding A Resolution

It’s so easy to get caught up in an argument, you can end up going in circles without realizing it. If everyone is focused on the wrong things, a problem often ends up self-perpetuating, because nobody is managing to pinpoint ways to fix it. Everyone is too busy looking for somebody to blame, or refusing to consider the solutions with equal weight.

Conflict resolution tackles this because it places all the focus on that resolution – and everybody works toward finding it. It doesn’t matter who did what. Everybody becomes aware that if they don’t find a solution, the problem will continue, and they therefore work harder to come up with answers.

What’s more, people are less likely to argue with the resolution if everybody can see why that solution was chosen, without the emotional drivers. You will find that your team is better at accepting decisions they don’t agree with, because they will be able to understand the reasoning behind them.

You’re also less likely to run into issues of resentment, or accusations of favoritism. Everybody will understand that the ultimate goal is finding the best solution and implementing it, rather than doing what the most popular person in the office said simply because they are popular. This environment is great for improving collaboration and trust within a team.

Critical thinking is one of the best ways to resolve conflicts, and it’s a tool that managers and employees everywhere should be looking to use. It does require some practice to master it, but it’s invaluable when it comes to solving issues and pinpointing the best way forward.

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5 Strategies for Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Business leader resolving workplace conflict

  • 07 Sep 2023

Any scenario in which you live, work, and collaborate with others is susceptible to conflict. Because workplaces are made up of employees with different backgrounds, personalities, opinions, and daily lives, discord is bound to occur. To navigate it, it’s crucial to understand why it arises and your options for resolving it.

Common reasons for workplace conflict include:

  • Misunderstandings or poor communication skills
  • Differing opinions, viewpoints, or personalities
  • Biases or stereotypes
  • Variations in learning or processing styles
  • Perceptions of unfairness

Although conflict is common, many don’t feel comfortable handling it—especially with colleagues. As a business leader, you’ll likely clash with other managers and need to help your team work through disputes.

Here’s why conflict resolution is important and five strategies for approaching it.

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Why Is Addressing Workplace Conflict Important?

Pretending conflict doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Ignoring issues can lead to missed deadlines, festering resentment, and unsuccessful initiatives.

Yet, according to coaching and training firm Bravely , 53 percent of employees handle “toxic” situations by avoiding them. Worse still, averting a difficult conversation can cost an organization $7,500 and more than seven workdays.

That adds up quickly: American businesses lose $359 billion yearly due to the impact of unresolved conflict.

As a leader, you have a responsibility to foster healthy conflict resolution and create a safe, productive work environment for employees.

“Some rights, such as the right to safe working conditions or the right against sexual harassment, are fundamental to the employment relationship,” says Harvard Business School Professor Nien-hê Hsieh in the course Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Accountability . “These rights are things that employees should be entitled to no matter what. They’re often written into the law, but even when they aren’t, they’re central to the ethical treatment of others, which involves respecting the inherent dignity and intrinsic worth of each individual.”

Effectively resolving disputes as they arise benefits your employees’ well-being and your company’s financial health. The first step is learning about five conflict resolution strategies at your disposal.

Related: How to Navigate Difficult Conversations with Employees

While there are several approaches to conflict, some can be more effective than others. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model —developed by Dr. Kenneth W. Thomas and Dr. Ralph H. Kilmann—outlines five strategies for conflict resolution:

  • Accommodating
  • Compromising
  • Collaborating

These fall on a graph, with assertiveness on the y-axis and cooperativeness on the x-axis. In the Thomas-Kilmann model, “assertiveness” refers to the extent to which you try to reach your own goal, and “cooperativeness” is the extent to which you try to satisfy the other party’s goal.

Alternatively, you can think of these axis labels as the “importance of my goal” and the “importance of this relationship.” If your assertiveness is high, you aim to achieve your own goal. If your cooperativeness is high, you strive to help the other person reach theirs to maintain the relationship.

Here’s a breakdown of the five strategies and when to use each.

1. Avoiding

Avoiding is a strategy best suited for situations in which the relationship’s importance and goal are both low.

While you’re unlikely to encounter these scenarios at work, they may occur in daily life. For instance, imagine you’re on a public bus and the passenger next to you is loudly playing music. You’ll likely never bump into that person again, and your goal of a pleasant bus ride isn’t extremely pressing. Avoiding conflict by ignoring the music is a valid option.

In workplace conflicts—where your goals are typically important and you care about maintaining a lasting relationship with colleagues—avoidance can be detrimental.

Remember: Some situations require avoiding conflict, but you’re unlikely to encounter them in the workplace.

2. Competing

Competing is another strategy that, while not often suited for workplace conflict, can be useful in some situations.

This conflict style is for scenarios in which you place high importance on your goal and low importance on your relationships with others. It’s high in assertiveness and low in cooperation.

You may choose a competing style in a crisis. For instance, if someone is unconscious and people are arguing about what to do, asserting yourself and taking charge can help the person get medical attention quicker.

You can also use it when standing up for yourself and in instances where you feel unsafe. In those cases, asserting yourself and reaching safety is more critical than your relationships with others.

When using a competing style in situations where your relationships do matter (for instance, with a colleague), you risk impeding trust—along with collaboration, creativity, and productivity.

3. Accommodating

The third conflict resolution strategy is accommodation, in which you acquiesce to the other party’s needs. Use accommodating in instances where the relationship matters more than your goal.

For example, if you pitch an idea for a future project in a meeting, and one of your colleagues says they believe it will have a negative impact, you could resolve the conflict by rescinding your original thought.

This is useful if the other person is angry or hostile or you don’t have a strong opinion on the matter. It immediately deescalates conflict by removing your goal from the equation.

While accommodation has its place within organizational settings, question whether you use it to avoid conflict. If someone disagrees with you, simply acquiescing can snuff out opportunities for innovation and creative problem-solving .

As a leader, notice whether your employees frequently fall back on accommodation. If the setting is safe, encouraging healthy debate can lead to greater collaboration.

Related: How to Create a Culture of Ethics and Accountability in the Workplace

4. Compromising

Compromising is a conflict resolution strategy in which you and the other party willingly forfeit some of your needs to reach an agreement. It’s known as a “lose-lose” strategy, since neither of you achieve your full goal.

This strategy works well when your care for your goal and the relationship are both moderate. You value the relationship, but not so much that you abandon your goal, like in accommodation.

For example, maybe you and a peer express interest in leading an upcoming project. You could compromise by co-leading it or deciding one of you leads this one and the other the next one.

Compromising requires big-picture thinking and swallowing your pride, knowing you won’t get all your needs fulfilled. The benefits are that you and the other party value your relationship and make sacrifices to reach a mutually beneficial resolution.

5. Collaborating

Where compromise is a lose-lose strategy, collaboration is a win-win. In instances of collaboration, your goal and the relationship are equally important, motivating both you and the other party to work together to find an outcome that meets all needs.

An example of a situation where collaboration is necessary is if one of your employees isn’t performing well in their role—to the point that they’re negatively impacting the business. While maintaining a strong, positive relationship is important, so is finding a solution to their poor performance. Framing the conflict as a collaboration can open doors to help each other discover its cause and what you can do to improve performance and the business’s health.

Collaboration is ideal for most workplace conflicts. Goals are important, but so is maintaining positive relationships with co-workers. Promote collaboration whenever possible to find creative solutions to problems . If you can’t generate a win-win idea, you can always fall back on compromise.

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Considering Your Responsibilities as a Leader

As a leader, not only must you address your own conflicts but help your employees work through theirs. When doing so, remember your responsibilities to your employees—whether ethical, legal, or economic.

Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Accountability groups your ethical responsibilities to employees into five categories:

  • Well-being: What’s ultimately good for the person
  • Rights: Entitlement to receive certain treatment
  • Duties: A moral obligation to behave in a specific way
  • Best practices: Aspirational standards not required by law or cultural norms
  • Fairness: Impartial and just treatment

In the course, Hsieh outlines three types of fairness you can use when helping employees solve conflicts:

  • Legitimate expectations: Employees reasonably expect certain practices or behaviors to continue based on experiences with the organization and explicit promises.
  • Procedural fairness: Managers must resolve issues impartially and consistently.
  • Distributive fairness: Your company equitably allocates opportunities, benefits, and burdens.

Particularly with procedural fairness, ensure you don’t take sides when mediating conflict. Treat both parties equally, allowing them time to speak and share their perspectives. Guide your team toward collaboration or compromise, and work toward a solution that achieves the goal while maintaining—and even strengthening—relationships.

Are you interested in learning how to navigate difficult decisions as a leader? Explore Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Accountability —one of our online leadership and management courses —and download our free guide to becoming a more effective leader.

critical thinking in conflict resolution

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What Is the Relationship Between Critical Thinking & Conflict Resolution?

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Failure to efficiently resolve conflicts, whether in one's personal life or the workplace, can result in enormous social and economic costs. Companies, in particular, can benefit from training managers in the critical thinking skills they need to resolve conflicts between employees and customers. Thomas Stipanowich, in an article in the 2004 "Journal of Empirical Legal Studies," notes that companies often save a considerable amount of time and money when they use mediation for conflict resolution rather than the legal system. Companies can also teach workers the critical thinking skills needed to resolve conflicts to circumvent managerial involvement.

Gaining Distance From Conflict

Perhaps the most powerful way that critical thinking influences conflict resolution is the distance that critical thinkers can create between themselves and the conflict. Critical thinking allows people to metaphorically take a step back and view the situation from the viewpoint of a more objective bystander. This type of critical thinking involves meta-cognition -- thinking about thinking -- and can transform the way people solve problems. "Turning on" higher thinking skills during a conflict can "turn off" emotions, paving the way for clear decision-making.

Understanding the Consequences of Failing to Resolve Conflict

Educational consultant and author of "I Think Therefore: Critical Thinking for Beginners," Donal O'Reardon points out on that critical thinking includes the examination of one's reasoning process. Understanding why you hold your point of view can help you to solve conflicts because seeking to understand only one point of view -- the other person's -- can be limiting when you are engaged in conflict resolution. O'Reardon suggests changing "how we think about, interpret and make sense of the world around us" when necessary to build a better and more peaceful life.

Using Inference

Inference is the ability to listen to and observe details and come to an accurate conclusion about the information, even when it is not presented clearly. For example, a person might say that he is not angry, yet convey the information in a loud tone of voice and have his arms crossed. It can be inferred via inference that the person is likely indeed angry. Having the ability to analyze incoming information during a conflict and respond appropriately is key to conflict resolution.

Integrating and Evaluating

Critical thinking includes the ability to integrate and evaluate information. People who are skilled at integrating information are able to look at a conflict and see the similarities between it and previous conflicts -- related or unrelated. The person can then resolve the conflict using resolutions that have worked in the past for himself or for other people. When an individual can evaluate information effectively, he can judge whether or not arguments are being presented clearly as well as whether he is being manipulated or lied to, notes O'Reardon.

  • Mediation in the Classroom -- How Critical Thinking Can Facilitate Conflict Resolution; Donal O'Reardon; July 2011
  • "Journal of Empirical Legal Studies"; ADR and the 'Vanishing Trial' -- The Growth and Impact of 'Alternative Dispute Resolution'; Thomas Stipanowich; November 2004

Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.

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