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When Conflict Resolution Doesn’t Work: Why and What to Do?

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Even when we give it our best effort and use all of our skills, sometimes conflict resolution does not work. This is just as true for the average person as it is for people that deal with conflict as part of their profession.

When conflict resolution doesn’t work, there are precipitating events and circumstances that set conflict resolution up for failure before it begins. There are a variety of other options available when issues arise that may be better suited to the specific conflict. There is often a dynamic issue at play causing conflict resolution to be unsuccessful.

Being able to identify if a conflict can be resolved vs needing to go through a different process can be helpful. Sometimes, even when the conflict is in the process of being resolved, issues can occur or be brought to light resulting in the ineffective of the process.

Unwillingness to Participate

Conflict resolution requires that both parties be willing to come together in a civil manner to respectfully communicate with one another. This can be a challenge in some situations resulting in avoidance through excuse-making, blaming or wanting to escalate the issue by having someone else determine the outcome for them.

If a person is avoiding the issue there will be an underlying reason behind this. These reasons could range anywhere from not feeling that the conflict is important enough to be taking their time, to a power dynamic occurring where they are uncomfortable.

As this process requires that both parties willingly communicate with one another, it is important that they both want to be there or this will be a waste of everyone’s time and possibly escalate the situation. Sometimes these issues can immediately be managed by listening to the person’s concerns; other times this may not be the correct time or place to try and resolve this conflict.

This is okay, but there must be a strategy in place when conflict resolution won’t work due to the unwillingness to participate. Some solutions for this include a decision being made by a manager, the participant being performance managed for behaviors, or requiring the individuals to speak to a professional about the situation or take courses to help manage their part of the conflict.

Unsolvable Problems

Sometimes the issues are not able to be resolved by the people in the room. This can be because the people in the room are not able to make a binding decision, the scope of the issue is too large or too small to be addressed, or the problem is not something that can be resolved.

The Right People – When the parties having the conversation do not have the authority to make decisions or share information the process is futile. The purpose of conflict resolution is to come to mutual respect and understanding of the other’s perspective in order to create an outcome that works for all those involved.

If there is an inability to share information an open dialogue is unable to take place resulting in needs not being met. The person that has this information must be present in order to give the issue perspective, context, and clarification. Only by this process is the other party able to gain an understanding and respect for the other person resulting in a viable resolution.

The conflict resolution process can be done involving multiple people. It does create a far more complex dynamic as more people are involved, it can result in the best solutions and all relevant information can be shared and concerns addressed.

As a simple example, if there is a rift within a workplace or family, though two individuals may be able to sit down and resolve their conflict, the dynamic between the other people may not change. Though they lead a good example, only having the two people come to a resolution will not resolve the issues had by others.

The Right Scope – Some problems are too big or small for a particular set of individuals to resolve.

Let’s use the example from above; if those two individuals had decided they were going to tackle the dynamics of the entire group they would need to make assumptions about how others think, feel and want. This scope is much too large, and the results would most likely meet a large amount of resistance. There is no buy-in or understanding from others. Chances are the issue that does not feel addressed to many or any of them.

Focusing on what is within our individual scope of influence will give us the best chance of success. What thoughts, feelings, and actions we are able to bring to a situation are all we can commit to within a resolution. If you are requiring that another person think, feel or act differently the resolution will not work. The only exception to this is when you have authority over someone in a workplace to require certain actions of them, this does not mean they will like or understand the decision; here it will be in the best interest of the resolution to get their buy-in.

The Right Problem– Some problems are not, or will never be within our power to resolve. This can involve changing a person, and changing the laws of nature. By determining where are problem truly likes and what within that we have the power to control we will not waste our time.

At the end of the day, each individual decides how they will think, feel and act in a given situation. We are unable to force upon them our ideals and beliefs. Though at times we are able to say them through rewards and punishments, they make the decision as to how to react in any situation.

The other thing we can not change is the rules that govern everyday life. Weather, gravity, day and night; these are all things that are not within our control. How we function within them we can control. We can buy more appropriate clothing for staff who work outside, get stronger in order to climb a mountain more effectively, and create a dark room within our house to develop photos during the daytime.

Rework the problem to be something solvable.

Abuse and Bullying (Harassment/Discrimination)

This is not about intent, it is about perception. If someone feels they are being abused, bullied, harassed or discriminated against they should not be required to participate in the conflict resolution process; nor will it be the best option. When this is occurring, the situation can become worse.

If anyone is feeling this way, have them reach out through the appropriate channels. There is often support within communities, workplaces, through counselors and psychologists and within judicial and governmental organizations.

Mental Health

In order to have a successful conversation, all parties must be able to have an open and rational conversation with one another. When this can not occur, or one someone is unable to effectively represent what is important to them based on disability causing cognitive impairment or mental health the process is not fair, so nor will the resolution.

If you or someone you know is dealing with issues around mental health,

please ask for help.

No Relationship is of Benefit

Within the conflict resolution process, parties will share information with one other. This happens in order to build a relationship between them creating a mutual understanding of one another. If there is no desire to ever have contact with or interact in any way with the other person or organization again, there is no reason to maintain any resolutions or solutions agreed upon.

By ensuring that, in some capacity, both parties need or want to be involved with each other moving forward, some level of relationship will be required.

Other Options

When a binding and enforceable resolution is required or one of the above topics is at play, the situation may require a more regulated process such as litigation or arbitration. Alternatively, if the conflict is not one that can be resolved, the parties will need to work at accepting the conflict as something that has occurred and works on individual ways to move forward.

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