4 key skills to manage conflict in challenging work environments

Conflict is inevitable. Many humanitarian or other development employment posts are located in areas affected by conflict. With unfamiliar surroundings, strenuous work, little food, and the need for cross-cultural communication, these situations are ripe for conflict. Luckily our ability to transcend it is unbelievable. Here are four skills you can develop to better manage conflict.

At C4CCR we have developed a “Square Approach” to guide people through the four essential conflict-management skills: Listening, Analyses, Soliloquy, and Dialogue.


Listening is the first corner of our Square because you need to hear and try to understand what is going on before you act. While listening is a skill many fear we are losing due to headphones and other distracting technology, it doesn’t take much to flex our listening muscles and dramatically improve our skill. Julian Treasure discusses these methods in depth in his brilliantly-delivered TED talk, 5 Ways to Listen Better. Here are the five exercises he suggests you use to improve listening:

  1. Silence: Silence of 3 minutes a day helps to reset our ears to quiet so that we can listen well.

  2. The Mixer: Even in a noisy environment, try to listen to as many individual channels as you can hear and differentiate.

  3. Savouring: This is about enjoying the most mundane sounds. For instance, the tumble dryer of a washing machine. We can enjoy any sound as long as we listen.

  4. Listening positions: This is the most important one. Moving your listening position to what’s appropriate –  active/passive or critical/sympathetic. This helps become conscious of barriers/filters to listening and play around with them.

  5. RASA: It’s a Sanskrit word for juice or essence and the acronym stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summary, Ask. It summarises the process of active listening.


From Listening we move to Analyses, where a conflict is studied from not one, but multiple angles. Though there are a number of frameworks you can use to structure and focus your thoughts, one particularly useful visual tool is the Ladder of Inference, which allows you to rapidly identify how assumptions and personal meanings combine with culture to impact the choices each conflict participant makes. Becoming aware of the ‘reflexive loop’ in ourselves and others is an important opportunity to the be self-critical and examine how our beliefs not only shape our memories, but more importantly how they influence the selection of new information you pay attention to. Using the figure below as a guide, start on the lower rung and make your way up using a recent conflict you have had, e.g. argument over who should have done the laundry. Rethink that confrontation using the ladder of inference. This is a valuable tool as you enter any conflict.


Next is Soliloquy, a brief, honest and self-reflective view of who you are. Numerous techniques, both mental and penned options are available. The word is borrowed from theatre and means ‘an utterance or discourse by a person who is talking to himself or herself or is disregardful of or oblivious to any hearers present.’ Before you engage with other participants, it is critical to be aware of and confront your own role in a given conflict. For example, are you an observerinstigatorvictim or participant? Which biases do you bring to the table? Working with after-school instructors in East New York, we used the ladder of inference to raise awareness of how critical it is to be aware of individual beliefs and biases about the children they work with every day. A female participant in her mid twenties spoke in one of the smaller groups, for her this activity helped identify that some of her own beliefs was having a negative impact on her attitude towards the kids. Most remarkable was how she went from this rough discovery to almost immediately identifying how she could positively change her own behaviour. 


Actually having the conversation with another person often feels very difficult. Many times we avoid the topic, or person all together. This we can change, and you can find courage through simply adherence to the dialogic approach. According to  Democratic Dialogue - A Handbook for Practitioners dialogic approach “is what practitioners mean when they suggest that dialogue should not be practiced simply as a tool or strategy to achieve particular results, but as a basic modus operandi that express a particular philosophy.” And they present three rules of thumb to support this philosophy:

  1. “Inquiry 

    is a practitioner's most valuable tool”, connect with your fellow humans;

  2. “Transparency

    is essential for building and maintaining trust”, walk the talk at all times;

  3. “Self-reflection

    holds the key to openness and flexibility”, we all have preconceptions and assumptions that must be faced.

Next time you are about to deal with an inevitable conflict take a step back and remember: listening, analyses, soliloquy and dialogue. And try not to forget what the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:  “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Let me know  #howitwent using some of these skills in your next conflict.

We look forward to sharing more skills to help you manage conflict at work and in the field through our upcoming Impactpool webinars.

About the Author:

Before organizing C4CCR, a consortium of professionals that delivers cross-cultural and conflict resolution training for private and public organisations, Kai was an international civil servant for seven years with UNDP: respectively as part of the Conflict and DDR Teams (BCPR), Gender Team (BDP), Mine Action (UNDP Iraq), Poverty Group (BDP) and Security Office (BOM).

Kai Stabell has an MA in Conflict Resolution and a BA in Peace Studies. He specializes in Problem Solving; Project Design, Implementation, Management & Evaluation; Conflict and Impact Assessments; Mediation/Negotiation; Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration; Mine Action; Post-Conflict Reconstruction, and; always with a clear understanding of the importance of genuine empowerment of women in order to achieve the necessary gender equality.