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Managing Conflict

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Managing Conflict


What is it and how can it help me?

Conflict can be defined as when behaviour is intended to obstruct the achievement of some other person’s goals’. 

Change provokes a range of emotions in people: many are wary of it or resist it on principle, and try to obstruct the process. Conflict management can help you prevent or resolve attempts to derail the change process and gain greater staff consensus.

What situations can I use it in?

As a manager or improvement leader, you may need to intervene effectively in the early stages of conflict by preventing, containing or handling such behaviour.

Change provokes a range of emotions in people: many are wary of it or resist it on principle, and try to obstruct the process. Conflict management can help you prevent or resolve attempts to derail the change process and gain greater staff consensus.

How to use it

If you are planning changes and improvements, conflict is almost inevitable. Whilst you can’t avoid it, you can manage it effectively, even transforming it into a positive force for change. Conflict ranges from minor misunderstandings, to behaviour where each party seeks to destroy the other. Generally, conflicts have two elements:

  • The relationship between the people involved
  • The issue which is the basis of the disagreement

You need to intervene effectively in the early stages of conflict by preventing, containing or handling it, even if you are involved in the conflict yourself.

  • Prevent escalation by identifying early signs and taking action
  • Contain it by dealing with difficulties and tensions, working to re-establish relationships
  • Handle it by taking positive steps to deal with the conflict issues, then monitor the effects

If the conflict gets worse, you will probably need someone else to help the parties involved develop longer-term strategies for resolution. Conflict will not resolve itself. To prevent it escalating, ask yourself the following questions about any conflict as soon as it becomes apparent.

  • What type of conflict is it?
             Hot conflict: each party is keen to meet and thrash things out
             Cold conflict: issues are kept quiet and under the surface
  • What are the most important underlying influences at work?
  • What is this really all about?
  • Where is the conflict going?
  • How can I stop it?
  • What needs to happen now?

Containing conflict
Remember that conflicts are more about people than problems, so understand and value the differences in the parties involved, which may include yourself.

  • Recognise your own style with its strengths and limitations
  • Listen, and try to understand the other person instead of attributing a motive from your own viewpoint
  • Ask questions to develop your understanding of the other person’s goal instead of attributing a motive from your viewpoint
  • Look for a solution which incorporates both goals

Handling conflict
This checklist may be useful at any stage of conflict resolution.



  • Ensure that the issues are fully outlined
  • Acknowledge emotions and different styles
  • Make sure you have a comfortable environment for any meeting
  • Set a time frame for the discussion
  • Establish good rapport.
  • Use names and, if appropriate, titles throughout
  • Work to cool down the debate in a hot conflict
  • Convince parties in a cold conflict that something can be done
  • Conduct your conversation in a public place
  • Leave the discussion open – instead create an action plan
  • Finish their sentence for them
  • Use jargon
  • Constantly interrupt.
  • Do something else whilst trying to listen
  • Distort the truth
  • Use inappropriate humour

Conflict means different things to different people. This may be due to their personal style or their professional training. Some people enjoy a heated discussion whilst others find it upsetting or intimidating. Just because someone asks you lots of pointed questions or disagrees with you in a meeting, does not mean that they are against you or the objectives of the project.  It may just be their way of gathering further information to think about later.

Remember that doctors and scientists in general are trained to challenge information, concepts and ideas. They may simply be testing out the validity of the project and your knowledge. Direct questioning does not mean that people are against the proposal.

The main thing is to acknowledge any conflict and not to avoid it. Describe the issues involved, talk about it and work through it. 


There was an agreement to decide a set of referral criteria for patients suspected of having cancer. Each of the consultants involved applied different clinical practice and thresholds for deciding whether or not a patient was high risk. Discussions lasted for several weeks and were characterised by one consultant quoting research findings, only to be challenged by another using anecdotal evidence and a third acting as devil’s advocate posing many ‘what if’ scenarios.

The improvement project manager managed the situation in a number of ways. These included summarising areas of agreement and bringing examples of criteria set by other hospitals to stimulate discussion and foster an environment of wider collaboration. The team of consultants eventually agreed on a set of criteria and went on to demonstrate their ownership and agreement by collectively defending their decisions at a national conference, in the face of intense questioning from their peers. When asked about the process, the consultants commented that they had never had such an in depth argument about clinical practice and that they had found it invigorating. They said that it had set the tone for frank discussions in other meetings and the conflict had kept them hooked on the project.

What next?

It is likely that conflict will occur in a project that involves change at some point. Addressing it and containing it will allow you to continue with the support of colleagues and stakeholders.

Other tools and techniques that link to managing conflict:

The art of listening.
Human barriers to change.
Building trust.
Addressing uncertainty
Overcoming resistance

Additional resources

Resource Documents:
NHS Improvement Leaders' Guide

Coon, D (1992) ‘Introduction to Psychology – Exploration and Application’ West Publishing Co. USA.

Acknowledgements / sources

NHS Modernisation Agency, Improvement Leaders' Guides - Managing the human dimensions of change.

© Copyright NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement 2008