How to avoid conflict in negotiations

A handshake with a host of small characters above the hands standing on top of the handshake

Understanding the roles and relationships in negotiations is critical for complex negotiations to avoid conflict. By taking the time to prepare each member of the negotiation to understand and fulfill their respective responsibilities is critical. As the negotiation unfolds members can adjust and modify their role as required in a negotiation based on their research and how the negotiation unfolds. There are steps you can take to avoid certain types of conflict in a negotiation. These are explored in this commentary.


Explore the reason for the conflict


There are facts and perceptions of exactly what are the facts from the various participants perspectives. Given different definitions of the facts, various issues are identified by each party. Understanding the emotion associated with each issue goes a long way towards understanding interests. Behind every position is at least one interest. Interests are the key to solution.

The reasons for a conflict revolve around tasks, relationships, and values. Many believe that money is the primary reason behind financial disputes. Money may be the bottom line, but the conflict areas of tasks, relationships, and values can have a major impact on the negotiation. Let us look at each.


Tasks often revolve around who is going to do what by when. Work assignments, various resources, and differences of opinion can lead to conflicts. Knowing the people, skill sets, and what resources can be applied when they are limited can lead to conflicts. There can be strong differences of opinion.

Similarly, work policies and procedures may present systemic issues. These issues may present artificial barriers, while real, there may be ways to work within the policy or procedures to address concerns.

Sometimes good people are caught in a system that causes them to have to do things they may not like or want to do for various reasons.

If this is beyond the parties internally in an organization sometimes a leader needs to intervene as a mediator or facilitator. When that is the case, the leader needs to foremost be an active listener. An active listener suspends judgment and does not offer any advice so that participants can voice all their concerns. Many times, when all concerns have been aired it is possible to work towards an amicable solution. Then the process can be collaborative going forward.


Relationship conflict

There can be a deep-seated relationship conflict based on passed events. This may have been simmering for some time. If one of the parties can take the initiative to invite the other party to lunch or for coffee for a discussion this may allow both parties to be in a neutral location and have an honest heart to heart discussion. Initially focus on what you have in common. Can you bring up the source of the tension? Avoid being defensive. Suspend judgment. Listen actively.

Be empathetic. When you are, the other party is likely to reciprocate.

The initiator may want to discuss this ahead of time with a confidant, ask for advice, role play the discussion and do their best to explore how to diffuse and yet share concerns in a nonthreatening way.

If there is a relationship conflict and you do not know the person, consider an internet search ahead of time to learn all you can about the other party. What might you have in common? Think about education, geography, background, marital status, children, pets, vacations, hobbies, and other topics. What are ways to break the ice so that each party can begin to see the party as being human, rather than being demonized as the enemy.

After considering the causes, focus on common values


Consider your values associated with respect, fairness, kindness, service, honesty, integrity, open, accepting, and others. Unfortunately, when you focus on beliefs, this can often lead you astray. It is easier to attack based on beliefs.

However, when you focus on common values, often it is possible to find areas and interests in common to build on what you both agree with going forward.

The key is to de-escalate distrust, defensiveness, and alienation. You want to move towards mutual understanding. See if you can state the other person’s point of view in neutral terms. Generate empathy towards them. Reframe their and your commentary in neutral terms. Focus on your universal values.

When cultural issues are involved, take the time to dig deeper.


Cultural Differences


If there are differences in cultures, you need to do your homework ahead of time. Do additional research. Network with others. It is easy to have misunderstandings take place.

Avoid the trap of misunderstandings by taking time to know the other party as an individual first.

Leave plenty of time for taking breaks allowing for informal dialogue and greater understanding. Be flexible with deadlines. Be proactive to de-escalate and reduce stress. With all the stresses on us today, knowing how to interact culturally and reduce stress may go a long way to reduce conflict in negotiations.


 Discuss difficult issues up front


Many times, there may be hurt feelings that can damage relationships and may even result in unfair agreements. History may negatively impact the current negotiations. These may also impact the emotions of the various parties.

To avoid going down a negative past, see if you can agree to produce a joint agenda.

Are there standards you can both agree with to avoid subject judgments as much as possible? Are there norms, principles, or processes that you can both accept to make discussions more objective? Search for ways to remove negative emotions and instead stay focused on the issues proactively.

If necessary, consider bring in a third party as a mediator to help facilitate the process. In mediation the mediator is a neutral well versed in the area in question that collaborates with the parties to allow the parties to come up with an acceptable solution.


Assumptions and roles


Finally, go over your assumptions and roles before entering the negotiation. What are your assumptions? Are there implications with your assumptions? What are they? What is your role and the role of any other participants? Go over these ahead of time to address what you see as potential bottlenecks.

Does your organization welcome honest feedback? Does the other party? If the issue is within your organization are there clear guidelines and structures in place?

During the process ask yourself what questions should I be asking? Ask good questions and stay positive.

Describe how the situation makes you feel. Give specifics. If you are disappointed state that you are. If you want to see this work, but currently there are to many concerns, share them with the other party.

When something positive takes place, show appreciation when you can. Try to catch the other side doing something right. Be there to help build bridges by connecting relationships, listening actively, and educating judiciously. You may need to be versatile as a bridge builder by being not only a party to the negotiation but also as an educator, mediator, healer, referee, or peacekeeper. Stay positive. Stay focused. In the end, it is not simply up to you. It is up to how the other party wants to proceed too. Do your best focusing on these elements and you may be surprised what happens in your next negotiation.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]