Tips for Successful Conflict Resolutions

Recently, I was asked to lead a short in-service on conflict resolutions. Working in an in-patient facility with adolescent males, you can probably guess conflicts are relatively common. As I looked over my outline, I realized this can be a great topic for a blog post. After all, several facilities can benefit from transforming conflicts into valuable learning experiences.    

Let’s face it, conflicts are part of everyone’s lives. We all have that certain person we can’t see eye to eye with or who just gets under our skin. Or maybe we’re just having a bad day and someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Of course, our participants deal with these same issues. When emotions boil over, we have the opportunity to not only diffuse the situation, but to improve relationship skills and teach valuable coping mechanisms.

Sometimes even our best planned, closely-monitored programs lead to an argument between participants. Or maybe a participant gets frustrated with a staff. While some minor conflicts can be resolved quickly, others need a little extra attention. Perhaps there’s an underlying issue between the two participants. Maybe one of the participants is struggling in another area of his or her life.   

Even though conflict is part of everyday life, as humans we thrive in an atmosphere of harmony and collaboration. Conflict resolutions help clear the air and make arguments teachable moments. In addition, it could shed some light on what else is going on in a participant’s life.

That said, conducting successful conflict resolutions is a skill that takes practice. One needs to develop an intuitive sense of the participants involved and how to proactively handle each situation.   

I’ve mediated several conflict resolutions over the years, here are things I found helpful for making them successful.

kids arguing at pool

Conducting Successful Conflict Resolutions

Allow a Cooling Off Period  

Conflicts put participants in a fight-or-flight frame of mind. Their hearts race, adrenaline surges, and emotions become charged. Trying to complete a conflict resolution too soon could do more harm than good. If possible, separate the participants for a period of time. Check in with each of them periodically and gauge where they are emotionally. Ask them if they are ready to address the issues.

Some participants take more time than others. As my general rule of thumb, once a participant says they are ready, and you truly believe them, I usually wait at least another ten minutes.

Clearly Establish Ground Rules

From the way they sit to how they address each other, make sure you clearly state all the expectations for the conflict resolution up front. Some agencies have a specific protocol. If not, some of the next tips may help you establish concrete expectations. During my conflict resolution sessions, participants sit across from each other while sitting on their hands. Two staff conducting the conflict resolution sit on the side of them forming a “+” formation.

Keep Control of the Situation  

Closely monitor each participant during their interactions. They may still be emotionally-charged (fight-or-flight) and could quickly change moods.  If you feel one or both clients aren’t ready to discuss the situation, allow more time for cooling off. Remember: you want to make this therapeutic, not another opportunity for conflict.

Make Sure Participants Use “I” Statements

Don’t let this turn into a finger-pointing mess. Make sure each client is using “I” statements when describing their version of the story. For example:

  • Unacceptable: “You pissed me off when you threw the ball in the wrong direction.”
  • Encourage: “I got frustrated when you didn’t make that easy play. So I…”

Take Time to Summarize  

After a lot of information is presented, you will want to summarize it non-judgmentally. Simply state the facts back to the participants. Ask them if this is how they understand the situation.

Compare Both Versions of the Story

We’ve all heard the old saying that there are three sides to every story. Talk about where the participants accounts were similar and where they were different. See if there is any way to bridge the gap between differing stories. It isn’t absolutely necessary to do this, but it can help clarify the situation.

Validate Each Participant’s Feelings

When a participant feels like their point of view is understood and empathized, this will help break down any defensive walls.  Using statements like, “So you were frustrated because you had a bad phone call. When Bob said something to you, the frustration bubbled over.”   

Or: “You were nervous if your family was going to pick you up for a pass. When they were already an hour late you just wanted to be left alone. But Bob…”

Be a Time Machine  

There may be more to the story than a single event.  In some cases, other incidents have contributed to the current situation.  Encourage the participants to go back in time to describe past interactions. Soon, you may discover the root cause of the issue.

Summarize Again

As the new facts and feelings surface, take another time out to summarize. Discuss any changes from the previous story and allow the participants to process the information. See if it has changed their version of the story—for the better or worse.

Work together to make a plan

How will they handle each other from this moment forward? Allow both participants to brainstorm. Discuss ideas and formulate a plan to prevent future conflicts. If necessary, role play similar situations. During this phase, make sure participants are still using “I” statements.

For example:

  • “Next time I think he is cheating at the game, I could…”
  • “When our team is losing, one way I could keep my cool is by…”
  • “If I get upset when she takes something without asking, the best thing I could do is…”

Debriefing and Teachable moments

As with any therapeutic activity, a good debriefing session could be the difference between a lesson learned or a lesson lost. Summarize what happened, what was discussed in the conflict resolution, and how both clients contributed to the success of the session.

Don’t be afraid to add a little life lesson where appropriate. For example, “When you first got here, Bob, you said a lot of people were talking about you and making up rumors. When someone told you that Mike was talking bad about you, you automatically believed the rumor and got angry. How could you use this knowledge in the future?”

End on a Positive Note

The initial moments of the conflict where probably stressful for everyone involved. As the tension is reduced and clearer thinking starts to prevail, it is important to end the session positively. Compliment each participant in their role for making the conflict resolution successful. Allow the participants to give a positive gesture–if they are comfortable–like a handshake or fist bump. For those not comfortable with touch, try having each participant say something they admire about the other.

overcoming conflict resolutions


Of course, every situation will be different based on the population and setting. Some populations have a much easier time communicating and processing difficult emotions. Knowing your participants abilities and challenges allows you to determine if conflict resolutions can be a productive tool for teaching valuable skills.

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Does your agency use conflict resolutions? Is there a specific protocol?

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