This is the first post in a sequence aiming to create a practical guide to resolving interpersonal conflict (with a light focus on workplace conflicts). It draws on a lot of rationalist ideas without having any prerequisite readings, and with an attempt at accessible language; I hope this ends up equally useful to everyone, whether or not you consider yourself part of the "rationalsphere".

The ideas behind this sequence started as some quick notes for a colleague at work, based on a long whiteboard conversation we had. Eventually I wrote it up properly as a massive 6000-word personal blog post. Finally after some prompting, I'm polishing it a bit further, splitting it up into usable chunks, and sharing it here.

Conflict, and Conflict Resolution

We encounter conflict every day. Perhaps you’re having an unavoidable Thanksgiving-dinner conversation about politics, or maybe you’re chatting with your neighbour when you realize that you have very different views on a recent change by the local sports team. For me, as for many people, a lot of these conflicts tend to arise at work: dealing with unreasonable customers, unreasonable coworkers, or unreasonable managers is just part of the job. Whether your work is blue-collar, white-collar, retail, or even raising chickens, conflict happens whenever two people want or believe different things, and that isn’t exactly rare.

With so many conflicts in our day-to-day lives, resolving them becomes an important life skill. Typically, we do this using communication; it’s thankfully rare that minor conflicts devolve into violence. And yet, communicating well is one of the hardest parts of modern life. Technology has created a number of new ways to communicate our ideas, those ideas grow more complex every day, we spend less and less time face to face, and partisan political bias seems to be driving us further and further apart. Even so, communication is still our main approach for resolving most of the conflicts we encounter.

Given its importance, it shouldn’t be surprising that conflict resolution is a topic already rich in conventional wisdom, academic studies, and self-help books; practically speaking I don’t have much that is new to contribute. However, at the heart of many great innovations is the combination of multiple ideas in different fields, and that’s what I’m going to try and do here. I’ll be mixing together insights collected from a number of places, including the epistemological debates that I went through as part of my religious journey, the rationalist community, a brief but interesting career as a manager of people, and of course several self-help books which touch on conflict resolution in some fashion. Anchoring all of these is my unusually intense dislike of interpersonal conflict. It’s just a part of who I am, so I’ve spent a lot more time resolving conflicts and thinking about this in my own life than I think is normal, or probably healthy.

I debated leaving out the parts that are truly unoriginal to make a single post on “the good stuff”, but I think that would be doing a disservice to the topic. It’s all important, and just because some of it has been covered elsewhere, doesn’t mean it’s not required to be successful. I’ve broken the material into four main posts which I call Attitude, Communication, Comprehension, and Resolution:

  • Attitude is about how we think about and approach conflict in our lives, and the attitudes we can take to do that more effectively.
  • Communication is about the different ways we communicate, the impact that can have on conflict, and how to choose the best communication tool for the job.
  • Comprehension is about the value of fully grasping the whole picture, including the many sides to each debate, even when most of them are wrong.
  • Resolution is a deep dive into the nature of disagreement, providing tools and patterns to let you break any conflict down into its fundamental building blocks, with simple tricks for classifying and resolving those atomic disagreements one at a time.

Before we begin, I want to note three more things up front. First, that all of this is focused on conflict resolution via communication. If a conflict has reached the point of physical violence then the rules are very different; some of what’s in here might still be applicable, but I make no warranty to that effect. Second, that this is partly written from the perspective of a neutral third-party moderator. Everything here is just as applicable if you’re actively involved in the conflict, but it becomes much harder to use effectively. And third, that this sequence is entirely focused on resolving conflicts, not making decisions. Effective decision-making and consensus-building in the context of an unresolved (or unresolvable) disagreement is a whole other problem deserving of its own sequence.

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