George A. Kohlrieser, IMD Business School
Reprinted with permission from Clear Point Consultants, Inc.

As a leader, one of the most important job functions you have is conflict resolution. As you know, even in the best organizations, conflicts can arise. What makes the best companies stand out is their ability to deal with conflict before it becomes a serious problem in the workplace.

That’s why we wanted to pass along some great tips from a real life hostage negotiator on what it takes to resolve conflicts before they escalate. While we hope you never need hostage negotiation skills, many of the lessons taught can be used for your everyday workplace conflicts.

As a real life hostage negotiator, IMD professor George Kohlrieser has had plenty of opportunity to practice what he preaches on the art of negotiation. Take a look at his six essential skills for managing conflict effectively.

1. Create and maintain a bond, even with your “adversary.” We do not have to like someone to form a bond with him or her. We only need a common goal. Treat the person as a friend, not an enemy, and base the relationship on mutual respect, positive regard and cooperation. Leaders must learn to separate the person from the problem, genuinely want to help the other party and avoid negative responses to attacks or intense emotions.

2. Establish a dialogue and negotiate. At all times it’s important to keep the conversation relevant, stay focused on a positive outcome and remain aware of the common goal. The next stage is negotiation, in which we add bargaining to the dialogue. Talking, dialogue and negotiation create genuine, engaging and productive two-way transactions. We need to use energy from the body, emotions, intellect and the spirit.

3. “Put the fish on the table.” The analogy comes from Sicily where the fishermen put their bloody catch on a large table to clean it together. They work through the messy job and are rewarded by a great fish dinner at the end of the day.

If you leave a fish under the table, it starts to rot and smell. On the other hand, once an issue is raised, we can work through the mess of sorting it out and find a mutually beneficial outcome. The important thing to remember is that we should not slap the other party in the face with the fish!

4. Understand what causes conflict. Among the common causes of disagreement are differences over goals, interests or values. It is crucial to determine whether a conflict relates to interests or needs. Interests are more transitory and superficial, such as land, money, or a job; needs are more basic and not for bargaining, such as identity, security and respect. Many conflicts appear to be about interests, when they are really about needs. Someone passed over for promotion, for example, may seem to be upset about the loss of extra money, when the real pain is caused by a loss of respect or loss of identity.

5. Use the law of reciprocity. What you give out is likely to be what you get back. Humans have a deeply hardwired pattern of reciprocity. A powerful technique to master in any kind of dispute is to empathize with the feelings and views of the other individual by managing what we express–both verbally and non-verbally. Once you have made a concession, it is likely that the other party will respond in kind.

6. Build a positive relationship. We must nurture the relationship as well as pursue our goals. We need to balance reason and emotion, because emotions such as fear, anger, frustration and even love may disrupt otherwise thoughtful actions. We need to understand each other’s point of view, regardless of whether we agree with it or not. We can all learn to communicate acceptance of the other person while saying no or disagreeing with a specific point or behavior. As hostage negotiation demonstrates, it is more productive to persuade than to coerce.

About the author:
George A. Kohlrieser, Ph D, is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, IMD and the author of “Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance”. To find out more please