Organization and Self-Management

21 Conflict Resolution

Conflict is an inevitable and healthy part of life. Each person has a different set of values and beliefs that colours his or her perceptions of the world. Each person also has a different set of goals, wants, and needs. At work, each person may have a different opinion about what needs to be done to solve a problem. Too often, people assume that there has to be a winner in a conflict. They do not attempt to find a solution that is satisfactory to all. When you deal with conflict in a healthy, open manner, you often find a better solution.

People are frequently in conflict over resources, perceptions, and values. Conflicts over resources are easier to resolve than conflicts over perceptions and values. When the executive chef and the restaurant manager argue over budget for renovations, their conflict is about resources. The most difficult conflicts to resolve are over values and beliefs. For example, two managers may argue about the appropriate way to involve staff members in decision making. One may believe that it is better for the boss to make decisions rather than asking the opinions of others. Depending on how strongly both persons hold these beliefs, the conflict may be very difficult to resolve.

Not all conflicts and differences can be resolved. Sometimes, you have to learn to agree to disagree. When you can learn to respect one another’s point of view without feeling resentful, wanting revenge, or retaliating, you have handled the situation constructively.

Ineffective Ways to Deal with Conflict

At work, people may be afraid to express their disagreement. If you constantly avoid conflict when your views are different from those of others, you may become angry and resentful. Eventually, you may have so many negative feelings bottled up inside that you act inappropriately and can no longer be constructive.

Your lack of input can also reduce the effectiveness of the team’s efforts. You may have a valuable insight that could reduce the amount of work needed or see a problem with the proposed solution that no one else has identified. Contributing your ideas, even if initially they are contrary to the opinions of others, will help find the best solution to the problem.

Of course, if you air your differences in a way that belittles other people, you may create hard feelings in others. Similarly, if you are overly insistent on having your own way, you may badger and bully others into acceptance of your view. The other party may give in but will feel resentful.

Another often ineffective approach is a bargaining approach. While this is more effective than avoiding conflict or winning at all costs, it may not be the most creative approach. One party may offer something that he or she does not feel good about. In the end, both parties may not get what they need. For example, the two managers arguing over renovation funds may agree to share the funds equally. However, the chef may now not have the money to replace the inadequate grill. The restaurant manager also may not have the needed funds to accomplish the necessary renovation to the dining room.

By spending a little more time, identifying what the problem is and what each party wants and needs, a more creative solution might be found. Bargaining is often used as a quick-fix solution.

Effective Conflict Resolution

You can learn to deal with conflict in a positive and constructive manner that enhances decision making and contributes to effective working relationships. These skills are called conflict resolution skills.

Constructive conflict resolution is an opportunity for change, growth, and understanding. The most important quality in resolving a conflict is to shift from making judgments about other people and their statements to being curious. Instead of thinking, “Joe is a real fool. How can he expect anyone to buy that idea?” the constructive person thinks, “I wonder what Joe has in mind?”

When you make the shift from judgment to curiosity, following through with an appropriate question, others are not likely to feel defensive. They may be flattered that you are interested in their ideas. When people do not feel defensive, they are more likely to consider new ideas and cooperate.

Conflict resolution process

The steps in effective conflict resolution are:

  1. Create an effective atmosphere
  2. Clarify perceptions
  3. Focus on individual and shared needs
  4. Take a positive approach
  5. Generate options
  6. Develop a list of stepping stones to action
  7. Make mutual benefit agreements
  8. Part on good terms

Create an effective atmosphere

Conflicts cannot be resolved in the heat of the moment, in between preparing meals. If you have a conflict to resolve, arrange to meet at a convenient time when you will not be interrupted or distracted. Never deal with a conflict in front of customers and guests. Start the discussion of the problem in an open, positive way.

If you are angry, postpone the session until you can control your emotions. Sometimes, it can be useful to move the discussion to a more neutral place. For example, you might agree to meet for coffee with the person. A public location where you feel obliged to be polite can help you stay in control of your feelings. You will be less likely to really unload your anger on the other person. Because the one party may feel intimidated by being alone with the other, choose a location in which your conversation can be kept private, but neither party will feel unsafe.

Clarify perceptions

Make time at the beginning of the session for each person to state his or her views. Avoid using blaming statements such as, “You make me so angry.” Instead, state your observations and feelings about an event. For example, you might say, “I had asked for Saturday night off because my mother is visiting out of town. I’m upset because my request is not reflected in the new schedule.”

Avoid abusive or inflammatory remarks. If you say, “You are a rude and insensitive jerk!” or “You are always late,” the listener is likely to tune out. He or she becomes defensive and unwilling to listen further. If you say, “I was hurt by your jokes about death. My father is terminally ill and I am very worried about him,” the listener is more likely to be willing to engage in further conversation.

When it is your turn to listen, pay careful attention to what the person is saying. Use paraphrasing, summarizing, and questions to clarify what the person is saying and feeling. For example, you might say, “So what you are saying is that you were very angry when I asked you to work Saturday. You wanted the day off to spend with your mother. You thought that I ignored your request.” If the speaker uses blaming or inflammatory language, try to avoid taking the comments personally. Ask questions to determine exactly what the problem is.

Watch your language, tone of voice, and nonverbal gestures. Keep calm and centred.

Focus on individual and shared needs

Find out what each person wants and needs to resolve the situation. For example, in the scheduling conflict, Martine, the supervisor, needs a cook on staff on Saturday night. She does not want to pay overtime. She also wants to keep Bob, the cook, happy. He is an excellent, motivated employee and she would hate to lose him.

Bob wants time off to visit with his mother, but he likes this job and does not want to jeopardize it. Both Bob and Martine want to resolve the problem and continue their friendly working relationship. They share a concern for the smooth running of the restaurant. By identifying their shared needs, both parties are working toward a consensus. That is, they are attempting to find a decision that takes both parties needs and opinions into account.

Take a positive approach

To work toward a solution, you should take the attitude that together you can find a solution to the problem. This is not the time to think about failures to resolve problems in the past. Treat the agreement as if you are starting fresh. Forgive others for their mistakes in the past. Go on from today and work toward the goals you have set.

Generate options

Use the brainstorming approach to get out as many ideas as possible without evaluating or criticizing them. Treat each idea as new material to help solve the problem. Remember that ideas that you think are frivolous and silly may help you think about the problem a new way. If nothing else, they help build a bridge of laughter behind the two parties.

Develop stepping stones to action

Sort through the ideas to see which ones will work. Set goals and develop an action plan. Create short, achievable steps that work toward your overall goal.

Make mutual benefit agreements

This step may look like bargaining, but it starts from a different point. The point is to make sure that you both get what you need. Rather than finding a compromise, you are finding a way that both parties can win.

For example, the two managers discussed their renovation needs. Both managers agreed that the quality of food was important in maintaining the profitability of the restaurant. Because the grill was affecting service times, the restaurant manager agreed to support the executive chef’s request, and postpone work in the dining room. In turn, the executive chef agreed to support the restaurant manager in the next round of budgets.

Part on good terms

When you have dealt with a conflict, or if you have agreed to disagree, make a point of parting on good terms. Treat the other person with respect and dignity. Thank the person for discussing the issue with you. For example, you might say, “I really appreciated you explaining your point of view. Even though we might not agree on this issue, I respect your beliefs.” This creates a climate in which you can continue to work together harmoniously. It also means that the person will have a positive approach to resolving the problem when another conflict arises.

Dealing with Anger

Conflicts cannot be effectively resolved if you cannot control your anger. If you are feeling angry:

  • Take a few deep breaths to calm down
  • Say that you are angry and explain why (without becoming abusive)
  • Postpone the discussion if you cannot calm yourself
  • Write down your key points and concerns before going into another session
  • Move your discussion to a neutral location

If the other person is angry, acknowledge his or her feelings. For example, you might say, “I can see that you were really upset and angry when I asked you to redo the banquet plan.” Acknowledging another person’s feelings does not mean that you have to agree with them. It simply says to the person that you recognize what he or she has said or felt. If the person is unable to regain calm, suggest postponing the discussion.

When one party thinks there is no conflict

Sometimes, you may feel upset or angry, and the other person does not see the problem. This can be very frustrating. You may be more successful in raising the issue if you are as specific as possible in describing the problem and how you are affected. If necessary, write your concerns down on paper.

When you feel nervous about confronting someone

You may feel very anxious about confronting someone with a problem. Perhaps you have had trouble dealing with this person before. Perhaps the problem is with a supervisor. It may be useful to role play the situation with a friend or co-worker and ask for feedback on how to handle the conflict more effectively. Think through exactly what you need for successful resolution beforehand. Arrange a meeting in a neutral location with the person.

When the other party does not seem to want a resolution

Sometimes it appears that the other party does not want a resolution. In this case, the best approach is to ask the person directly whether he or she wants to find a solution. If the person says yes, explain why you thought that a resolution was not wanted. Deal with these issues first. If the person does not want a resolution, you must decide whether you can live with the conflict or whether you need to take some other action.

For example, you may consider finding another job because you have been unable to resolve a serious conflict with a co-worker or supervisor. However, you may also decide that the assets of working with this individual or in this job outweigh the problems associated with the conflict. If you have gained some respect and understanding for the individual’s position, you may be able to agree to disagree.

Some people may not want to find a solution because they only want things their own way. You may be able to get beyond their defences by making a special effort to find out what they need. Ask them how you can help meet their needs while still meeting your own.

When conflicts are apparently unresolvable, it may be necessary to find a mediator to help you deal with the problem. Some communities have mediation services. You could also involve a person at work whom both partners in the conflict trust and respect.

When the other person has a complaint about your behaviour

If you have made a mistake and you think that the person’s complaint about you is fair, make an appropriate apology. Then attend to how to correct the problem in the future. Do not keep apologizing over and over again. Focus on making a decision that puts the matter right. Thank the person for bringing the concern to your attention.

If the complaint is unfair, make it clear that you think so. Attempt to deal with the misunderstanding that arose between you. Perhaps your communication has not been as clear as it should be. Try to close the matter in a way that allows you to part on good terms. Even though the complainant may have been wrong or misinformed, do not try to make him or her look foolish or argue about minor details. Find a way of giving thanks. For example, you might say, “Thanks for discussing this with me.”

Handling Customer Complaints

Handling customer complaints is a special application of conflict resolution skills. Dissatisfied customers can have a very negative impact on your business. Most food service businesses depend on repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising. When a customer is unhappy with a meal or with the service, you lose potential business in the future. You may also lose other customers who have heard about your customer’s bad experience, as people are more likely to share a bad experience than a good one. Especially today, with sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, it has become very easy for the average person to post public feedback about his or her experiences.

Customers who have complained and whose complaints were satisfactorily addressed are more likely to become repeat customers than those who did not complain in the first place. This is because many dissatisfied customers simply walk away and never return. A complaint is an opportunity to find out what mistakes your company has made and to correct them, turning dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones. It is in your company’s interests to resolve customer complaints promptly and satisfactorily.

You may receive a complaint whether or not you were responsible for the problem. If you take the attitude “That’s not my responsibility; I cannot help you,” the customer will become even more angry and difficult to deal with. Customers who complain want to be taken seriously and treated with respect. They may want immediate action, compensation, or punishment for the person who wronged them. They may also want to clear up a problem so it does not happen again.

To handle a complaint, you have to be a problem solver. The skills required are:

  • Diffusing anger
  • Recognizing when to move to problem solving
  • Problem solving
  • Knowing the boundaries of authority

Diffusing anger

When a customer complains, he or she may react strongly and negatively to the situation. This may have been the last straw in a day filled with frustrations. You must deal with the emotion and upset before you can solve the problem. Until the emotions have been calmed, the person is unable to hear logical suggestions and solutions.

When someone is angry and complains, it is easy to become angry yourself. You need to stay calm and controlled. Keep eye contact and adopt a concerned body posture, voice tone, and facial expression.

Do not take the complaint personally. Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself if necessary. Encourage the person to blow off steam. Apologize and acknowledge the person’s feelings. Keep your apologies sincere and dignified. Do not apologize so abjectly (in a miserable, degraded manner) that the customer may begin to doubt your sincerity. Show empathy by nodding, encouraging the person to finish the story. Be sure to be an active listener. Reassure the person that you want to help solve the problem.

Solving the Problem

When the person is calm and able to discuss the situation fully, you can move to the problem-solving stage. Ask the customer what he or she would like done to resolve the situation. Offer solutions that are within the scope of your authority. Agree on a solution. If you are unable to offer a satisfactory solution, assist the person in taking the complaint to the manager or owner. If this is not immediately possible, take full information from the individual about the problem and promise to relay the information. Let the individual know when the owner or manager will respond. Always thank the person for bringing the complaint to your attention.

If you are in charge of staff, make sure that they understand effective complaint resolution procedures. Make sure that they know how you want complaints to be handled in your restaurant. Many companies have a policy of “no questions asked.” If customers return a menu item, the item is replaced free of charge or their money is refunded.



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Working in the Food Service Industry Copyright © 2015 by The BC Cook Articulation Committee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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