If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Four questions to resolve conflicts

by Brought to you by the ACS Career Navigator
July 4, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 27

Two hands tugging at the same rope, in a tug-of-war fashion.
Credit: Shutterstock
Workplace conflicts don’t have to be a tug-of-war.

Every once in a great while, conflicts arise in the workplace. Perhaps two of your direct reports regularly fight over access to a particular piece of equipment, or maybe you and your manager are having trouble agreeing on a reasonable deadline for a new project. Although shouting at each other may seem like fun, disagreements are rarely settled by who yells the loudest. A much better way to resolve a conflict is to identify the specific source and cause of the issue and then work forward from there to reach a successful resolution. To help navigate the process, ask the parties involved in the disagreement the following questions:

What do you want? The first step is for both sides to identify what they actually need, as well as what they want. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding, and just getting both sides to clearly articulate their needs can be enough to realize that they are not mutually exclusive. The explanations should be as explicit as possible, with enough detail that you, as the mediator, can home in on exactly where the conflict is. You can’t force someone else to do anything, but if you understand exactly what they need, you can use that information to influence them to do what you need.

What are you doing to get it? The next question to ask is, “What are both sides currently doing about their needs, and what else have they tried?” By asking them to really think about what they are doing, you subtly remind them that it is their responsibility to actively pursue solutions, not to just complain about the problem.

How is that working for you? Tone of voice is very important here; you want to inquire, not accuse. This question tries to get the other person to do a little introspection and decide if the current path is likely to lead to a successful resolution. Sometimes, the other person is on the right track and just needs to work a little harder or longer. If not, perhaps you can help them come up with some new tactics or ways to remove some obstacles.

Do you want to find an alternative? Getting a yes to this question means all parties are ready to move forward. Once the people involved have admitted that what they are doing is not working and that they need to find a better way, they will be ready to listen to your suggestions, or maybe even come up with some on their own. It’s possible they have had an alternative in mind for a while but needed some outside intervention to force them to make the change.

The next time you are involved in a conflict, try asking these questions to get the parties involved unstuck and moving toward a resolution. Have them articulate what they really want and what they are doing to get it. Ask them to think about how successful they have been so far and whether there is an alternative approach that might be more successful. Ideally, it will be a long time before you have to try this out, but at least you will be prepared.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.