The Five Percent

Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts

Increasing Your Conflict Intelligence

Five questions to ask yourself next time you find yourself in a dispute

Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson

Managing the multitude of conflicts we face daily has not been simple since we first stepped onto the playground in preschool. Since that day, bullies, authority figures, competitors, friends, victims and enemies have complicated our conflict landscape. Today’s dispute-prone professional environments and political networks require us to have a wide array of conflict-management strategies and tactics and to be able to employ them artfully and effectively. This is what we call conflict intelligence.

Our research has found that although many of us tend to get stuck in one or two default approaches to negotiating conflict (like domination, avoidance or appeasement), our more effective peers and leaders are more nimble. They know their own hot buttons and traps, read situations more carefully, consider their short and long-term objectives, and then employ different strategies to different types of situations in order to increase the probabilities that their agenda will succeed. They know the difference between a temporary dispute and a long-term war. They know when to stay the course in negotiations and when to change tactics.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” Our research suggests that people who intentionally and strategically employ approaches to conflict that are consistent with the situation types they face fare better. In a series of studies being published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior this fall, we found that leaders and managers with higher conflict intelligence have significantly higher feelings of efficacy and well being at work, assessed through measures of satisfaction with work in general, with coworkers, job-related affective well being, and lower intentions to quit their jobs.

The following 5 questions – in this sequence of importance – can help you size up any social situation in your life and then make more effective conflict decisions.

1. Is this conflict worth it? There is no point to engaging in conflict if you have nothing to gain. You have to want something that is worthwhile. A promotion. A fair grade. Respect. Justice. New customers. Money. Meaning. Something. Without a goal, conflict is just idle argument, or ego, or noise. Clarifying your goal is first base.

2. How important to me is the other person? Okay, so you disagree with someone. Maybe a peer, a roommate, a supervisor, or a direct report. How important is this relationship? Do you want to maintain or enhance it going forward? Can you walk away from this situation without consequence? If you have no need to remain in this relationship (for example if it is a one-time encounter), there is little point in engaging in conflict for very long. Why expend the energy and angst? Conflict engagement is best reserved for situations where you need the other person. If you don’t, you can sidestep the disagreement and pursue your goals independently through other means. If you do need the other person, you need a strategy.

3. Is the other person with me or against me (or both)? Are they on my side? Do they share my goals and concerns? Are they likely to help or harm me? Can I trust them? In other words, are there grounds for cooperation and joint problem-solving? Or is this a purely competitive conflict where I have to play hard and play smart to win? Or, is this some combination of both?

4. Am I more powerful than the other party, less, or are we equals? Who is in charge here? Do they have authority over me? Do I have power over them? When equal, a candid conversation may suffice: establish safety, talk it out, resolve it, done. But if you have more power, or less, it will take additional skills to get to the real issues and achieve your goals. If you have less power, you risk overstepping your bounds or inviting abuse. If you have more power, you risk eliciting dishonesty or shutting down your supervisee. Ignoring power differences, and lacking a strategy for them, renders standard conflict resolution methods mostly ineffective.

5. What strategy fits this current situation? Once you answer the first four questions, you are ready for the big decision: what should I do? Conflict situations are addressed most effectively when the strategy fits the specific situation. New research has revealed a menu of effective options for making conflict work for you not against you: by employing Pragmatic Benevolence, Cultivated Support, Constructive Dominance, Strategic Appeasement, Selective Autonomy, or Principled Rebellion. The key is in knowing when and how to employ each.

At the end of the day, you will know intelligent conflict behavior because:

• It is mindful, informed by self-awareness of the tendencies, traps, and emotional hot buttons that you tend to succumb to in conflict.

• It is strategic, based on a fairly clear sense of what you want and need in the situation.

• It is emotionally aware, based not on mere rational calculations but on a good understanding of the emotional history of the relationship.

• It is adaptive, it involves behaviors that fit with the demands of the situation at the time.

• It is temporal, informed by past and current needs and relations as well as best estimates of future needs, consequences, and relations.

• It works. 


Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and co-author with Dr. Ferguson Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement (September 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Robert Ferguson, PhD, is a psychologist, management consultant, executive coach and author.


Peter T. Coleman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University.


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