Guest column: Coping With Conflict

A Layperson’s guide to resolving conflict in the office

By Daniel A. Bobrow, MBA
President, American Dental Company

Part one in a series of two articles

Conflict is inevitable. As long as people possess the capacity for independent thought, there will be differences of opinion. One of the keys to resolving conflict is the ability to listen to and respect the viewpoint of the other person. For, as my law professor put it, “…reasonable people can differ.”

Presented below are models, tenets, and skills used to resolve conflict.

Conflict Resolution Models

Conflict resolution can be classified into four types. They are: The Primitive Model, The Legal Model, Arbitration, and Mediation.

Under the Primitive Model, the major tenet is Might Makes Right e.g. “If my rock is bigger than yours, I’m right.” The advent of civilization is tied very closely to humankind’s ability to resort to other methods for resolution of conflict.

The Legal Model is more “advanced” than the primitive model in that its weapon of choice most often is words, rather than violence or physical restraint. However, the relationship of the parties to the dispute remains adversarial. Americans have raised this form of conflict resolution to new heights, earning us the dubious distinction as the world’s most litigious society.

Arbitration and Mediation are two models of what is called alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Under arbitration, the arbitrator has authority to render a decision based on his or her assessment of the facts as presented by each party to the dispute. If the arbitration is binding, then both parties agree in advance of the proceedings to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision. In non-binding arbitration one or both parties has the option of accepting or rejecting the arbitrator’s decision.

Mediation involves a facilitator whose role is to help the parties communicate and explore, then generate options for resolving the situation that brought them to the mediation.

Tenets of Effective Conflict Resolution

Before a fruitful discussion of how conflict resolution techniques may be applied in a health care office, it is important to recognize those factors that offer the greatest likelihood of a positive outcome. Factors which, for our purposes, are most important are: Environment, Balance of Power, and Impartiality.


The setting in which a mediation or other attempt at conflict resolution occurs can be critical to the outcome. Is it quiet? Is there privacy? Ideally, the meeting should occur outside the office, so no one is distracted (or perhaps reminded of why they are having the dispute).

Balance of Power

When one party perceives that they are not in control of a situation, it is more difficult to reach an agreement or, if an agreement is reached, it is less likely to last. For this reason, any meeting attempting to resolve a dispute should be structured in such a way that both parties perceive they are, for purposes of the meeting, equal, and that both will be heard and respected.


When you become aware of a conflict between two members of your team, it is vital that you appear neutral with respect to the issues. This is often easier said than done. To help you, remember that, while on the surface an individual’s position may seem unreasonable (or incomprehensible), there are often underlying causes that are responsible for that person’s position. Only in an environment of trust, and through active listening (see below), can you hope to “get at the heart of the matter.”

In the case where you are a party to the conflict, your impartiality is naturally in question. Even if you believe you can remain impartial, it is the perception of others, especially, but not only, the person with whom you have a dispute, which must be considered. If it is not feasible (or you are not comfortable) to have another party preside over a mediation, it is still possible to assume a somewhat more neutral stance. To do so, you should not attempt to have a discussion about a situation when you are emotionally involved. Take a breather. Then, invite your team member to meet with you, preferably outside of the office (see above Environment Section). At this point, you can apply techniques taught by such books as The One Minute Manager, whereby you use the following approach:

    “Mary, today you lost your temper in front of a very important patient/client of ours. And I was embarrassed. I also know you’re much better than that. Yesterday, I saw you attend to the needs of three people at once. That was beautiful. That’s what we’d like to see more. Now let’s have our coffee then get back to work.”

This approach is a cut and dried method for resolving an issue by illustrating the problem and the consequence, then ending on an up-beat note. Where I feel it falls short is in not allowing for the team member to express why she lost her temper. In that respect, the above may only act as a “quick fix” that leaves the root cause to smolder until something triggers a similar (or greater) outburst with more dire consequences.

Therefore, I suggest the following verbiage be used.

    “Mary, I wanted to take time out from our day to let you know I’m concerned. Something seems to be bothering you. If you’re comfortable sharing it with me, I’ll be happy to listen and see what we can do about it.”

Depending on this person’s history with the practice, she will be more or less open to expressing herself. Most people will respond to a request phrased in such an open-ended manner. Once the concern is expressed, options can be explored as to how best to address Mary’s concerns.

These options will be addressed in the next issue of Solutions.

Daniel A. Bobrow, MBA is president of the American Dental Company, a Chicago-Based Consultancy specializing in patient marketing and communications. He is also Executive Director of Climb For A Cause, a non-profit Foundation, whose mission is to provide health care treatment and education to people in need worldwide. He may be reached at 312-455-9488, or

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