Whether it's running a bustling company with big teams or signing on the dotted line, much rides on parties getting along in business. From labor agreements to service contracts, a great deal is written to establish each party’s rights. When things go wrong, it leads to conflicts, disputes, problems and more. While these words sound interchangeable, they all have varying definitions in courtrooms and those semantics matter if you're to master dispute and conflict resolution.

Some Key Conflict and Dispute Definitions

While you’re probably familiar with these words in daily use, the reality is that the law interprets them slightly differently. Understanding the difference between “conflict” and “grievance” and “dispute” can make a big difference when talking to contractors or lawyers. Here’s how some of these seemingly similar terms are defined in the eyes of the legal system.

  • Dispute: A dispute is defined as the disagreement over legal duties or rights, or about what extent or kind of compensation may be claimed by the complaining party for breaching said duties or rights. A dispute may arise when a claimant feels they received an inadequate insurance award or if they feel a contractor was in breach of the contract’s terms, such as with deliverables arriving late.
  • Problem: “Problems” exist where there is a perceived gap between what actually exists and what was desired or expected. A simple example would be someone pays to have their room painted but the color and technique used are not what they believed they had negotiated for. The disparity between their expectations and what was delivered is the “problem.”
  • Grievance: There can be grievances on the employee side of business, which is a slightly different definition, but in contract law, a grievance is when injustice, wrongs or injuries provide reason for formal expression as a complaint. A grievance can also be the complaint itself. The human resources department is usually where grievances arise, but companies may file grievances, too. Such as, if they feel they lost a contract bid because another company had friends on the committee or if they feel there was some sort of bias that prevented them from fair consideration.
  • Conflict: This is when there is friction or opposition rising between parties, based on perceived or actual differences or incompatibilities. It is most easily defined as a clash of interests.
  • Disagreement: This is not a legal term, but rather a state of discontent which forms the basis of all of the above. Disagreement is the opposite of assent or satisfaction. When there is disagreement, it means there is grounds for a problem, dispute, conflict or grievance.

When Conflicts and Other Issues Arise

No matter how ethical or wonderful you are at what you do, the reality is, business disagreements are inevitable. As exhibited by the definitions above, language is a tricky beast and the variations and interpretations of words in contract law and verbal agreements are often the basis of why and how parties can find themselves at odds.

When these disparities and disagreements arise, there are two overarching ways to handle them – in good faith or bad faith. One would hope everyone enters into resolution and debate with a good faith attitude, meaning they’re seeking the best possible outcome with an ethical, honest approach to discussion, but that’s not always the case. It can be tricky, but the best approach to resolving conflict is to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. This can mean having a lawyer on your side and documenting everything along the way.

Seeking Expert Help

This is when one turns to the mechanisms of dispute and conflict resolution. To do that can mean taking up issues with a boss or management, consulting industry regulators, enlisting a mediator for negotiations, conceding to the expert help of an arbitrator, or what should be the last resort, litigating a complaint in court. If workplace conflicts arise, these are usually handled internally. But, otherwise, if you’re unsure what avenues are best for you, it’s wise to consult with a business lawyer.

The first hour of consultation is often free, so get your money’s worth by bringing supporting documents and anything else that can help you quickly, clearly outline your issues for the attorney.

Three Kinds of Conflict

Philosophy, literature and business all have different perspectives on what conflict is and how many varieties exist. In business, there are three primary types of conflict, and they are:

Task Conflict: When two parties have differences over whose responsibilities may involve specific jobs or perks, this is a task conflict. Say two employees both feel they’re the one who is entitled to attend the posh work conference abroad, each with valid reasons for their claim. To resolve it, management may make difficult decisions, but in so doing, it’s possible they can not only resolve this instance but also set parameters so the remaining employee feels the next reward is theirs, preventing such disputes repeating in the future.

Relationship Conflict: Inevitably, this is something everyone experiences in life. In a workplace, it can be problematic if it means parties don't listen to each other or focus fully on tasks at hand. It can cause competition, betrayal, sabotage and worse. Luckily, it doesn’t usually get that far. As the last gasp, management can resolve these sorts of conflicts by reassigning team members who fail to get past their issues with others.

Value Conflict: Value conflicts are conflicts that potentially have the most at stake. When a company or employee has a different value set than those of the other party and conflicts arise as a result, it puts both in a difficult position. Sometimes, good faith negotiations and a willingness to meet each other halfway can resolve these. Other times, however, value conflicts can lead to whistleblowers exposing illegal or unethical actions, which can cause employees to resign, investigators to intervene and more.

Dispute and Conflict Management 101

Before lawyers and bodies of oversight get involved, the American Management Association recommends using the five steps of dispute and conflict resolution.

  1. Identify the Conflict: Speak to each party to find out their perception of the disagreement. Be empathetic and let them speak freely so you hear all sides thoroughly. Look at any evidence they may provide to back up their claims.
  2. See the Big Picture: Just like a burst dam begins with a small crack, so too do most disputes and conflicts. Ask each party where they believe things kicked off, but take a wider view to look further back in time to where things may have begun going wrong.
  3. Request Solutions: Talk to each party to see how they think matters can be solved. What kind of remediation and reciprocation are they open to? What sacrifices might each be willing to make? What would best benefit your organization? For managers, this can also provide beneficial perspectives on how reasonable and willing to compromise each employee is, which can help in personnel choices down the line.
  4. Find Common Ground: Identify where each party comes closest to meeting in the middle. Then ascertain which among these best benefits your organization’s outcome.
  5. Agree to Agree: Once the best solutions are outlined, the mediator should choose the one that benefits each party to some degree while solving the issue. The goal is to have everyone feeling as though they’ve been heard and their complaints have been addressed and resolved.