3 Lessons Life As A Diplomat Taught Me About Conflict Resolution

At the top of the list: Trust is vital.

Two employees in their thirties in the workplace, looking like they are in conflict Disobey Art / shutterstock 

As an American diplomat in India, Guatemala and Ecuador, as well as a Foreign Service Officer negotiating with unions and management within the U.S. State Department, I spent a lifetime learning the twists and turns and satisfactory outcomes of conflict resolution. I’ve also taught it in universities and been a community mediator and jury foreperson.

The processes at high levels are no different from conflict management and resolution in everyday life, including work, organizations, romance, family, community or friendship. Few are glamorous and many are mundane, but they are rich with opportunities to build trust, the foundation for many win-win outcomes.


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How to sharpen your conflict resolution skills

Managing conflict often moves along a continuum of resolution to degeneration. There are also detours and repetitions as part of the process. Most steps usually benefit from patience, courage and a sense of humor that seeks the right proportion versus the usually unsustainable balance.


Encouraging effective outcomes depends on three processes: building trust, using power and finding interests in common. Even the presence of sex in romantic relationships does not significantly shift these dynamics.  

The good news is that skills and experience in building trust and finding common interests are often easy to access. Curiosity about and acceptance and appreciation of differences will generate understanding. They include cultural, economic, and political examples as well as autobiographical and resource-based matters.

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Trust building: the win-win process

Since power is rarely equally distributed, strengthen your odds by understanding types of power and ways to use it, as you’ll see later. Keep in mind, though, that a mean or manipulative spirit or seriously conflicting values is challenging to transcend. Then, sometimes conflict resolution is not possible. But confrontation, avoidance, exclusion or dismissal are. Especially in these situations, develop, organize and deploy allies for action.


Let’s begin with trust building, a linchpin for an auspicious base from which to practice conflict resolution. As with any investment of long-term value, building trust involves work, risk and good judgment. The process itself usually benefits from small steps that accrue over time. As a foundation for self-confidence and comfort with oneself, it also girds important relationships; it provides lubrication for easing fraught situations, negotiating and problem-solving as well.

First things first: trust yourself

Start with knowing yourself to create a firm foundation for creating and sustaining trust. That’s immediately accessible to you for understanding, modification of habits and action. It will also give you the insight, experience and capacity to see others’ perspectives, helping empathy develop.  

  • Keep clarifying who you are now and who you want to be (which may not be entirely apparent early on or at certain junctures of your life as well as weighed down with non-useful assumptions and habits).
  • Decide how you want to relate to the other person or group.

In themselves, both processes provide opportunities for cultivating your authentic self, an important foundation for acting in trustworthy ways. Such integrity is supported by being honest with yourself first. Then:

  • Identify key things you want to accomplish for the foreseeable future.
  • Practice being transparent about your motives, including admitting errors as appropriate.
  • Communicate openly, especially about important issues.
  • Stay consistent in important actions, including what you say as well as your non-verbal communication and tone of voice.
  • Deliver on promises or alert others to your inability to do so in timely ways.

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Find common interests

To transcend the natural tensions between honoring your own needs and preferences and those of others, understanding context helps. That may relate to being in a relationship, group or organization in which focus is sometimes fuzzy. One way to address such ambiguity is investing in identifying interests in common as a basis for finding comfort zones, or at least improved ease. From that shared understanding you can explore opportunities for mutual benefit.

Some common interests may be obvious or hinted at by experiences that are similar. Another approach is to explore together how to address issues or problems in common. Perhaps start with these actions:

  • Discuss ideas for handling the shared issue or problem.
  • Identify fears, anxieties and areas of discomfort as a basis for opening frank conversation, transcending blocks and doing mutual problem-solving. Emotions are often the motor force behind decision-making.
  • Explore hopes and dreams together to appreciate where common proactive opportunities are.

Together, these communication processes smooth the search for common interests and may help bypass any regression to power ploys that muscle in.

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Understand the uses of power — and how to bolster your own

Here are a range of options for identifying, expanding and using your own power. To gain experience and ease with doing it, appreciate such sources within yourself and others.

To do this, consider the five main sources of power: who has what and how you can develop, adapt and expand yours. Identify which ones you want to add to your current preference or repertoire. Sometimes you may experience initial discomfort in using new powers. But the broader your repertoire, the more strategic you can be.

Here are the five sources of power that can determine your role in conflict management

1. Power of position

This may reflect a formal title or informal status identified by others’ behavior, choices and actions — or even obeisance.

2. Reward 

This is the capacity to give something tangible or intangible to others, including almost anything requiring your time and attention. That may range from the material to more subtle expressions such as acknowledgment of someone’s appeal, accomplishment or capacity. In any event, always give specific feedback about what you are lauding.


3. Expertise

This is based on demonstrated knowledge and capacity to manage a situation, project or program. It can range from creating something new to improving what exists. Continuing learning is key for sustaining this.

4. The ability to punish or coerce

This is behavior or a specific step that can hurt or thwart someone, including words and deeds such as disdain or rejection. Though to be used sparingly, it can be especially relevant in situations with recalcitrant, dangerous or ruthless people.

5. Inspiration and reverence

This makes others want to work with or support you because they respect, like and feel safe with you. Your generosity of spirit, actions and trustworthiness elicit such quiet or expressive commitment from others.


To experience using the lessons, suggestions and ideas here, I encourage you to start as soon as possible with something relevant and manageable. Choose among building trust, finding common interests and using power — or any combination that works well for you and your situation.

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Ruth Schimel, Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work. Request the first chapter of her seventh book Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future.