Conflict coaching: Panacea or placebo?


My dispute resolution ‘journey’ began with life as a litigation lawyer.  While completing my Master of Laws I studied a subject on ‘alternative dispute resolution’ and we had the option of doing an extra two days of training to become certified under what was then a Certificate 3 in Mediation.  This training was enough to change my path from lawyer to mediator and I began a PhD which looked at how different approaches to dispute resolution (litigation and mediation) impacted on psychological outcomes for participants.  Some years later I completed conflict management coach training in the CINERGY model, and subsequently developed the REAL Conflict Coaching System, which I now practice and teach through Conflict Coaching International.  For a link to a talk I gave a few years ago in the US about the REAL Conflict Coaching System and the philosophy that it is based on, see this youtube link.

Conflict coaching is a one-on-one process during which a conflict specialists ‘coaches’ someone in conflict to assist them to manage their conflict more effectively and perhaps even resolve it.  The conflict coaching does not provide advice or advocacy-type support, rather the coach facilitates a kind of reflective process through which the client gains insight into the situation they are facing and ideas for moving forward.

Conflict coaching:

  • Provides the client with undivided attention
  • Is founded on deep listening
  • Gives the client non-judgmental support
  • Uses curious questioning
  • Promotes self-reflection
  • Promotes empowerment

A quick note on terminology:  The process I am discussing here was originally called “conflict coaching” but the name has fairly recently developed into “conflict management coaching”, I assume for a number of reasons:  Firstly, to emphasize the connection between conflict coaching and management/executive coaching; but secondly and perhaps more importantly, to highlight that the coaching process is about supporting people to develop strategies to manage their conflict, not to teach them how to have conflict (emphasizing that it’s nothing like being a boxing coach!).  It’s also interesting to note here that the process has not been called conflict resolution coaching and this is an important point – the aim of conflict coaching is not necessarily to resolve the conflict.  In one sense, including the word “management” is an attempt to include a positive term alongside the word “conflict” which is often seen as negative (so one would not want to provide coaching for someone to engage in “conflict”; whereas coaching someone to engage in “management” sounds more constructive).  However, this tends to perpetuate the idea that conflict is something negative, when in fact in can be something very positive if it is engaged with appropriately.  For this reason (and for pragmatic reasons of brevity) I continue to use the simple term “conflict coaching”.

When considering the place of conflict coaching in today’s suite of conflict support services, it’s useful to consider the changing nature of societal responses to new conflict resolution processes. Laurence Boulle, in his book Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice identifies the following ‘waves’ of responses to mediation in Australia, which be equally applied to the development of conflict coaching as a service:

  • First wave: Optimism and idealism
  • Second wave: Skeptism, hostility, call for exacting standards
  • Third wave: Balanced understanding, recognition and organization, mainstreaming
  • Fourth wave: Cross-fertilisation
  • Fifth wave: Integration and interconnectedness (which can lead to an identity paradox, as the process becomes blurred with others). [1]

Where is conflict coaching currently on this spectrum?  Well, there is certainly some optimism and idealism (at least from those offering conflict coaching services).  There is also some skeptism, particularly about the potential for a one-on-one process to achieve conflict resolution.  There have also been moves towards accreditation of conflict coaches, and some models provide their own practice standards, but these are not widespread or nationally recognized in the same way as the Australian National Mediator Practice Standards.  In some sectors (e.g. the Australian Defence Force) there is evidence of a strong understanding and mainstreaming of conflict coaching, but this is not universal.  There is perhaps the beginning of cross-fertilisation, with referrals to and from mediation and other conflict resolution processes, and there is also some blurring of the process with others (e.g. counseling or advocacy) but this is probably more based in a general ignorance of the process rather than widespread integration and interconnectedness.

The process of conflict coaching began as a back-up plan when mediation was not possible (usually because one party was not able or willing to participate).  It is first recorded as being offered at Macquarie University in Australia and was known as “Problem solving for one” (developed as a one-on-one process based on Fisher and Ury’s interest-based negotiation model) and then at Temple University in the USA (based on the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument). For a brief overview of the development of conflict coaching see chapter one of this thesis about mindfulness in conflict coaching.

Recently, however, conflict coaching has been used as more than just a back up plan when mediation is not possible.  Rather, it is frequently the first process choice, before and often instead of mediation.  It can be used as a preventative measure.  Conflict coaching can also be used as a kind of ‘triage’ process into other services.  It can also be used post-mediation.

There are a range of different models and approaches.  The most well known model in the Americas and Australia is the CINERGY model, however other models have developed including the narrative-based Comprehensive Conflict Coaching model and the Australian-developed REAL Conflict Coaching System.

In my opinion, the increase in popularity of conflict coaching as a process can be explained by a number of factors: Firstly, there is a shift towards individualized services.  Secondly, and somewhat contradictory to its original purpose, mediation is now often seen as “too formal” a process.  Another impacting factor is arguably that people are losing the capacity and motivation to communicate directly with those with whom they are in conflict and so are more comfortable with a process that does not require them to do so.  People in conflict also want someone “on their side” but not necessarily a lawyer/advocate.  There is also a growing social focus on self-development.  When conflict coaching is sold as a kind of professional development exercise, it is also easier to motivate staff to participate.

The growing popularity of conflict coaching is consistent with the shift in emphasis towards self-determination in dispute resolution rhetoric.  It is popular with those seeking to “do it yourself” and empowerment, and also provides an individualized and just-in-time support for those experiencing conflict.  Conflict coaching is broadening in scope, and is being used in contexts including:

  • Managers dealing with staff conflict;
  • Preparation for mediation, negotiation, litigation;
  • Divorce coaching;
  • Negotiation coaching;
  • Self-represented litigant coaching;
  • Change management coaching;
  • Conflict coaching for students in school;
  • Conflict coaching to support people to implement parenting plans agreed upon during family dispute resolution;
  • Conflict prevention as well as resolution.

Some boundaries are being blurred, for example: conflict coaching is being provided by individuals who are not independent (e.g. managers) and it is sometimes being used as an educational tool and an ongoing, rather than a short-term, intervention.

So is conflict coaching the panacea we have been waiting for to support individuals to manage their conflict more constructively?  In its favour, it promotes self-determination and empowerment, integrates well with other processes, and is flexible and individualized.  However, it is not suitable in all individual conflict situations (e.g. family violence and bullying are typically not appropriate for conflict coaching, unless used very carefully by practitioners who understand the dynamics of power-based violence – supporting a client to be more assertive in engaging with a perpetrator of violence can result in the violence escalating).

It is difficult to evaluate the benefits of conflict coaching apart from based on an individual’s perceptions of how it made them feel.  It is hard to prove that people who access conflict coaching services move on to actual improvements in their conflict management / conflict resolution.  It is also important to consider whether conflict coaching is replacing more helpful interventions such as early conflict education, communication skills development, and in a workplace – effective performance management.

It seems that the answer lies somewhere in between the two poles of placebo and panacea.  Conflict coaching can make a client feel better, by giving them a forum to vent and to be listened to attentively and without judgement.  It can also make managers feel better when they refer an employee to conflict coaching as they feel they have done something productive in response to a conflict situation in the workplace.  However, conflict coaching used unmindfully can act simply as a placebo, and an expensive exercise without any objective improvement in the client’s conflict situation.  On the other hand, conflict coaching, even when used appropriately, is not the answer to all conflict situations.  It also may need to be used in conjunction with other conflict services in order to provide a holistic response that maximizes the chances of a lasting positive outcome.

[1] L. Boulle, Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice, 3rd Ed. (Lexis Nexis Butterworths, Chatswood, 2011), pp 349-351.