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Conflict Resolution for Nurses

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A good charge nurse sets the tone on her unit. She knows all conflicts need some management intervention. She is a people-oriented person who is very secure in herself and her management skills. She knows conflict is an inevitable aspect of life, but that not all conflict is destructive. She views conflict as an opportunity for growth and change in a work environment, and the potential for a positive outcome.

Though everyone seems to deal differently with conflicts, the end result is almost always the same - a satisfied team, secure in the knowledge that they get the respect from a fair leader who plays no favorites and seemingly is able to put everyone at ease. 

These nurse managers follow policies akin to these outlined below, with varying applications. The policies can help facilitate effective conflict resolution.  And they promote two of the main things that are necessary for effective conflict resolution - trust and rationality.

See if you can integrate some of these strategies in your conflict resolution arsenal:

1. Problems often are simply misunderstandings. Clarification can end the need for conflict resolution. The goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to learn how to manage conflict constructively.

2. Change your attitude. Recognize that there is a lot to be gained by being open to conflict and responding to it. Among other things, it helps measure unrest in the unit. It also can measure interest in a topic or issue. And, it shows where you have failed as a leader.

3. Deal with the conflict in the right away. Problems left unresolved often grow into crises. It is much easier to deal with small problems. Become an accomplished mediator to help others to work through problems. A mediator encourages people to talk and describe what is wrong. A mediator sets ground rules like having one side talk while the other listens - without interruption, and vice versa.

4. Do not try to control people. Try to focus on the issues, not the personalities of the participants. Explore and discuss potential solutions and alternatives.  Try to focus on both your individual needs and those of the other party.

5. Become a consensus builder. The goal is to create understanding and work with people, not against them. Many times a head nurse is so stressed and overloaded with paperwork that she forgets to slow down and spend time with the people who makeup her staff.  Leadership is practiced in the presence of others. Do not try to "sell" or persuade people, but rather build relationships. Do not try to convert other people to your way of thinking: create understanding, not conversion.

6. Face-to-face communication helps resolve problems. Resist the urge to overuse one-way communication techniques, whether on paper or electronically. Communication can break down. You should not be surprised if you get a message across to another person that is understood 100 percent, especially if it is not dealt with face to face. Learning to listen both passively and actively is essential to managing conflicts.  It is important to teach this skill to others, and especially your assistant head nurse or other team leaders. One of the reasons people get angry and protest is because they think no one is listening to them.

7. Keep in touch with disgruntled staff. One of the greatest dangers is cutting off communication when dealing with an angry employee. This builds up greater resentment between parties involved in the conflict and toward you, the nurse manager.   

8. Always encourage staff to settle differences between themselves.  Never take sides. You are not a parent, but rather an objective observer. Tell them they need to talk to each other and that you trust their problem-solving skills. Listen with understanding, not judgment. The purpose of the exchange is to make sure both parties clearly understand the viewpoint of the other.  Make them understand that if they can see eye-to-eye, the floor can function smoothly once again.

9. Create a problem-solving atmosphere and an environment conducive to successful conflict resolution. Quiet private settings work the best for bringing to parties together. Prior to sitting down, agree that the purpose of the meeting is to resolve the conflict. All parties should arrive prepared to discuss the problem at-hand, and be certain all parties agree on what the problem is. You must agree on the problem together to begin to search for a solution.

10. Hold feedback sessions. Do not treat conflict resolution is a one-time issue. A conflict generally represents a problem that has been festering a while. Arrive at solid conclusion everyone can live for the long term. Otherwise, you will be right back from where you started. 

When people can disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, your organization is healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction. Your ability to solve problems or manage change plays an important role on your being perceived as a successful manager.


Hightower, T. (1986). Subordinate Choice of conflict handling modes. Nursing Administration Quarterly. 11(1) 29-34.

Woodtli, A.O. (1987). Deans of nursing: Perceived sources of conflict and conflict handling modes, Journal of Nursing Education, 26, 272-277.  

Pyle, J. (2005). 10 tips for resolving conflict. Face-to-Face Matters. Retrieved Nov. 12, 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Lourdes Rao is assistant professor for the nursing program at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.

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