Conflict Management Toolkit

By Sanne Derks, Vedrana Simicevic and Lorelei Mihala.

When completing a cross-border project, conflicts may arise within your team, especially as you have to collaborate with journalists from diverse countries and cultures with different schedules and levels of commitment.

We put together a conflict management toolbox to help you identify the main sources of dispute and how to address them, all backed up by conflict resolution theories.

1. Sources of conflicts

For the purpose of this toolkit, we conducted a survey among journalists working in cross-border projects.
The survey reveals that most conflicts arise because of one of the following reasons:

  • Different levels of commitment
  • Cultural differences that create communication problems
  • Different working methods /personalities /priorities

If you have a conflict with a team member, go through the what, who and how:

  • What: this is about the content of the decisions being made. If the conflict is isolated, it is usually easier to resolve.
  • Who: In this case, relationships between team members are at stake. Different preferences and personalities clash. These types of conflicts are the ones most likely to be destructive to teams, because they can involve negative emotions, hostility and personal dislike.
  • What: In this case the conflict arises from the delegation of tasks and the process through which team tasks are resolved. So this is more about logistics. Conflicts arise when there are disagreements over task divisions and responsibilities.

2. Journalists case-studies

To concretely see what types of conflicts may arise in a cross-border team, we gathered anonymous testimonials from journalists. Their case studies illustrate how they navigated through difficulties in their team.

a. Different levels of commitment

When preparing for the Reporters in the Field Grant I reached out to a colleague living in another country to prepare the proposal together. We had a brainstorming session and started to write. However, communication was minimal and it soon became clear that I was dedicating more time and energy to the project. At this early stage, I hoped our disproportionate commitment to the project would even out over time.

These initial problems came to a head during our first meeting, as I was already wary of her. My colleague did not acknowledge that I had written the entire proposal and that our collaboration was not equal at all. On the other hand, I had to trust her again to be able to give her a second chance. So we had a heavy conversation and decided to start again. The kick-off meeting for all grantees hosted by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and N-ost gave us tools: we took notes of what we agreed and disagreed on, and we set up a transparent working doc with a schedule that reflected deadlines for minimum and maximum output.

Unfortunately, she kept being distracted by other work assignments, and did not keep her promises, meet deadlines, or invest time in the project. Our communication dwindled to the occasional email, as the frustration from both sides was too big to speak verbally to each other. Finally, I was informed by the Robert Bosch Stiftung that she decided to leave the project.

Lessons learnt:

  • If possible, try to build a team with people you know. The most ideal situation is if you have worked with each other before. If you do not know each other well, try to figure out beforehand what levels of commitment a person has, and if their personality and working methods match yours. One idea is to interview each other before starting. Stick to your gut-feeling. Conflicts can arise easily because of a disproportionate commitment to the story, but also from perfectionism, and from lack of transparent communication. This allows irritations to build up and makes a clash unavoidable.
  • Making a clear plan including dates, tasks and a defined minimum and maximum output expected of each person helps to guide interactions. In the above case, my companion denied the unequal distribution and felt attacked. After making a plan, communication is clearer, since you can stick to the facts. As the conflict builds up, it is good to keep documenting how much work everyone has done in written form. If a solution is still possible and you want to continue the collaboration despite the conflict, it is good to have a face-to-face conversation.

b. Different priorities

As a photo- and multimedia journalist, I collaborated with another journalist on a cross-border project. I know the importance of strong visual material, since it makes it much easier to sell the stories. Because of economic and family challenges, I was not able to travel to the other country to take the photos. We discussed this in advance and the other journalist said she would hire a photographer for the visuals in her country. However, time passed and it never happened. In the end we published the story together, but only used photos from my country. When I saw the publication in her country, I realized that a stock photo had been used, which I found really disappointing.

Lessons learnt:

  • In every conflict, there is a tipping point. I prefer not to cross it, so I try to avoid the escalation of the conflict. This means: talking, talking, talking. Be as clear as possible about both of your expectations and priorities.
  • Get to know each other. It is not only personalities or cultures that can clash, but also different family situations. As a father or mother you will not have all the time and freedom to travel abroad. Your family responsibilities set different priorities. This should be taken into account. Always look for compromise, including on expectations and delivery. If you want to work according to your own standards, you should choose to work alone. Teamwork will also mean disappointments. But overall, it can be encouraging and stimulating, since your combined strengths can lead to a better product. In my experience, the few fights that I have had in my career have led to a worse product or even the termination of a project. So compromising is key!

c. Problems with money

At one point during our collaboration, a problem with budget-sharing suddenly arose. I thought our team would share the awarded amount for expenses equally, but then our team leader said she would take a bigger amount of payment than the rest of us. Her argument was that she needed a bigger budget because she spent more than the rest of us. But in fact, I also spent far more than I expected, and it never crossed my mind that I should be awarded more.

Lessons learnt:

  • You should discuss how you split your grant money within your team at a very early stage of collaboration, and then throughout the project. Money is a sensitive issue in any team-based project. Often, it is impossible to know at the development phase of the project exactly how much you will spend. But once you receive a set amount in grant money, team members should discuss how they will split it.
  • One way to avoid disagreements is to be fairly precise when deciding who will spend how much money and how. Many things can be taken into consideration here, from the effort that particular members will make to different logistics required at various stages of the project. It can also be a good idea to set aside a small portion of the budget for unexpected expenses.
  • If some team members (leader included) feel that they will have more expenses due to unexpected circumstances, it helps if they discuss this issue with the rest of the team in advance.

3. Conflict-management models and theories

a. “17 Principles of Conflict Resolution”

The conflict resolution expert Dana Caspersen has identified 17 principles of conflict resolution that might help you analyze and reframe your response to a verbal conflict in a cross-border team.

  1. Do not listen to the attack, but to what lies behind the words. Focus on the ‘why.’
  2. Resist the urge to respond with a counter-attack. Change the conversation from the inside. Reframe your words with a personal message like: When [this and that happened], I felt [fill in your emotion], because [outline why it is important to you]. Formulate a question to ask the other person. For instance: Would you be willing to … [fill in something achievable].
  3. Bring out the best in the other person. Remember that you two (or more) are the only ones who are able to get to a sustainable resolution of the conflict.
  4. Differentiate between needs, interests and strategies. We all have the same basic needs, different interests that come from these needs, and different strategies to fulfill these needs. Sometimes strategies are disguised as a need in the communication. Analyze!
  5. Acknowledge your emotions. See them as signals. Ask yourself: Why do I feel like this? What is my desire/need?
  6. Distinguish between recognition and approval. Ensure the other person that you listened well to his/her words. Listen to the other person, before you start the discussion.
  7. Don’t make any suggestions while you are listening. If you start making suggestions while the other person is still explaining how they feel, he/she will not feel heard.
  8. Distinguish between judgement and observation. Not: “You are always late,” but: “The past three meetings you arrived after the meeting started.” Try to stick to observations in your argument.
  9. Test your assumptions and drop them if they turn out to be wrong. Ask questions to see if your assumptions hold.
  10. Be curious in difficult situations. Try to get as much information about all aspects of the conflict, and not just from your own viewpoint.
  11. Assume a meaningful dialogue is possible, even if it does not look like it is.

Try to challenge yourself in the following ways

First challenge: if you need to make a decision, take that responsibility. If someone else needs to decide, leave the decision to that person. Second challenge: if you get stuck on a strategy or viewpoint, try to focus on the underlying needs. Take a step back and try to understand what is so important for the other person. Make your own interests clear as well. Third challenge: in conflicts that arise from firmly held beliefs, it does not make sense to argue about those beliefs. Try to broaden the conversation by asking about the other person’s experiences and how these have been developed.

  1. Stop if you are making the problem bigger. Keep your main aim of the conversation in mind. What are the interests and needs?
  2. Try to figure out what is happening, instead of who can be blamed. When one person shifts the conversation from blaming to finding a resolution, the whole focus of the conversation shifts. Recognize both sides of the story.
  3. Recognize the conflict. Talk to whoever is involved. By not speaking out, the conflict remains dormant and can become worse. Speak directly to the people involved as soon as the conflict arises.
  4. Assume that there are undiscovered solutions. Search for solutions to which all people agree.
  5. Make clear appointments and explain expectations. Create a situation together in which both parties feel free to be honest, by acknowledging what is part and what is not part of the agreements you make together. After a while, circumstances may change. Make it explicit when this happens and whether your original agreements should be changed.
  6. Expect to have other conflicts in the future and prepare yourself for them. Anticipate by formulating solutions if the agreements are not met. Speak together about how you want to address problems in the future. It might feel as if you are increasing tensions by anticipating future problems, but the opposite is true. Speak about what communication strategies will work best for both of you.

b. Working together or taking opposite stands? The Rose of Leary model

The Rose of Leary, a model on interactions developed by the American psychologist Timothy Leary, provides insight into how certain responses evoke different types of behaviors.

Find out more about how the Rose of Leary can help you solve conflicts in cross-border teams.

c. Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Styles

This model looks at the ways in which different people handle conflict. The model could help you identify your team-members’ approaches to conflict, as well as enable you to understand and adapt your own approach to difficult situations.

There are five overarching styles:

  1. Accommodating: this approach is characterized by sacrifice, selflessness and low assertiveness. You are willing to give up just about everything in order to preserve the relationship with the other party. It is certainly reasonable to use this strategy when the issue at hand is something of little importance to you. It is usually used by people who seek harmony.
  2. Avoiding: you deal with conflicts by avoiding them. This approach is mutually unhelpful: you don't help the other party reach their goals, and you don’t assertively pursue your own either.
  3. Collaborating: in this style, you partner with the other party to achieve both of your goals. A high degree of trust is needed to reach consensus.
  4. Competing: you act in a very assertive way to achieve your goals, without seeking to cooperate with the other party, and it may be at the expense of the other party.
  5. Compromising: in this style, both parties make compromises. It requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation.

4. Cross-cultural theories

a. Hofstede Model

In a cross-border team, conflicts may arise from cultural clashes.

The Hofstede Model is a powerful resource to use in such cases. It shows how social and cultural factors influence behavior and communication.

Hofstede is a Dutch researcher with a background in management and organizational studies. His model is derived from a study published in 1980 on organizational culture. In it, he surveyed over 60,000 people in more than 50 countries who worked at IBM, the international IT corporation. Hofstede analyzed the results and split them into four dimensions on which cultures differ. These are: power distance, individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity/femininity. In a revision to the model, a fifth dimension was added as an attempt to fit the uncertainty avoidance dimension into Asian culture. This dimension is called Confucian dynamism or short/long term orientation. Hofstede’s model is an important international theory that has been used widely to distinguish cultures from one another (Jones, 2007).

However, the model has also been widely criticized. Critiques include:

  • Is a survey an appropriate method to measure cultural differences?
  • Hofstede assumes the domestic population is homogenous.
  • National division: cultures are not necessarily bounded by nations.
  • Political influences: the context of the countries and the political processes they are in are not taken into account. For example, many Europeans living through the Cold War still had vivid memories of the Second World War.
  • Generalization: one study from one company cannot be applied to the whole culture of a country.

Despite this criticism, Hofstede was a pioneer and provided valuable insights into cultural differences.

It is possible to see where you stand by filling in the original questionnaire of Hofstede.

Download Hofstede test

On this website it is possible to find the average country scores:

b. Assertive communication

Some people are naturally more assertive than others. The level of assertiveness may also be determined culturally.

If your disposition tends more towards being either passive or aggressive, you need to work on the following skills to develop your assertiveness:

Value yourself and your rights:

  • Understand that your rights, thoughts, feelings, needs and desires are just
    as important as everyone else's.
  • But remember they are not more important than anyone else's, either.
  • Recognize your rights and protect them.
  • Believe you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at all times.
  • Stop apologizing for everything.

Identify your needs and wants, and ask for them to be satisfied:

  • Don't wait for someone to recognize what you need (you might wait forever!)
  • Understand that to perform to your full potential, your needs must be met.
  • Find ways to get your needs met without sacrificing others' needs in the process.

Acknowledge that people are responsible for their own behavior:

  • Don't make the mistake of accepting responsibility for how people react
    to your assertive statements (e.g. anger, resentment). You can only control yourself.
  • As long as you are not violating someone else's needs, then you have the
    right to say or do what you want.

Express negative thoughts and feelings in a healthy and positive manner:

  • Allow yourself to be angry, but always be respectful.
  • Do say what's on your mind, but do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the other person's feelings.
  • Control your emotions.
  • Stand up for yourself and confront people who challenge your rights.

Receive criticism and compliments positively:

  • Accept compliments graciously.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes and ask for help.
  • Accept feedback positively—be prepared to say you don't agree but do not get defensive or angry.

Learn to say "no" when you need to. This is the granddaddy of assertiveness!

  • Know your limits and what will cause you to feel taken advantage of.
  • Know that you can't do everything or please everyone and learn to be OK with that.
  • Go with what is right for you.
  • Suggest an alternative for a win-win solution.

Assertive communication techniques

There are a variety of ways to communicate assertively. By understanding how to be assertive, you can quickly adapt these techniques to any situation. Here are a few that might be helpful:

I statements

Use "I want," "I need," or "I feel" to convey basic assertions.

I feel strongly that we need to bring in a third party to mediate this disagreement.

Empathic Assertion

First, recognize how the other person views the situation:

I understand you are having trouble working with Arlene.

Then, express what you need:

...however, this project needs to be completed by Friday. Let's all sit down and come up with a plan to get it done.

Change Your Verbs

  • Use 'won't' instead of can't'
  • Use 'want' instead of 'need'
  • Use 'choose to' instead of 'have to'
  • Use 'could' instead of 'should'


This technique involves preparing your responses using a four-pronged approach that describes:

  1. The event: tell the other person exactly how you see the situation or problem.
    Jacob, the production costs this month are 23% higher than average. You didn't give me any indication of this, which meant that I was completely surprised by the news.
  2. Your feelings: describe how you feel about your emotions clearly.
    This frustrates me and makes me feel like you don't understand or appreciate how important financial controls are in the company.
  3. Your needs: tell the other person what you need so they don't have to guess.
    I need you to be honest with me and let me know when we start going significantly over budget on anything.
  4. The consequences: describe the positive outcome if your needs are fulfilled.
    I'm here to help you and support you in any way I can. If you trust me, then together we can turn this around.

The obstacles of cross-cultural communication

Miscommunication is recognized as one of the leading causes of conflict in cross-cultural teams. Cultural differences, of course, can have a big impact on cross-cultural communication.

Nancy Adler, an expert on organizational behavior and cross-cultural management at McGill University, argues that cross-cultural communication continually involves misunderstandings caused by misperception, misinterpretation, and misevaluation. In cross-cultural situations, says Adler, one should assume difference until similarity is proven. It is important to recognize that logic and rationale are culturally relative and labeling behavior as bizarre usually reflects culturally-based misperception, misinterpretation, and misevaluation, and rarely intentional malice.

According to Adler, cross-cultural misperception happens because our perceptual patterns are selective, learned, culturally determined, consistent and inaccurate. No two national groups see the world in exactly the same way.

The second obstacle to good communication is cross-cultural misinterpretation, our tendency to categorize situations from our own countries’ perspective and apply it to other countries. In other words, cross-cultural mis-categorization occurs when we use our home country categories to make sense of foreign situations. An especially frequent form of categorization is stereotyping, which, in this situation, we use to describe the behavioral norm for members of an ethnic and national group. Like other categories, these can be helpful or harmful depending on how we use them.

According to Adler, sources of cross-cultural misinterpretation include subconscious cultural "blinders" (because most interpretation occurs at a subconscious level, we are often not aware of the cultural basis of our assumptions), a lack of cultural self-awareness, projected similarity, and parochialism.

Cultural conditioning also strongly affects our evaluation of others. In cross-cultural misevaluation we use our own culture as a standard of measurement, to judge something or someone as good and normal if it is similar to our culture, and as bad and abnormal if it is different.

Adler points out that with additional care we can overcome our natural parochial tendencies and learn to see, understand, and control our own cultural conditioning. In facing foreign cultures, we can emphasize description rather than interpretation or evaluation, and minimize self-fulfilling stereotypes and premature closure, says Adler.

Nine strategies for resolving conflict

In a study from 1998 looking at the management of multicultural group conflicts, Appelbaum and colleagues define nine main strategies for resolving conflict and disagreement constructively. The authors recommend avoiding overusing one or two of these approaches. Culturally diverse work groups will require testing of strategies to fit the situation.

Dominate: using power and pressure when speed or confidentiality are important or when the situation is too minor to warrant time-consuming involvement of others. Also used for self-protection against people who would use their power abusively.

Smooth: gaining acceptance of one’s views by accentuating the benefits and smoothing over disadvantages that would fuel opposition.

Maintain: holding onto the status quo by deferring action on views that differ from one’s own. Useful as an interim strategy when time is needed to collect information or to let emotions cool down.

Bargain: offering something the other party wants in exchange for something one wants. Expedient when time pressures preclude collaboration. A mediator may facilitate this strategy.

Coexist: determining jointly to follow separate paths for an agreed-upon period of time. Use when both parties are firm, and pilot testing will determine which path has greater merit.

Decide by rule: agreeing jointly to use an objective rule such as a vote, lottery, seniority system, or arbitration. This is helpful when one wants to be seen as impartial but decisive action is needed.

Collaborate: joint exploration to develop a creative solution that satisfies the important concerns of all parties. Useful when the issues are too important to be compromised, or when commitment is vital to successful implementation of the solution.

Release: let go when the issue does not warrant your time or energy, or when you want others to resolve a non-critical issue to foster their initiative and provide a learning opportunity.

Yield: Support the other person’s views when you become convinced it is more appropriate, or when the issue is much more important to them than to you.

To read more about the conflict resolution models mentioned above, see the links below: The Management of Multicultural Group Conflict

Finding It Hard to Manage Conflict at the Workplace? Use the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

Maak van je conflict een kans: de 17 principes van Conflict Oplossing - Dana Caspersen

About The Authors

Sanne Derks

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Vedrana Simicevic

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Lorelei Mihala

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