Conflict Resolution Tips for Physicians

June 19, 2014

Physicians are likely to be challenged with conflict in their practices. It is important to know how to approach it in a positive manner.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute, LLC's "Conflict Resolution and Bioethics Mediation Training for Healthcare." ( As we all know, disputes and conflicts arise in every area of life and in the practice of medicine. Like "risk," which can be viewed in a negative light, so can the term "conflict." Both risk and conflict, however, do not need to receive such a negative reception. Just like "being direct" does not mean "being abrasive," so both risk and conflict can be healthy in terms of moving processes forward. In light of what I gleaned, I wanted to share some insights, which may be helpful in general interactions, conflict resolution, mediation, and/or arbitration. The common goal of all of these processes is to reach a resolution. Yet, how do we go about doing that?

Some generalities of human nature include:

(1) Typically, everyone wants it their way;

(2) We must learn to deal with everyone wanting it their way;

(3) People often take a defensive posture, and

(4) No one likes to be pushed or coerced.

Whether it is a bioethics consult about a patient not consenting to treatment or a mediation involving a medical error, the reality is that all consult calls are about conflict.

• First, it is important to listen and discern the nature of the conflict.

• Second, identify any underlying issues or additional factors that are contributing to the difference of opinion. For example, is there more than one sibling with a different vantage point? Are finances and other socio-economic factors involved?

• Third, parties are often more receptive to the terms conflict resolution, conflict management, or collaborative problem solving instead of mediation.

• Fourth, search for common ground. All of these actions will make the process proceed more smoothly.

• It is also important to remember that there is nothing in the process more healing than being heard.

This reminds me of a quote a healthcare executive relayed to me years ago. "People do not care what you know, until they know that you care." Remember, in a significant number of instances, the parties come together in a defensive posture. For both parties, having a venue in which to be heard lets each party know that you care. From there, you can work on "getting to yes." Focusing on interests instead of positions will help get the parties to resolution.

Finally, sometimes a judgment call will need to be made that is authoritative in nature. It could be through a court or another professional. By being willing to talk and express the differing viewpoints while imparting respect for the other party, resolution can be reached in a variety of settings before a situation escalates.