Commitment: A core conflict competency

Mar 01, 2024 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

Circle of people with various skin tones making fist bumps with each otherOver the past year, I have published a series of blogs exploring the key skills that are necessary for making conflict productive, or what I call the core “conflict competencies.” Prior blogs have explored the conflict competencies of calm, curiosity, compassion, creativity, courage, and communication. In this blog, I want to explore one final core conflict competency: commitment.

What is commitment?

Let’s start by clarifying what I mean by commitment.

Depending on what dictionary you use, commitment means something along the lines of “a promise or firm decision to do something,” “an agreement or pledge to do something in the future,” “a promise to do or give something,” or “the attitude of someone who works very hard to do or support something.”

In the context of conflict, I think of a commitment as any agreement, demand, offer, or promise related to conflict and communication that is made by any of the involved parties. This includes everything from commitments parties make about how they will (and will not) communicate with each other, to decisions about how to address a specific conflict, to agreements about how parties are going to move forward in resolving a conflict.

Some examples of commitments in conflict situations include:

  • Committing to yourself and/or others to approach conflict in a skillful way. For example, both parties in a married couple might commit to acting in a conflict-competent way when having difficult conversations. 
  • Committing to use a set of ground rules—i.e., mutual agreements about how parties will and will not behave—to guide communication. For example, a family or professional team might work together to co-create a list of ground rules that they agree to abide by in their interactions with each other.
  • Committing to meet on a regular basis to talk about the relationship. For example, in a professional or romantic partnership, partners might agree to set aside a few hours every other week to check in about how things are going and anything that could be improved. They might also agree not to discuss difficult things outside of this designated time, unless absolutely necessary.
  • Committing to a certain course of action. For example, if interested parties are negotiating a management strategy for a plot of land, they may reach agreement on a management plan and then commit to implementing it together.

Why are commitments important for making conflict productive?

As I’ve explored in prior blogs, a key reason conflict is so difficult for us is because it feels threatening (which is in large part due to our zero-sum thinking and related tendency to see conflict as a problem). To make conflict productive, we need to create spaces and interactions in which people feel safe to share, be heard, and explore mutual gains solutions. 

Commitments can play a very important role in helping create this sense of safety when dealing with conflict, or at least removing unnecessary sources of fear. 

For example, if parties commit to only discussing difficult topics during certain times and/or in certain places (which I refer to as creating a “container”), that may make it easier for people to prepare for those conversations and show up calm and ready to behave in conflict-competent ways. This can also alleviate parties’ fear of getting sideswiped by a challenging conversation when they aren’t in a good space to productively deal with it.

Much the same, ground rules can help parties be on their best behavior, thereby reducing the risk of people behaving in challenging ways and derailing conversations, which makes it easier for parties to engage openly and constructively.

One of the ways commitments reduce fear is by making clear what we can expect; this is helpful for our brains, which crave certainty and struggle with—and tend to get a little dysregulated by—ambiguity. 

Clear expectations are also helpful because, as leadership guru Ron Heifetz puts it, when reality does not meet expectations, we have a problem. Often the fact that expectations aren’t clear is, in and of itself, a source of conflict. Through making clear commitments, we signal what we and others can expect, which reduces ambiguity and the risk of unnecessary conflict.

We also create problems and conflict when we make commitments but do not fulfill them. For example, if an employee promises to do something by a certain time but does not do so, this will likely create a conflict with their supervisor. Thus, not only are commitments important for productively dealing with conflict, so is actually adhering to them.

Which leads me to…

How do you effectively “do” commitments amid conflict?

Here are some nuggets of advice for how to effectively “do” commitments amid conflict:

  • Think about what commitments can help you and others feel more safe to openly and courageously engage in working through conflict productively.
      • For example: Do you need ground rules to help people communicate and engage with each other in open, honest, kind, and respectful ways? Or do you need a commitment from a certain party that they will or will not take certain kinds of action? 
  • If you are going to make commitments, commit to adhering to them. In other words, be thoughtful about what you can and cannot commit to, and do not make frivolous commitments.
      • For example: Do not promise someone confidentiality if you cannot provide it; do not promise to address someone’s concerns if you are not sure you can; and do not commit to be somewhere at a particular time if you cannot ensure you will be there.  
  • If you have made commitments that are no longer working for you and/or others or are no longer things you can adhere to, name and claim the fact the commitment is not working, explain why (with a focus on interests), and work with involved parties to revisit and revise the commitment in a way that meets everyone’s needs to the greatest extent possible.
    • For example: Let’s imagine you are a parent and have committed to doing the neighborhood school drop-off for a few families on Friday mornings. This previously worked well for you, but your favorite exercise class got moved to Friday mornings. Instead of just saying “Sorry, fellow parents, I can no longer do Friday morning drop-off” or telling yourself “Dang, I guess I’ll have to miss my favorite class,” you can let everyone know that there is something important to you that you’d like to attend on Friday mornings, you are hoping you can find someone else to do the drop-off, and you are open to exploring options for how to make this work for everyone.
  • If you fail to live up to a commitment, own it, understand and validate how that impacted you and others, and then work with whoever was negatively impacted to co-create solutions that work for everyone involved. Often, when we fail to meet our commitments, we feel shame (consciously or unconsciously) and thus default to defend and attack behaviors. This doesn’t make the situation better; instead, it often leads to a downward spiral of unproductive conflict. The best way forward is to take responsibility for failing to meet your commitment and to commit to making it better.
    • For example: Imagine you commit to going to your daughter’s soccer game and then end up missing most of it because an important work meeting went late, and your daughter is very upset. You had a legitimate reason for missing the game—and your daughter has a legitimate reason for being upset. You could avoid the situation (just don’t talk about it or pretend it didn’t happen), take an accommodating or appeasing approach (“I am so sorry! How about I take you out to ice cream to make up for it”), or get defensive (“Sometimes I have to stay late at work—that’s how I pay for soccer!”), none of which is likely to really make the situation better. Instead, I suggest you own the fact that you made a commitment that was important to you, but you were not able to live up to it (“I am so sorry. Watching your soccer games is a highlight of my week. We had a meltdown at work, and if I hadn’t absolutely had to be there, I would have been at your game.”); work to understand and then validate how it impacted your daughter (“I can see you’re really bummed I wasn’t there. I’m bummed, too. Will you tell me a bit more about how you’re feeling so we can figure out how to make things better?”), and then to work with her to explore ways to address her concerns (“I hear it is really important to you that I’m at your soccer games because it shows you how important you are to me. I cannot 100% ensure I’ll be at every soccer game in the future, since things like this might come up again. Is there some other way I can show you how important you are to me?”)
  • Commit to taking care of your own needs. One final, and very important, piece of advice related to commitments is to commit to having your own back and protecting your interests, including by setting boundaries. Boundaries are not retributive or directed at the other person; they are simply what we commit to doing in order to take care of our needs.
    • For example: If you feel a coworker is treating you disrespectfully and you have tried to resolve it but it keeps happening, you can let them know that if the behavior doesn’t change, you are going to need to notify a supervisor about the issue, and then you need to act on that if the problem doesn’t get resolved. A kind but firm way to communicate this boundary might sound something like “I’ve mentioned to you a few times that there are words you use that are offensive to me and many other people in the office. I’m guessing you don’t mean to keep using them, but if you continue to do so, I am going to talk to our supervisor about this. This isn’t personal; I just want to make sure this office environment is a welcoming space for me and everyone else here.”

Commit to becoming skillful in making commitments

Whether or not we realize it, we all deal with conflict and we all make commitments on a daily basis. I encourage you to commit to becoming more mindful and skillful around the commitments you make so you can help to create a safe space and set the stage for making conflict productive.

Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardiganDanya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at