How Do You Handle Conflict?
There was once a time when people used to think that if couples or coworkers argued, there was something wrong with their relationship. This is not true, of course. We know that even in very good relationships, there are conflicts and ‘discussions’ at various times.
Problems arise only when conflict is intense, ongoing, hurtful, or unresolved. So, it is not so much conflict that is the problem, but how people deal with it that counts.
What do you do when frustrated with others? Do you try to get your own way? Do you simply give in to keep the peace? Or would you prefer to run a mile rather than have a difficult conversation?
Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict. They say that although we tend to gravitate to a preferred style, those who are best in dealing with conflict tend to select the right approach for the situation.
The five styles identified by Thomas and Kilmann are:
Competing: People who use this style tend to operate from a position of power – their position of authority, particular expertise, strong personality, verbal skills, or their physical size or strength.
They might also use power-oriented strategies – using evidence to support their position, getting others to side with them, or, at their worst, becoming upset, demanding, accusatory, or aggressive.
People who tend towards this style know what they want and are prepared to be assertive in getting it.
This style can be very functional when decisions need to be made quickly, such as in an urgent situation, when the decisions are unpopular, or when you need to be assertive with someone who is behaving in selfish ways.
However, this style can also strain relationships and breed resentment if used in less urgent situations. When overused, the recipients of such power-oriented interactions, leave others feeling disrespected and controlled.
I recall many couples I saw for counseling who were caught in entrenched conflict. Often, each party was trying to control their partner through blaming, complaining, criticizing, exploding or withdrawing. Although these behaviours are very human, they are also very hurtful to relationships.
Collaborating: This style of dealing with conflict tries to meet the needs of all involved. Everyone is seen as important and solutions are sought together on the premise that acceptable options exist that may have not yet been identified.
A collaborative style is useful when differing viewpoints exist, when there is a history of conflict but a desire to find a solution, or when the situation is too complex for a simple solution.
This style works best when there is not a serious power-imbalance in the relationship. Some power-imbalances can be corrected through the presence of a third party, such as a support person or skilled mediator.
Compromising: This style is similar to collaboration in that a solution is sought that meets the needs of all, but different in that everyone is expected to give up something.
Trades are used in this style where something is offered, but also something asked for in return. For example, “If I do …, will you …?” Of course, what is offered is not always accepted and other compromises need to be suggested.
This style is useful when the cost of what individuals are relinquishing is outweighed by the cost of continuing the conflict. It is also helpful when negotiating partners of equal power are at a standstill or when there is pressure to make a decision, such as when a looming deadline.
Accommodating: This style requires a person to put their needs and concerns on the backburner, while addressing the needs of others.
This style is useful when the issues are more important to the other party, when the relationship is more important than the issue at hand, you believe that the other party will reciprocate, or you wish to use this concession to call for a favour down the track.
However, people do not always reciprocate. Nor is it helpful for all the different types of conflicts that exist. And, if over-used, this style can leave one feeling not considered and disrespected.
Avoiding: This style is used when people would prefer to simply avoid conflict entirely. People who use this style tend to leave others to have the difficult conversations and tend to live with whatever others decide. I sometimes wonder how much avoidance is being used in relationships of couples who say they have never had any conflict.
However, this style can be appropriate when the conflict is unwinnable, the issue is trivial, someone else is better placed to address the situation, or it is important to avoid stress and upset. However, it is easy to see how avoiding all conflict can easily allow small issues to build.
So, how flexible and creative are you in how you respond to conflict? Do you find yourself consistently using the one style? Which is it for you?
Remember that each style has its strengths and weaknesses, so the more flexible you can be in finding the right style for the situation, the better.
I am very grateful to my wife, Christy, for those occasions she has simply decided to cut me some slack and get over a difference we have had. But, I am also grateful for those occasions, when she has managed a difficult conversation with grace and integrity, finding a solution that was acceptable for both of us.
Next time you are in conflict, think about which approach is going to be most helpful for your situation.
Ideally, we are aiming for an approach that is appropriate for the situation, achieves a good outcome, is respectful of everyone’s needs, and preserves important relationships.