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, their experience, strong personality, verbal skills, or their volatility or physical size. People taking this approach are prepared to speak up. It doesn’t have to be in an argumentative or aggressive way. It can simply be letting people know their opinion and what they would like to see. However, at our worst, people can become upset, demanding, accusatory, or aggressive in an attempt to get what they want.
A manager, for example, might impose a decision on a team, particularly if it is a fait-a-compli change. This style can also 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, when over-used this style of leading can be very frustrating for colleagues, leaving many feeling disrespected and devalued.
I recall many couples I saw for counselling 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 belief that there are solutions 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, where people feel safe enough to speak up.
- 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 frustrated and not considered.
- 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. 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.
However, it can be quite dysfunctional if over-used. I sometimes wonder how many formal grievances in workplaces could have been more easily resolved if they had been worked through sooner.
So, how flexible and creative are you in how you respond to conflict? Are there one or two of these approaches you need to work on?
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.
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 achieves a good outcome, is respectful of everyone’s needs, and preserves important relationships.