How do you manage during a conflict? What is your first
reaction to a confrontation? The answer to these questions points
to your style of managing conflict. Everyone has a style, whether
a conscious approach or an unconscious reaction. The way you respond
to a conflict defines your style. Some people are able to vary their
approach, that is change their style, depending on the situation or the
people involved. But for the most part, most people use one style
in most situations. The following list presents one way of categorizing
the different conflict management styles:
- The Avoider
- The Accommodator
- The Compromiser
- The Competitor
- The Collaborator
For the most part, collaborating is an approach that works best
in most situations. Collaborating is not the quickest way to resolve
a conflict. It tends to take longer than other styles but handles
a wider variety of situations with better results. Nevertheless,
there are specific situations when another approach may in fact yield the
best results. Let us examine each one to understand the approach
and when it would be appropriate or inappropriate to use it.
The AvoiderThe Avoider style of managing conflict is the least likely to be thought
of as a style at all. It involves running away from the problem at
hand. It may also occur when a problem is ignored. An individual
may use the Avoider style due to outright fear of the problem, intimidation
because of the people involved, or overwhelmed by so many other concerns
that this problem has to wait. I remember Carol Burnett and Harvey
Korman in a skit where Harvey comes home to his “wife”, Carol Burnett.
She seems to be rather quiet so he asks, “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,”
she says. The rest of the skit revolves around the wife saying “Nothing!”
when something is obviously wrong. She is using the Avoider style
in this conflict.
Avoidance can take several forms. The person may physically withdraw
from the problem situation. The person may choose to simply not respond
or participate when the problem comes up. Avoidance can then be an
overt action or a covert reaction. In a facilitated session I once
led, one of the members sitting around the table spun his chair around
and moved away with his back to the group during a persistent conflict.
Though I tried to ignore it for a few moments, I eventually had to confront
his overt withdrawal from the session. The result of one using the
Avoider style is mainly confusion. No one understands why the Avoider
will not deal with the problem. The Avoider cannot understand the
problem or the position of other sides. The problem will certainly
continue and most likely get worse when one practices the Avoider style.
This style has a low emphasis on relationships and a low priority on resolving
the problem. So the results of this style are rarely desirable.
There are many uses of the Avoider style. In the case of the facilitated
session, the individual used avoidance to call attention to his pain or
frustration. Other possible uses of avoidance would be as a reaction
to a perceived no-win scenario, as a defensive reaction in cases of physical
threats, as a short-term strategy to regroup, or as a “time-out” maneuver
needed to rest, recoup, or gather more information. In any outcome,
the conflict really cannot be resolved through the Avoider style -- only
The AccommodatorThe Accommodator seeks to preserve the relationship at the expense of dealing
with the problem itself. A hen-pecked husband is a good example of
this. Whatever may happen, the response from the husband is always
“Yes, dear.” An accommodator might appear to be a good problem-solver
since problems are disposed of quickly. The truth is that the accommodator
tries to avoid solving the problem in favor of placating the other party.
In fact, when forced to deal with the problem, the accommodator takes whatever
steps are dictated by the other party. It is an absolute denial of
any personal needs in favor of meeting the other party’s desires.
The unfortunate result of this style is that problems will continue
or grow worse. Or new problems may surface as the accommodator caves
in to any demand. Consider a husband who consistently buys things
on credit to make his wife feel “happy.” He denies any need for financial
liquidity, stability or accountability because his wife wants things to
make her feel good. There are serious problems in this relationship,
not to mention the financial problems, that are being ignored because of
the husband’s accommodation rather than confrontation. The accommodator
will realize no respect from other parties. Curiously, in his zeal
for acceptance through accommodation, the accommodator may actually worsen
the relationship he so desperately wants to preserve.
This style might be appropriate in limited situations. If the
problem is really not of great importance but the relationship is, then
one might simply accommodate the other party. If the problem and
the relationship are inconsequential, then accommodation may be a time
saver. Also, accommodation may be the correct style to use when you
know you are wrong. Finally, the strain of confronting an issue can
be too much in certain situations. Consider a husband grieving over
the death of a parent. It would be wrong for his wife to confront
him at that time about leaving his underwear on the floor again.
The problem does not go away but the conflict is simply postponed for a
more appropriate time.
The CompromiserThe compromising style is used to try and address some of the needs expressed
by all parties. It has all the trappings of a “win-win” situation.
Unfortunately, compromise makes everyone win and lose something.
It is like the ant colony that tries to settle a conflict on who gets the
first bite of the bread crumb that everyone claims. The compromising
ant decides to give everyone share of the crumb. After dividing it
into 50,000 pieces, everyone gets something. It is barely visible
and not satisfying to anyone. But, since all of them got a bite,
no one can rightly complain about it. A mother settles a quarrel
with two toddlers over who gets to read the book first by taking the book
away entirely. The problem is resolved to be sure. But no one
is happy with the result. Many times, compromise is used by parties
too lazy to collaborate on problem resolution or too fearful that no resolution
Compromise is a half-hearted attempt at collaboration. As such,
it results in half-hearted commitment to the solution by all parties.
Relationships are strained by what is perceived to be a lack of concern
for the respective needs -- even though their needs may have been partially
met. The halls of congress provide numerous examples of compromise
to reach a solution that pleases no one but everyone lives with it.
This style could be used in situations where no resolution is worse
than a partial gain. Companies negotiating with unions typically
find it advantageous to advance their position two steps forward and one
back rather than continue in their current processes. Time may also
limit the ability of two parties to obtain a collaborative agreement.
But compromise should never be used when the goal is indivisible.
Likewise, when a severe power imbalance exists, compromise may be just
another word for demand.
Compromise in the church is viewed with suspicion at best. Why
should anyone compromise when the Bible is crystal clear on the issue?
In fact, a Christian should not compromise on essential truths. Many
doctrines in the Bible, though, are either not essential for salvation
or unclear. Wide latitude in applying these doctrines should be granted.
As St. Augustine’s maxim states, “In the essentials, unity; in non-essentials,
liberty; in all things, charity.”
The CompetitorA competitor is the opposite of the accommodator. The competitor
desires to win the fight at all costs, even at the expense of the relationship.
Boxers typically snipe at one another just for fanfare or to get their
adrenaline going before the fight. When the sniping continues and
gets more and more personal, they may destroy whatever friendship may have
existed. Winning the fight was more important than retaining the
relationship. Consider a manager who gets a new idea but finds his
peers disagree about its benefits. Nevertheless, the manager continues
to push the idea on the rest of the company because it is a matter of pride
-- it is his idea. In the process of forcing an undesirable and unprofitable
idea on a somewhat captive audience, the boss ruins relationships with
his peers, hinders productivity, and very well wrecks the company’s future.
Competition can be healthy when it focuses on the issue and not on the
people involved. Two people can work through and settle a dispute
when they focus on facts, delineate the issues, and strive together for
a mutually agreeable solution. Even two teams may safely boast about
how they will demolish the other on the field but an outright brawl can
emerge when someone’s mother is brought into the discussion. Attacks
on people are common in the competitor style but never productive.
What occasions might arise where the competitor style may yield better
results than the collaborator? If the time is short for making a
decision, then this style might yield more timely results. The risk
is that the whole conflict may escalate out of control. Dr. Wise
presented an interesting thought on the competitor style -- it should be
used when you are sure beyond all reasonable doubt that you are right.1
More specifically, when the issue is critical and the right decision is
unpopular, the competitor style may be one of necessity rather than choice.
Emergencies also demand a competitor style as evidenced by a sergeant on
the battlefield trying to save his platoon. No matter what his men
say he barks out commands to get them moving. In normal situations,
the competitor style ought to be used infrequently and only after other
methods have failed.
The CollaboratorThe collaborator style involves getting all parties together to resolve
the conflict such that each party is satisfied with the result. In
this style, everyone has a voice, goals of each party are clearly heard,
and relationships are preserved, possibly even strengthened, through the
conflict. A relatively recent development in American businesses
is the quality movement. Modeled after Edward Deming’s management
approach, it seeks to involve workers at all levels in the company in defining
efficient business processes. Quality action teams are formed whenever
a problem needs to be solved. Each team is led by a facilitator who
keeps the group focused on problem resolution. This cross-departmental
approach to problem resolution can be an effective way to define new processes
or fix broken ones with a high degree of consensus at implementation time.
This is a good example of the collaborative style of managing conflicts.
The collaborative style takes time to plan and execute. It requires
that the parties stay focused on one another’s respective goals and interests.
The parties must be kept from attacking each other personally. Progress
must be highlighted to the group to encourage them to continue. Collaboration
requires a heavy investment of thought and time. Success in the collaborative
approach will yield a group of people who are willing to implement the
agreement, who are closer to one another than before, and whose goals have
each been met.
Of all the styles, collaboration is the one which will consistently
yield the best results. It should be used in most conflict situations.
When the issues and the relationships are very important, collaboration
is mandatory. When the various parties are willing to invest the
time, collaboration is possible. When choices are available, collaboration
can be an effective approach to choosing a solution. On the other
hand, a situation where emotions are driving the conflict, collaboration
may not be the best first choice. People cannot deal rationally with
a problem when their emotions get in the way. I attempted to facilitate
several groups focused on the process of supporting network operations.
The near “blood-rivalry” between two of the groups kept each meeting locked
in a series of personal showdowns. So collaboration is not always
possible though it is usually desirable.
Each of us uses a particular style in dealing with conflict. Even
when presented with other options in managing conflict, the tendency is
to lapse back into a single style. People tend to use the style with
which they are most familiar or comfortable. It is also very hard
to put the knowledge of different styles into practice. People in
the real world do not often play by the rules. Neither do they respond
in consistent ways. Conflict management is hard no matter what the
style. But with the right planning and approach, managing conflicts
successfully is possible.
- Wise, Terry Wise Dr. Managing Conflict. Trinity College and Seminary.
Course cassette 7.
Copyright 6/4/2001, Randy Lariscy.