Friday, May 6, 2016

Conflict Management Styles: How Do You Handle Disagreements?

As my last post was about the misunderstanding that surrounds the word "conflict," I thought I would round things out with a brief look at conflict management. I'm sure that many people understand that conflict management is the way in which an individual handles interpersonal conflict. In fact, I rarely come across anyone who misuses the term "conflict management" itself. Yet, there is a little confusion about the meaning of a couple of the typical styles of conflict management.

[Note: The majority of the following information on conflict management styles is based on Jay Hall's Conflict Management Survey: A Survey of One's Characteristic Reaction to and Handling of Conflict Between Himself and Others (The Woodlands, Texas: Telemetrics International 1969).]

Let's look at two dimensions of conflict management: 1) your concern for your own personal goals (concern for self); 2) your concern for others and/or the relationship you have with the other party with whom you have the disagreement (concern for others). We can rate a person's interest as high, moderate, or low on each of these dimensions, resulting in five basic conflict management styles.

  • Avoiding: low concern for self, low concern for others. An avoider either does not really care about the conflict and its outcome, or they do not care about the the relationship they have with the person with whom they have the conflict. When the avoider is in a lower position than the other person, the withdrawal from the conflict usually indicates fear of upsetting the individual. When the avoider is in a higher position, the withdrawal prevents the other person from being able to air their concerns. In either instance, avoidance tends to breed frustration and resentment and the conflict is very rarely resolved without some sort of emotional explosion involved. There are times, however, when avoiding a conflict may be the wisest course of action, especially when dealing with a very stubborn individual and/or when the conflict itself does not merit too much investment of time or effort because it is truly a minor disagreement.
  • Accommodating: low concern for self, high concern for others. The accommodator has a tendency to give priority to the needs and wishes of the other party. One of the downsides of accommodating, however, is that it does not foster creative thinking and effective solutions to an issue at hand. By bowing to the wishes of another, an accommodator may be short-changing themselves and their ability to effectively solve problems. In addition, the other person may be blinded by their own ideas to the solution to the disagreement, which they take to be wholly valid because no one is arguing with them, that they may miss some crucial data that would help them make a better decision. Resentment and a feeling of martyrdom may arise in the accommodator if this conflict management style is used to excess. This technique is fine, though, when the accommodator truly has not strong preferences as to the resolution or if they truly believe the other person is correct.
  • Compromising: moderate concern for self, moderate concern for others. This is the conflict management style term that has a tendency to be misused. Many individuals believe that a compromise is the win-win scenario. True, it does tend to represent a middle ground in which the needs and desires of both parties are taken into consideration. However, the resolution to the conflict results in a win/lose-win/lose scenario. In order for both parties to win something, they must also be willing to lose or concede something else to the other person. Both parties walk away with some measure of contribution to the solution to their conflict, but at an ego price that may be small or large, depending upon how far they were willing to go toward satisfying the other person. While compromise is a better solution than either one individual winning at the complete expense of another, there is still a more beneficial conflict management style that allows both parties to save face.
  • Competing: high concern for self, low concern for others. This is another term that sometimes gets thrown around a lot in many different contexts. In the realm of conflict management, there is nothing friendly about a competitor. Like accommodating, competing stifles the generation of creative solutions to the interpersonal conflict. This style has a tendency to lead to tension, resentment, and hostility between parties and these feelings may also leach out toward others in the environment. A person's need to always "win" an argument turns people away from engaging in what would otherwise have been fruitful conversations because no other ideas are allowed to be discussed. The competing conflict management style may prove beneficial in an instance in which the individual truly is the intellectual authority on a subject and the other parties involved have no real idea as to viable solutions. This style is also typically used when the relationship between the disagreeing parties is not vital or important and/or the necessity to accomplish a specific goal outweighs personal feelings.
  • Collaborating: high concern for self, high concern for others. This final conflict management style is the true win-win scenario. In this instance, both parties work toward a solution to their conflict that is satisfying to everyone involved. Users of this style tend to view conflict as a mutual problem to be solved and they encourage openness and honesty with each other so that a mutually beneficial resolution can be reached. Ideas may be criticized as the parties seek to find a maximally, and mutually, satisfying solution, but the persons involved are not criticized. Collaboration is the ideal method of conflict resolution. However, it is not used quite as often as compromising in part because it is difficult for individuals to set aside personal differences when involved in an interpersonal conflict. For this method to work, both parties have to concentrate on the empirical problem at hand, leaving out their personal feelings and egos. This style is also most likely to occur when the relationship between the arguing individuals is built on mutual trust.
For those of you who are visual, here is a chart that helps to summarize these five conflict management styles.

All individuals have a preferred conflict management style. For example, I admittedly lean toward the avoider style because I don't particularly like arguments, especially ones involving very stubborn individuals. However, I do strive toward a win-win or compromise scenario if 1) I see that the other person is willing to bend, 2) the issue is very important to me, and/or 3) I recognize that not standing up for myself could lead to being bulldozed down the line. A successful conflict management strategist recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each style, reads the situation and the other party effectively, understands their own strengths and weaknesses, recognizes and understands their own preferred conflict management style, and knows when a particular style would be more successful to finding the best solution to the problem at hand.

On a side note, I find it a fascinating exercise to try to identify the conflict management styles of politicians, especially during an election year.