As you read through these approaches, cut yourself a little slack because you may find out some things about yourself, which are not comfortable, but still valuable and enlightening. Consider the view from the Italian mountain top pictured above. Perhaps, some self-reflection will give you the needed perspective to make the changes that will bring you more peace in your life.
As discussed previously, rather than fighting or fleeing, we have at least five general choices for how to respond to conflict in our lives. Relying upon the language and research of conflict specialists like Spangle & Isenhart and Thomas & Kilmann, our five general choices include:
Avoiding-One party denies there is a conflict, changes topics, or avoids discussion, and is noncommittal.
Accommodating-One party sacrifices its interests and concerns while enabling others to achieve their interests.
Compromising-Through concessions by all parties, each party settles for partial satisfaction of their interests.
Competing -One party is aggressive, self-focused, forcing, verbally assertive, and uncooperative to satisfy his or her own interests at the expense of the interests of others (win-lose orientation).
Collaborating-Parties use active listening and issue-focused, empathic communication to satisfy the interests and concerns of all parties (win-win orientation).
Today, we will review the pros and cons of each of the five conflict approaches to better understand how each type of response may help or hinder us from reaching our communication and relational goals with others. In addition, we will explore the ideal situations and conditions for applying each conflict approach.
Throughout this post, I will pose questions that may help you better understand how you are currently using each of the five conflict approaches in your personal and professional lives. Hopefully, these questions will also provide insight into how you can improve and expand your conflict management choices.
Avoiding may us help the maintain status quo or a sense of balance with ourselves and others. This approach may help us preserve personal and other-focused face-saving needs in tense or socially-awkward situations. In addition, avoiding may serve to release tension in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. This approach also allows us to reflect before responding to a tense or otherwise undesirable situation when we are unsure of how to respond effectively.
Pros: With avoidance, we may reduce the risk of physical or mental abuse and decrease our immediate stress regarding issues that are either out of control or that we don’t consider important.
Cons: If we regularly avoid important issues in our close relationships, we may fail to secure intimacy and unity with important others. Avoidance may also isolate us from others rather than provide the stability and social connection we may be seeking.
Ideal Conditions: Avoidance is most useful when (1) we are involved in a potentially dangerous situation involving physical violence (2) the issue is not important to us, (3) there is no chance of achieving our goals, or (4) the complexity of the situation prevents solutions.
- When do I avoid conflict?
- How does avoidance usually work for me?
- In what situations, could my use of avoidance be preventing me from reaching my goals?
- In what situations, would avoidance help me reach (or protect) my goals or interests?
We often use the accommodating approach to avoid confrontation or to maintain harmony in an awkward or potentially volatile social situation. Accommodating serves to enhance our appearance of being generous, which is a socially acceptable trait. This approach may also help us preserve face saving needs for ourselves and others. Finally, accommodating may serve as a sign of deference to an authority or to the position of another party.
Pros: With accommodation, we seek to maintain a sense of harmony with others. This approach also helps to confirm to others our identity as a generous, caring person who is concerned about others. Accommodation may be considered mandatory in certain social settings, so social rewards may be based on using this approach.
Cons: Accommodation may not reflect our true personal desires so we might fail to satisfy our individual needs. This approach may alienate us from important others if we do not balance seeking to satisfy both personal and cooperative needs and goals.
Ideal Conditions: This approach is effective (1) in situations in which there is not much chance of achieving our own interests, (2) when the outcomes are not important, or (3) when there is a belief that satisfying our own interests will in some way alter or damage the relationship.
- When do I accommodate others in conflict?
- What kinds of outcomes do I expect with accommodation?
- What kinds of outcomes do I usually receive when I accommodate?
- Are there situations in my life where I am accommodating too much or too little? If so, what approach would be more effective?
Compromising may help us to settle a conflict quickly in a socially acceptable way. Compromise may also help us avoid a tricky or overly tense situation with some form of “let’s split the difference.” This approach also helps provide the appearance of fairness among disputing parties and sets a precedent for future conflicts regarding similar situations. Finally, compromise may help demonstrate a person’s self-confidence while still respecting others’ goals and interests.
Imagine that two parties are trying to decide what to do with an orange. One wants the peel to grate for orange zest, and the other person wants the fruit inside to eat. As a compromise, the parties may just take a knife and split the orange in two, providing each party with half of what they had originally wanted: either all the peel or all the orange pieces inside.
Despite its popularity and ease of use, compromise may not always get us what we want. Ultimately, with compromise, we may both lose in a sense by only securing half of the peel and half of the orange slices. It is important to remember that compromise may sometimes be a “lose-lose” method in our personal or professional lives. We may overuse compromise in trying to settle all kinds of disputes over fairness and privileges that may sometimes warrant another approach, especially collaboration.
Pros: Compromise is generally considered a fast, efficient, and culturally acceptable way of dealing with conflict. This approach is easily understood and applied by others in Western culture.
Cons: Each party in a conflict must give up something to resolve the conflict (lose-lose, in that sense). Compromise may not provide us with what we desire—perhaps, only part of what we want. This approach may reflect an inability to connect on a deeper level over difficult issues, masking greater issues that need true resolution.
Ideal Conditions: This approach is effective in situations that (1) require quick resolution of issues, (2) when parties opposing us resist collaboration, (3) when complete achievement of our goals is not important, or (4) when there will be no hard feelings between us for settling for less than expected.
- When am I most likely to compromise?
- How do I feel about the compromises I make?
- Would I change anything about what I compromise about or with whom I compromise?
- What situations in my life seem most appropriate for compromise?
When competing, we actively seek to reach our own personal goals despite what others may want. Often, with a competitive approach, we demonstrate our power and/or abilities to achieve our personal goals. Likewise, we may set a tone for domination or authority to establish hierarchy. At times, we may try to instill fear in the other party to preserve stability and harmony in current and future social situations.
Pros: With competition, we might get what we want quickly if we don’t care about other people’s feelings. This approach may help us establish dominance in a social setting.
Cons: If we use a competitive approach too regularly with important others, this may result in resentment and defiance. When we use force to realize our personal goals, we may permanently damage a working or more intimate relationship.
Ideal Conditions: This style is effective in situations in which (1) we need to make decisions quickly, (2) our options are restricted, (3) there is nothing to lose by pushing, (4) other parties resist cooperation, and (5) there is no concern about potential damage to the relationship.
- When do I compete with others to resolve conflict?
- What has been my experience with using competition to resolve conflict?
- In what areas of my life could I benefit from using a competitive approach to conflict?
- In what situations in my life am I competing when I should probably be using another approach?
When we collaborate, we are demonstrating our commitment to a relationship. Collaboration tends to build trust and conveys empathy and a willingness to listen while maintaining interest in both personal and other-focused goals. Generally, collaboration represents a more balanced approach rather than giving in or demanding that the other party give in to our wishes.
Pros: Collaborative approaches help us to build relationships with important others, and may result in win-win outcomes. Collaboration tends to help us balance power differentials to demonstrate respect and appreciation for each party’s value. This approach may expand our creativity and imagination, and often results in innovative solutions.
Cons: Collaborating is usually more time-consuming and not always worth the effort on insignificant issues. To be effective in collaborating, we need trust and a certain level of communication skill (active listening, reframing, constructive questioning). This approach demands the engagement of both parties, so we must have mutual interest in spending the time and effort required for collaboration.
Ideal Conditions: Collaborating tends to be effective in situations in which (1) power is reasonably balanced, (2) we value the long-term relationship, (3) both parties display cooperative behaviors, (4) and there is sufficient time and energy to create an integrative solution that will satisfy both parties.
- When do I collaborate with others to resolve conflict?
- What have been my experiences with collaborating?
- How effective do I feel with collaborating?
- Who do I collaborate with well? Who do I have difficulty collaborating with? Why?
Given what you’ve learned about pros and cons and ideal conditions for the five conflict approaches, how would you deal with choices within the original potential conflict scenario from the last post?
I am late for work, and the traffic is horrible. Someone cuts me off; I feel like swearing and showing them who’s boss, but I don’t’ want to miss my exit. I know that I should have left earlier, but I slept in that extra ten minutes then had to fix my daughter’s bike before I headed out the door—why didn’t she bring it up last night when I had time? Then my wife wanted me to let her know if I would be going to the kids concert that night. I just said we’d talk about it later—I couldn’t deal with that before I left. I could tell she was annoyed by my avoiding a direct answer, but I had to just get out the door.
When I get to my office, I’m already in an irritated mood, wondering how I’m going to get the board presentation ready in time for tomorrow. During my commute, my co-worker has texted me about a spontaneous budget meeting planned for today. I check my office messages and realize that I’ve forgotten to follow up with a smaller, but still important customer. Should I call now, a little later, or just hold off until after my budget and management meetings? I am already stressed before my day has really begun. I’ve mostly chosen to ignore the potential conflicts, but wonder how to respond to these different demands and potential conflicts in a helpful way.
In the weeks to come, we will apply these five approaches to other potential or full-blown conflict situations to see how the approaches work in different conflict settings. In the meantime, consider some self-reflection to better understand your current choices and how you would like to expand and/or modify your personal conflict framework. At heart, you have more choice and flexibility in conflict management than you may initially think.