Managing Conflict

1. Understand your typical reaction in a conflict situation

Conflict situations are those situations in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible.

In such situations, we can describe an individual’s behaviour along two basic dimensions (according to the Thomas Kilman instrument): assertiveness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy his own concerns and cooperativeness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns.
These two basic dimensions of behaviour define five different modes for responding to conflict situations:

Competing is assertive and uncooperative—an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your position in the organsation etc. Competing means “standing up for your rights,” defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his/her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative—the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. The person does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

Understanding how you typically react to conflict is the first step to developing a more effective approach.

Which of these of these strategies do you use? When?

2. Think of conflict as a good thing

What is your view of conflict? If you think of other words that you associate with conflict do they tend to be positive or negative? What does this say about your usual conflict managment strategies?

Conflict used to be considered a bad thing in teams and organisations, something that should be resolved or avoided. The latest thinking is the complete opposite. Just as a certain amount of pressure is vital to push up performance so is a certain amount of conflict and challenge. High performing teams always go through “forming, storming, norming and performing” stages and without the storming (or conflict) stage they would not hit their peak and fully engage everyone in the team.
The most creative and satifying working environments have contradictory values, perspectives and opinions – this is what diversity is all about – and managing these conflicts in a proactive and collaborative way is a key tool for getting people to fully commit, focus on the right things and perform to their potential.
Conflict usually occurs when you feel that your values and perspectives are threatened by someone else, a team or an organisation or when you find yourself operating in a way that does not fit with who you are.

We usually find ourselves conflicted several times a day, if we are honest, and these conflicts can help us to challenge ourselves and evolve who we are.

3. Stay centred and grounded

Conflict often causes an emotional response which can knock us off balance. We can find ourselves in the grip of our emotions and our rational, composed self is not available to us.

If we can centre and ground ourselves we are much more able to function effectively and reamain calm and assertive.

Deep diaphramatic breathing is a great way to stay calm – try taking two or three deep diaphramatic breaths right now and notice the difference.

To ground and centre yourself try this …

…sit down on a chair with both feet flat on the floor. Feel the weight of your bottom on the chair. Relax into the chair and notice how heavy and solid you become. Now feel your feet on the ground, feel the balls of your feet touching the ground and where your heals touch the ground. Now notice the feeling of your feet and your bottom together and how much more together and centred you feel.
When you do this grounding and centring exercise you will also find that your thinking is much clearer and that you seem to have more time to think.

4. Take responsibility for your actions and emotions

Conflict only becomes a problem when we manage it badly and then it can hamper productivity, lower morale, causes more and continued conflicts, result inappropriate behaviours and make us feel miserable.

If we choose to we can deal with all conflict in a balanced and measured way focusing on the issue and not the person.

Take the time to notice why something is irritating you and take responsibility for it.
What values, perspectives or opinions are you finding it hard to deal with? What outcome do you want from this situation? What is the best way to achieve this?

This may involve you stepping away from the situation to give yourself some reflection time before you make the decision to speak up in a calm and assertive way.

If you have a particular person that you are in conflict with, you may find it useful to create a specific plan of action. First, write down what physiological responses you have when you know you are in conflict (e.g., my palms are sweaty, my heart is racing). Second, write down what thoughts you typically have when in a conflict (e.g., “I want to hurt him”; “I want to just get away from her”). Finally, list the steps that you can follow to help you manage your thoughts and emotions in a productive way to manage/solve your conflict (e.g., 1. I will take a deep breath; 2. I will think about how I want to respond, etc.).

5. Experiment with different approaches

There is no single conflict managment approach that will work all the time as all situations and people are different. So try flexing your style and experimenting with different approaches. If you know that you are typically very assertive then try experimenting with the skills that are more cooperative – if you are typically cooperative try exploring more assertive skills.

The competing mode is useful when quick action needs to be taken, when unpopular decisions need to be made, when vital issues must be handled, or when one is protecting self-interests.

Competing Skills: arguing or debating, using positive or influence, asserting your opinions and feelings, standing your ground, stating your position clearly

Often people will avoid conflicts out of fear of engaging in a conflict or because they do not have confidence in their conflict management skills. Times when the avoiding mode is appropriate are when you have issues of low importance, to reduce tensions, to buy some time, or when you are in a position of lower power.
Avoiding Skills: ability to withdraw, ability to sidestep issues, ability to leave things unresolved, sense of timing

The accommodating mode is useful to show reasonableness, develop performance, create good will, or keep peace. Some people also use the accommodating mode when the issue or outcome is of low importance to them. The accommodating mode can be problematic when one uses it to keep score or be a martyr. For example, if you keep a list of the number of times you have accommodated someone and then you expect that person to realise, without your communicating to the person, that she/he should now accommodate you.

Accommodating Skills: forgetting your desires, selflessness, ability to yield, obeying orders

The compromising mode can be seen as “giving up more than you want,” while others see compromise as both parties winning. The compromising mode is appropriate are when you are dealing with issues of moderate importance, when you have equal power status, or when you have a strong commitment for resolution. Compromising mode can also be used as a temporary solution when there are time constraints.

Compromising Skills: negotiating, finding a middle ground, assessing value, making concessions

Collaboration can be described as “putting an idea on top of an idea on top of an idea…in order to achieve the best solution to a conflict.” The best solution is defined as a creative solution to the conflict that would not have been generated by a single individual. With such a positive outcome for collaboration, some people will profess that the collaboration mode is always the best conflict mode to use. However, collaborating takes a great deal of time and energy. Therefore, the collaborating mode should be used when the conflict warrants the time and energy. For example, if your team is establishing initial parameters for how to work effectively together, then using the collaborating mode could be quite useful. On the other hand, if your team is in conflict about where to go to lunch today, the time and energy necessary to collaboratively resolve the conflict is probably not beneficial.
Times when the collaborative mode is appropriate are when the conflict is important to the people who are constructing an integrative solution, when the issues are too important to compromise, when merging perspectives, when gaining commitment, when improving relationships, or when learning.

Collaboration Skills: active listening, nonthreatening confrontation, identifying concerns, analysing input