Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

Understanding your conflict style is the first step to controlling conflict situations.

Understanding Your Conflict Style

By asking yourself key questions about your responses in conflict situations, you can learn more about your style of dealing with negative interpersonal situations. When you do this, you'll begin to identify your own patterns in conflict situations.

  1. Do you tend to avoid conflict, hoping to "keep the peace"?
  2. Do you accommodate?
  3. Compete?
  4. Or, do you, like many others feel that compromise is the way resolve things?
    (Surprisingly, this may not be the best way.)
  5. Do you actively collaborate?
Let's explore those further, examining together what you can do to improve each of these patterns.

Some have a tendency to deny, suppress, or "put aside" the differences. The avoidance style is born from the desire to preserve harmony and prevent upsetting negative interactions. This desire is an admirable one, if it can be done in such a way that real issues are addressed and not allowed to accumulate. If resentments grow, however, the individual will either gradually withdraw or will explode. Either way, the opposite of true harmony is the outcome.

If you tend to be a conflict avoider, learn to speak up respectfully about those things that bother you or about issues which can potentially affect the team's ability to accomplish its goals. You can increase your comfort with dealing with conflict by first giving an "empathy statement", letting the other person know you understand or want to understand how he/she sees and feels about the situation. Then practice the step-by-step problem solving model. Used correctly, this model is a tool for disagreeing without being disagreeable.

A "cousin" to the avoidance style is that of accommodation, yielding or subordinating one's own concerns to those of the other person. This style can grow out of the desire to avoid conflict, or it can be due to the person's belief that his or her rights, feelings, or desires are not as important as those of others.

It is admirable to care for others. However, that concern must be accompanied by a corresponding respect for one's own rights, opinions, and boundaries. The key principle, then, that offers the accommodator a chance to become more effective is balance. Ancient writings say, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It is this balance that will assist team members to function over time without burning out.

There are those who see each workplace conflict as an opportunity to "win." They go all out to win, often at the expense of others. ("Some gotta win, some gotta lose.") They show concern only for what they want. This competitiveness can take the form of either overt aggression (rudeness, loud voice, angry facial expressions) or move "passive" or covert aggression (innuendos, gossip, back-stabbing).

If you tend to view relationships as a contest, falling into the trap of power struggles that never quite end, I challenge you to look at the long-term results of this pattern. The truth is, "winning" is short-lived. Even when you succeed at putting someone else down, that person will typically look for and find ways to even the score.

If you are a person who tends to store anger and look for little ways to "pay back", recognize that this keeps you tied to the negative situation and robs you of energy and effectiveness. Rather than doing this, learn to confront issues directly, resolve them, and then refuse to hold grudges. After all, "hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of rats."

The only way to truly "win" is for everyone involved to leave the table feeling like winners, with each person's concerns having been heard and his/her basic needs met in the solution. Plan the interaction rationally, dealing with it after you have calmed down a little. Enter discussions with a determination to follow the wise advice of Steven Covey: "Seek first to understand, and then to be understood."

Compromise is typically conceived as a positive step in conflict resolution Compared with the negativity of some other ways of dealing with conflict, it is a step in the right direction. However, even this is not the best style. Compromise - identifying both sides and having each give up something and get something they want - still leaves the individuals with the task of "settling for half a loaf."

If you have typically used this "split the difference" strategy, I applaud you for your positive intentions. However, you can become even more effective by stretching farther to become a collaborator. Collaboration requires more time, more commitment, and more creativity - but it is do-able with practice.

When you collaborate, you work with the other person to mutually solve the problem in a way that recognizes and honors the goals of each. Be honest and direct, while being considerate.

Avoid stereotypical labels, name-calling, and emotionally charged words. Stick to the topic at hand, citing recent examples. Share responsibility for the solution. Describe the problem in objective terms. Actively listen for what the other person values, and work to help that person achieve those things as diligently as you try to get your own needs met. Adding collaboration to your repertoire of team skills will significantly enhance your effectiveness as a team leader or member.

Beverly Smallwood is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500, healthcare, and other organizations around the world for over 20 years. Her specialties are leadership development, employee retention, and personal resilience. She's often featured in such national media as MSNBC, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, FOX, and New York Times. To contact her about speaking, consulting, or coaching, call 877-CAN LEAD (226-5323) or visit her website Magnetic Places, where you can also sign up for her free email newsletter.

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