“It’s been a crazy day. Let’s go out for dinner, honey. We can go to the pizza joint around the corner. “
“Well, eating out is a good idea, but that place has a carb heavy menu, so let’s go to the soup and salad place instead.”
“Um, it’s pricey, and it’s on the other side of town.”
Every day we work with others to manage conflicts—large or small. Organizational behaviorists have outlined five basic strategies for managing conflict: 1) Collaborating 2) Compromising 3) Accommodating 4) Competing and 5) Avoiding.
I noticed that each of these strategies takes a position on how much to take the other person’s view into account and how assertive to be during discussion. By poking around, I found a couple of diagrams that plot these strategies’ differences. On the one extreme, avoiding shows low regard for self, others and the process. Competing is the opposite extreme by showing the most assertion and self-interest.
People often have a favored style of managing conflict. When I first encountered this inventory, I could see that I kept picking up the same strategy. I am a Type A, oldest child, assertive, and highly verbal. Then I studied rhetoric in graduate school. Predictably, I primarily dealt with conflict by competing to win.
Meredith designed the program and makes assignments for the Relief Society birthday dinner without first asking other sisters for their input and without surveying their talents. She gets this event planned very quickly this way. However, some of the women put in half-hearted effort and others fail to contribute at all because they don’t feel invested in the process or valued by Meredith.
I’m not the only person with a favorite strategy. I know people who would rather accommodate. Or others side-step the issue or postpone the decision by avoiding. Most of us have a comfort zone with one or maybe two of these styles. Adopting a different style may be scary or awkward.
“Look, I took the time to ask for your input. Could you now just agree with my proposal? I’m trying to collaborate with you, but you aren’t cooperating by recognizing the superiority of my ideas!”
Adopting an unfamiliar strategy takes time and practice.
At first blush, collaboration and compromising seem ideal because they balance the views and needs of all parties and require everyone to be engaged in the process. However, these strategies are very time consuming, and they assume that all parties have equal expertise in the issue.
“Hey, let’s invite all six of our kids to help us decide where to eat. We could get out the white board and list everyone’s favorite choices then have all eight of us rank each restaurant on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 as the favored choice. Then the restaurant with the lowest point value wins. Heck, we could use this method for deciding what to eat for every meal at home, too. We can function as a pure democracy!”
In real life, asking all people to have full participation at every crossroad is not feasible—especially in a time-sensitive emergency such as a fire evacuation. Instead of crowning one of these strategies as ideal, We must make a judgment call about which one fits the context. If I mismatch the situation and the strategy, I could damage my own interests, damage the relationship, or sabotage the outcome.
Sam is allergic to dairy, but he agrees to split a mac-n-cheese dinner with his friend after school because he didn’t want to speak up. He accommodated his friend’s preferences. Now he’s up all night with stomach problems.
Even being accommodating can damage a relationship by allowing unexpressed concerns to fester. Or avoiding can end up producing an outcome that’s unacceptable to the passive participant.
David tells his wife that he doesn’t care how she redecorates the master bedroom. He doesn’t want to fight about it, and he doesn’t want to look over fabric swatches or paint samples. She chooses to decorate the bedroom in pastels. When an old college buddy announces his plans to visit, David starts yelling, worrying that he’ll look like a sissy if they give his friend a tour of the house.
In practice, the people involved must make a judgment on which of these five strategies fits the context. If I have presence of mind, I could ask myself this set of questions as I enter conflict with others: How much time do I want to spend resolving the conflict? How much emotional and intellectual energy do I want to invest? How committed am I to the people involved? How much do I care about the outcome?
Do you have a favored strategy? Have you tried to adopt a new way of responding to conflict? Do you have a victory or a misstep that you can share?