What to Do in Conflict
by Carolyn Stilwell
Think about your last conflict. Did you get angry, yell, or cry? Or did you walk away and pretend it didn’t happen? Maybe you talked to the person you had a conflict with and came up with a solution to your conflict. How did your approach make you feel afterwards?
Each of us deals with conflict in our own way and as individuals and as a society we have a lot of ideas about what is the “right” or “wrong” way to deal with conflict. While there are pros and cons to any approach to conflict, none of them is “right” or “wrong” all the time. How we approach conflict has a big impact on the outcome and it’s important to think about how our approaches to our conflicts are influencing our outcomes. Most of the time we react without thinking about why we are reacting in a certain way.
Conflict resolution specialists often look to the five approaches to conflict outlined by Thomas-Killman: competition, avoidance, accommodation, compromise, and collaboration. Each of these has an element of assertiveness and cooperativeness.
Like conflict, they are neither good nor bad on their own and have their own pros and cons. Each should have a place in our lives when appropriate. As you read through the different approaches, think about which approach you tend to use the most. We all have one we are most comfortable with. Perhaps you use one more at home and another more at work or with friends. As we look through these, we will use the definition of conflict as Thomas and Killman defined it: anytime people have two opposing values or things that they care about, there is conflict.
Competition: Assertive and uncooperative. This is when a person stands their ground firmly and does not budge on having their needs met. Others in the conflict may not get their needs met as a result.
Pros: You may “win” or get your needs met. May be necessary in emergency situations or when safety is a concern. Competition is also an important element in games and adds an element of fun. Football would be no fun if the teams compromised on a score instead of competing. It can also be useful to spur innovation when scientists or engineers compete to come up with ideas.
Cons: With any competition, there is the possibility that you may “lose”. Others may feel bullied or pushed around. If used too often or if used in anger, it can alienate others.
Avoidance: Unassertive and uncooperative. When we use the avoidance approach, we don’t speak up for ourselves or others, and no one gets their needs met.
Pros: This is a perfectly valid approach to conflict when the concerns are small or unimportant or if we simply don’t have time to deal with it right now. You may decide not to make a big deal about a dish left in the sink or the fact that someone bumped into you accidentally on the sidewalk.
Cons: When you avoid important things, you may end up feeling hopeless or powerless. You and others may begin to feel frustrated because no one’s needs are being met if no one is doing anything to address the conflict.
Accommodation: Cooperative and unassertive. This is when you let the other person have their way. Your needs are not met and the other person’s needs/wants are met.
Pros: If you have less information about a situation this is a great approach. For example, if there is a fire in a building and a firefighter starts to tell you where to go and what to do, you are not going to begin arguing about what the best approach should be. This is a case where you would accommodate and follow expert advice, even if it seems scary or strange. Accommodation is also useful when the conflict in question is not a big deal to you or if it is obviously more important to the other person. For example you may decide to accommodate about what show to watch on TV or what color to paint a room.
Cons: No matter what, when you accommodate, your needs/wants are not being met. When used too much, that can lead to resentment or feeling like a doormat.
Compromise: Somewhat cooperative and somewhat assertive. This approach leaves everyone with a little bit of what they want but not everything.
Pros: Compromise can usually happen fairly quickly. It’s useful when you need a decision to be made quickly or when you don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the conflict but you also want to have at least some of your needs met. A simple example of this would be when you want two different toppings on a pizza. You may compromise and go half on one side and half on another, or decide to get one this time and another next time.
Cons: Everyone may feel unsatisfied. When this happens, compromise may not be a long term solution. It’s also not appropriate to compromise when someone’s safety is concerned or when your value/need is really important to you.
Collaboration: Cooperative and collaborative. In collaboration, everyone involved in the conflict takes the time to talk about what is important to them, understand what is important to everyone else, and come up with ways to meet everyone’s needs. Even though we use this word a lot in our society, it is often the least used approach. Many times when we say that we are “collaborating” we are actually “compromising”.
Pros: Everyone’s needs are met. Solutions that come from collaboration are often longer lasting and people are more likely to follow through with their end of the bargain.
Cons: Collaboration takes a long time. It also requires that we really listen to each other and that we want to help each other in meeting goals. If we are upset or feeling hurt, we may not be able to truly collaborate without outside help. Also, not every solution requires collaboration. It may make a simple conflict worse if we try to spend a long time talking about it.
The next time you are in a conflict, think about what your first impulse is. Is it competition (do you have to be right)? Is it avoidance (just ignore it)? Take a moment to think about whether the approach you are using is the right approach for this situation, and don’t be afraid to mix approaches. Sometimes we may avoid a conflict for a day or two until we calm down and then decide to collaborate or compromise. Or we may accommodate the first time and then decide to compromise next time. If you find that you always use one or another of these approaches, try to stretch your comfort zone and use a different approach when appropriate.
This column is the 4th in a series created by the Restorative Justice Committee of Chelsea's One World One Family organization. The series invites readers to reflect on individual and community challenges such as conflict and crime, and the approaches we take to meeting them.