Conflict Handling Styles
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Many tools are available to help individuals be aware of the way they act in conflict. For peacebuilding, knowing how you react to conflict and communicating with people is very important. Here we focus on the “Personal Conflict Style Inventory” developed by Ron Kraybill and Mennonite Conciliation Services (1987). This is a brief questionnaire that uses the five conflict styles identified in the Thomas-Kilmann instrument http://web.mit.edu/collaboration/mainsite/modules/module1/1.11.5.html – accommodation, compromise, competition, avoidance and collaboration – and expands the focus to examine how you react to conflicts when they first arise, and how you respond after the conflicts become more intense.
Note that these categories emerged within a western cultural context and do not necessarily translate to other cultures. For example, collaborating is often referred to as cooperating. In some Arab cultures, collaboration can have a very negative connotation with “selling out” to an enemy. When using these instruments, make sure you check with individuals from the various cultural backgrounds of your participants about these terms before using the instruments.
People who accommodate are unassertive and very cooperative. They neglect their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of others. They often give in during a conflict and acknowledge they made a mistake or decide it is no big deal. Accommodating is the opposite style of competing. People who accommodate may be selflessly generous or charitable, and they may also obey another person when they would prefer not to, or yield to another’s point of view. Usually people who accommodate put relationships first, ignore the issues and try to keep peace at any price.
Competing or forcing
People who approach conflict in a competitive way assert themselves and do not cooperate as they pursue their own concerns at other people’s expense. To compete, people take a power orientation and use whatever power seems appropriate to win. This may include arguing, pulling rank or instigating economic sanctions. Competing may mean standing up and defending a position believed to be correct, or simply trying to win. Forcing is another way of viewing competition. For people using a forcing style, usually the conflict is obvious, and some people are right and others are wrong.
People who avoid conflict are generally unassertive and uncooperative. They do not immediately pursue their own concerns or those of the other person, but rather they avoid the conflict entirely or delay their response. To do so, they may diplomatically sidestep or postpone discussion until a better time, withdraw from the threatening situation or divert attention. They perceive conflict as hopeless and therefore something to be avoided. Differences are overlooked and they accept disagreement.
Collaborating or cooperating
Unlike avoiders, collaborators are both assertive and cooperative. They assert their own views while also listening to other views and welcome differences. They attempt to work with others to find solutions that fully satisfy the concerns of both parties. This approach involves identifying the concerns that underlie the conflict by exploring the disagreement from both sides of the conflict, learning from each other’s insights and creatively coming up with solutions that address the concerns of both. People using this style often recognise there are tensions in relationships and contrasting viewpoints, but want to work through conflicts.
Compromisers are moderately assertive and moderately cooperative. They try to find fast, mutually acceptable solutions to conflicts that partially satisfy both parties. Compromisers give up less than accommodators, but more than competitors. They explore issues more than avoiders, but less than collaborators. Their solutions often involve “splitting the difference” or exchanging concessions. Conflict is mutual difference best resolved by cooperation and compromise.
These five conflict styles can be put together on a grid with two dimensions: (1) degree of concern for the relationship between the parties in conflict; and (2) degree of concern for the conflict issues (see the figure below, adapted from Blake, R., and Jane S. Mouton, “Intergroup problem solving in organizations: from theory to practice,” in The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, Montery, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1979). A high degree of concern for the relationship and the issue typically yields a collaborating or cooperative conflict style. A high concern for the relationship and low concern for the issue usually generate an accommodating conflict style, while a high concern for the issue and low concern for the relationship lead to a competitive or forcing conflict style. A moderate degree of concern for the relationship and the issue will generally produce a compromising conflict style. Finally, a low concern for both the issue and relationship will typically yield an avoiding style.
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The activity “Personal Conflict Style Inventory” identifies your preferred style of handling conflict. This does not mean that you do not use other styles in some of your interactions. In fact, each style is appropriate in different situations. For example, if a child is in danger of touching a hot object or running into the street, you will use a competing style to prevent the child from being harmed. We each need to develop competency in all of the five styles.
Source: Fast, L., Neufeldt, R., et al., Media:Peacebuilding - A Caritas Training Manual, Vatican City: Caritas Internationalis, 2002.