We live daily with the unsettling possibility of conflict. We enter into conflicts reluctantly, cautiously, angrily, nervously, confidently—and emerge from them battered, exhausted, sad, satisfied, triumphant. And still many of us underestimate or overlook the merits of conflict—the opportunity conflict offers every time it occurs.
So I'm starting this discussion with two premises. First, conflict is normal. We may not like it, but it's part of life, and that's not going to change. Second, conflict isn't necessarily something to be avoided. In fact, it can prove highly productive. Conflict signals the presence of diverse points of view, which in struggle or reconciliation can spark creativity, nourish growth, jump-start productivity, and strengthen relationships. A life without conflict is probably less peaceful than bland.
Most of us experience abundant opportunities for conflict. From the breakfast table to the bedroom, from the water cooler to the conference room, a hundred little things each day can lead to discord—and for a variety of reasons, most of which are natural and unavoidable.
Habits and Beliefs
We bring to our relationships an accumulation of everything we've ever learned —all of our habits, and all the opinions and beliefs we've developed about ourselves, other people, politics, religion, lifestyle, acceptable behavior, and the "right" way to do everything from dress ourselves in the morning to shape the psyches of our children for life. All this diversity, including racial, cultural and gender differences, means we're going to nudge, bump and crash into each other occasionally.
Limited Resources, Turf Wars and Change
If there's one cookie and two kids want it, if funds are finite and programs to deplete them abound, if there's only one promotion and three people think they've earned it—conflict! Ditto for violating each other's property, possessions, reputation or space. And when someone says we have to change, or starts making changes around us without our consent, we respond with everything from passive aggression to open resistance.
Reacting to Conflict
Most of us have conflict "styles"—one or two favorite ways of reacting in conflict situations. Or we may react differently to different people -- for example, acquiescing to our boss, withdrawing from our mate, reasoning with our child, and engaging in subterfuge against an office rival. For the most part, styles are conditioned responses, not conscious choices. They're learned early in life and reinforced every time they pay off by getting us off the hook, evoking sympathy, or according a sense of control. The point is, with a style we don't usually think to ourselves, "Okay, now I'm going to blow my stack to get attention and establish myself as a force to deal with in this conflict." We just react.
When Style Becomes Strategy (and Vice-versa)
A strategy is a behavior (or series of behaviors) that is consciously chosen. Unlike a style (a rote reaction), a strategy has purpose. The very same behavior—for example, avoiding—can be either a strategy or a style, depending on whether we avoid because it's the best thing to do at the time or because avoiding is what we always do. When used unconsciously, even the most sophisticated conflict behaviors forfeit their status as strategies.
When dealing with an emotionally charged situation, an effective conflict manager will attempt to gain control of the situation so it can be dealt with rationally and objectively. Depending on the nature of the conflict, the stage the conflict is in, and whether the objective is to escalate, de-escalate, or idle the conflict, different strategies have varying degrees of utility. Selecting the most effective strategy is the science of conflict management; applying it skillfully is the art.
Getting Good at Conflict
When selecting a conflict strategy, keep in mind that your partner in conflict may also be acting strategically. As early as possible in a conflict, try to discern whether the other person is in control of his behavior and has some flexibility in the way he responds, or is merely reacting the way he always does in conflict situations. If he's yelling or threatening or putting you off because that's his style and he's stuck there, you may have to work a lot harder to reach a productive resolution but you will also have the advantage. If, on the other hand, you are dealing with a skillful partner, prepare to both lead and follow in what may be a very creative dance. When your partner avoids you or tries to dominate the situation, for example, try to figure out what he hopes to gain and how he thinks you'll react.
Ten Conflict Strategies
1. Abandoning. Abandoning a conflict means, literally or figuratively, walking away from it. Some conflicts amount to pointless jousting with few or no consequences, good or bad. They are simply not worth your time and energy. Moreover, when you are terribly outnumbered, feel physically threatened, or find yourself in the middle of someone else's conflict (and for personal, professional or ethical reasons don't wish to participate), then abandoning is probably the best choice.
2. Avoiding. Avoidance is one of the most common strategies for coping with conflict. Avoiding a conflict doesn't mean you're a coward—unless, of course, you do it all the time. Avoiding is a legitimate strategy when you need time to cool off, when you stand to gain nothing from confronting a situation, when power is drastically unequal, when you want to put distance between yourself and the other person, or when you need time to prepare. Avoidance buys time. Use the time wisely once you have it. For example, if you postpone a meeting, immediately get to work, prepare yourself and reschedule.
3. Dominating. Dominating is an effective strategy when a quick decision is needed or when the issue is relatively unimportant—it gets things done. Dominating is usually power-oriented and delivered assertively. The ability to take control can actually be quite helpful when the other person lacks knowledge or expertise, and your opponent may be relieved that you have offered a solution. Don't try to dominate too often, however. Dominating is only effective as long as you have "right and might" on your side.
4. Obliging. This strategy deliberately elevates the other person, making him or her feel better about the situation. By obliging, you play down the differences between yourself and your opponent. It's a way of seeking common ground. Obliging requires that you give away power, which, if you have plenty to spare, can build trust and confidence. If you are secure in your position, obliging becomes almost a form of delegation.
5. Getting help. This strategy involves bringing in a third party to act as a conflict mediator. Sometimes a conflict can't be resolved by opponents acting alone. If big skill differences put either of you at a distinct disadvantage, if emotions are highly charged, if there's a language barrier, or if your opponent is blatantly uncooperative, you probably need to get help. Mediation is always needed if your opponent threatens in any way to retaliate against you. Depending on the seriousness of the conflict and the potential impact of the resolution, the person doing the intervention can be anyone from a skillful communicator to a professional mediator, just as long as he or she is unbiased and respectful of both (or all) parties involved.
6. Humor. Using humor to defuse a conflict can be particularly effective if you and your opponent are peers, or if the conflict is not terribly serious. Being humorous may involve looking at the situation in a comical way, poking fun at yourself for a style of reacting that frequently gets you into trouble, or generally making light of the situation.
7. Postponing. Postponing is putting off until tomorrow what neither you nor the other person is prepared to deal with today. It differs from avoiding in that postponing is a low-level, handshake type of preliminary agreement. The ability to jointly agree to put off dealing with a conflict until you have cooled off, are more rested, or have your facts straight requires control and skill. However, postponing is a strategy, not an escape hatch, so before going your separate ways, establish the time and place of your next contact.
8. Compromise. This is a middle-of-the-road strategy that gets everyone talking about the issues and moves you closer to each other and to a resolution. In compromise, each person has something to give and something to take. Compromise is most effective when issues are complex, and power is balanced. Compromise can be chosen when other methods have failed and when both you and your opponent are looking for middle ground, willing to exchange concessions. It almost always means giving up something in order to attain part of what you want.
9. Integrating. Integrating focuses on gathering and organizing information; at the same time, it encourages creative thinking and welcomes diverse perspectives. Suppose, for example, that the conflict concerns a major financial outlay. You don't like the direction things are going, but lack all the facts and figures. The other person doesn't have complete information either, but sees no reason to change course. Instead of continuing to argue, you agree to integrate—to pool all of the information you can get your hands on, put your differences on the table and examine them along with any data that might contribute to a resolution. Integrating turns you and your opponent into allies on a mission to master the complexities of the issue and thereby develop alternative solutions. Integrating is often a prelude to collaboration and problem-solving.
10. Collaboration/Problem-solving. Collaborating means working together to resolve the conflict and necessitates information gathering as well as some form of problem-solving. In order to collaborate, you and your opponent must be able and willing to contribute time, energy and resources to finding and implementing a solution. You must also trust each other to a degree. Trust grows as you cooperate in finding a solution to the problem.
A good place to see expert conflict management in action is the courtroom. For many if not most attorneys, conflict is a way of life. The good ones rarely select a strategy without figuring out in advance a full range of possible responses from the opposing side. Even displays of emotion are calculated to produce specific results. I'm not suggesting you start acting like an attorney (talk about creating conflict!) but, rather, that you view conflict as an opportunity, giving it the respect and conscious attention it deserves. Win-win resolutions are often possible, and getting to them can be stimulating and productive. Good conflict management can clear the air, improve relationships, and produce creative solutions to tough problems.