Is there a better way to manage conflict?

In one of my coaching sessions, a leader brought up the issue of conflict management. He struggled to understand if he was being too compromising by agreeing to the people’s views just because he didn’t want to challenge them. Digging deeper, we realised that, like many of us, he did this because he valued relationships and believed that these should not be sacrificed at the altar of conflict. He struggled to understand how he could assert his views and yet be seen as cooperative by his colleagues.

Research around this topic led me to explore the Thomas-Kilmann model (see image), which identifies two dimensions that play out in conflict resolution: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness involves taking action to satisfy your own needs, while cooperativeness involves taking action to satisfy the other’s needs. 

The five approaches play out in the following ways:

1. Avoiding

Here, one is trying to downplay the agreement and consciously avoids participating in the situation. When one uses an “avoidance” strategy, one tries to ignore or sidestep the conflict, hoping it will resolve itself or dissolve over time. For the person adopting this strategy, staying and being seen as neutral at all costs is the foremost objective. 

2. Accommodating

Here, we let the other person rule. The attempt is to smoothen out differences, even if it is only to maintain superficial harmony. 

Using the “accommodation” strategy in conflict resolution essentially means taking steps to satisfy the other party’s concerns or demands at the expense of our own needs or wishes.

3. Compromising

Here, we work towards finding an acceptable rather than optimal solution. The “compromising” strategy involves finding a solution that will partially, but not entirely, satisfy all parties’ concerns and hence, be acceptable to everyone involved.

4. Competing

This is the win-lose zone, and parties fight to dominate and force conclusion through the exercise of authority or any other leverage they may be able to deploy. Someone who uses the “competing” strategy tries to satisfy their own desires at the expense of the other parties involved.

5. Collaborating

This is the win-win zone, and parties involved seek true satisfaction of everyone’s concern by working through differences. Using “collaborating” strategy consists of finding a solution that entirely satisfies the concerns of all involved parties and solving the problem in a way that everyone gains as a result.

Which is the best Conflict Resolution method?

It depends; it really does! We may have preferences for a particular conflict resolution strategy over the others, though all these strategies are relevant and can be used effectively in certain situations. 

It may be in your best interest to accommodate the other party rather than serve your own needs when it is a minor issue with no long-term consequences. However, when there are significant issues that impact multiple people and have long-term effects, it may make sense to choose a strategy with more assertiveness. Time available is also an important aspect. Collaboration strategy would typically take much longer. Hence, you should have the privilege of time when you decide to ‘collaborate’ while resolving the conflict.

How does one improve one’s ability to resolve Conflict?

Developing better conflict resolution skills help you choose and apply the best conflict resolution strategy effectively, depending on the situation. Some effective ways to work through conflict are:

  • Listen.
  • Agree on what all you agree on – many a time, the objective that both parties want to achieve is the same, in which case it is best to recognise that.
  • Identify specific points of disagreement.
  • Express your own needs clearly. Emphasis on “Why” is essential to make a convincing argument.
  • Mindset shift – view conflict as an opportunity for growth.
  • Focus on specific issues without generalising or escalating the situation.
  • Remain fact or issue-based and not people-based. Not liking someone is not a good enough reason to get into a conflict or not to resolve the same effectively.
  • You don’t have to always win.

 Remember that you need to understand what is at stake before deciding which conflict resolution strategy to use, despite your preferences for a specific type of conflict resolution.

The goal of resolving a conflict is not to announce your victory or suffer defeat. It is reaching an understanding, which happens once you let go of your need to be right always!

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