The Cooperating Style of conflict management is about actively seeking ways for both sides to win everything they want. I assert myself clearly and confidently. You do the same. We work together to find solutions that allow us to both get what we want. I win and so do you – how wonderful!
Or maybe, how ridiculous. A magical conflict style that makes everyone happy? Ha, haa, haaa. We could be forgiven for starting a review of Cooperating with a big laugh. Real life isn’t that easy and we all have stories to prove it.
Both sides win? Hilarious thought!
But don’t laugh too long or you’ll create a story with its own sad outcomes.
For skeptics of Cooperating, life is an endless series of battles. They are right in believing that many conflicts can’t be resolved with this optimistic style. But pessimism prevents some people from seeing that in most conflicts there is more room for meeting the needs of both sides than first meets the eye.
There’s a cycle of pessimism and failure that gets triggered in many conflicts. People get upset and react to the discovery of differences. Things escalate, emotions rise, unkind things are said and done. This brings further escalation. Pessimists often give up on resolution without ever having made a serious effort at joint discussion.
You create your own dismal reality if you treat win/win as impossible. You doom yourself to endless, pointless conflict if you never make a serious try at the Cooperative conflict style.
I’ve spent decades as a professional resource to people trapped in that place. The trap is real, but usually not because there are truly no win/win solutions available. A deficit of skill in using the Cooperating conflict style usually lies at the heart of their problems.
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When to Use Cooperating
This style is beneficial in many circumstances, and it is indispensable in situations where neither side can achieve their goals unless both sides are happy. Think: long-term relationship, high inter-dependency, important issues. When those three factors are present in a conflict, it’s essential to have good skills in the Cooperating style of conflict resolution.
How to Cooperate
Cooperating is a both/and response to conflict. As shown on the blue axes on the right, It involves being highly committed to both your own goals and to the relationship (and therefore to helping the other person achieve their goals).
That’s not the natural flow of thing, though. Conflict creates a feeling that things must be eithor/or, and we tend to act accordingly. Cooperating requires skill, self-discipline, and persistence in resisting the natural impulse to fight or flee.
Expect a learning curve! If you were lucky enough to have frequent modelling of Cooperating by parents, teachers, or mentors, you may find it easy. But most people witness more examples of Directing, Avoiding, Harmonizing, and Compromising in their elders than Cooperating. Practice in easy situations till you get the hang of how to be committed to both your own goals and the other person’s goals at the same time.
Active Listening as a Core Skill
Cooperating is hard work, of a very specific kind. People have to stop reacting and start listening to each other. Not pretending to listen while mentally reloading for the next round of argument, but actively seeking to understand what the other seeks. Only if both sides are willing to do that is win/win possible. We can say many other things about this conflict style, but the requirement to keep listening at the core is by far the most important.
If you’ve never worked on what is known as “active listening”, do a web search on the term. You’ll find many resource pages, for many different settings. Pick out several in settings that fit your life. Read and re-read, and begin practicing the skills required.
Start in non-conflictual situations where you will use the skill to convey support – perhaps a colleague struggling with a difficult decision, a partner distressed about a life situation, or a child upset about school. You’ll be richly rewarded with deeper connections as you get comfortable with the basic moves of active listening. Mastering them in low stress settings will make it easier when you begin using them under fire.
Transition Phrases for Cooperating
A key requirement for success in conflict management is ability to influence the dynamics of interaction with others. For example, if someone approaches in a Directing style, pushing their agenda in ways that seem domineering, rude or self-centered, it’s natural to want to reply in kind. But fighting consumes vast energy and can destroy possibilities of working together. Or if someone persistently uses an Avoiding response with you, important issues may go unaddressed. In both cases, you benefit by initiating a Cooperating exchange instead.
Transition phrases are short phrases or statements that help do this. In my other blog posts you can find such phrases for other conflict styles. For Cooperating, transition phrases are often longer than for other styles. Cooperating as a response to conflict is somewhat counter-intuitive and it’s hard to describe in one phrase. It also requires some level of buy-in from your counterpart. So transitioning to Cooperating is often more like a phase than a phrase.
Overt Cooperating Approaches. There’s two different ways to do this transition. One is overt, meaning that you openly propose a special approach to the conversation:
- “Could we try something? Maybe we could agree to take turns for a little while here.”
- “It seems like both of us have clear opinions on this. Could we slow things down a bit and really try to understand each other?”
- “This is not an easy moment for us. You’re focused on XXXX, I’m focused on ZZZ. We’ve both got a lot at stake here. Let’s not turn this into a fight. Let’s take the time to really hear and understand each other. Want to go first and I’ll do my best to really hear you?”
- “Could we take turns and really examine what each of us is concerned about here? I promise you I’ll do my best to try to understand your concerns if you’ll do the same for me.”
- “Could we take a few minutes to agree on a way of discussing this (or “some groundrules”, “some guidelines”, “some principles”, “a procedure”) that would help us bring our best selves to this?”
- “How about if we try using a Talking Stick? We can use some object like a pen and have a rule that we speak only if we’re holding that object. One person holds the Talking Stick and speaks for a while, and the other listens. Then it reverses, and it goes back and forth like that for the entire conversation.”
- “Could we set aside some time tomorrow to talk about this? And maybe we could agree on sort of an agenda to help us be at our best? We could start by trying to agree on what the key issues are. Then we could go through those one at a time, and on each issue we could each have, say, ten minutes to say whatever is on our mind about that issue without interruption from the other person. I think I’d function more positively in that kind of a framework.”
- “Before we start talking about these difficult issues, could we do something that would help at least me to keep a positive focus. Could we take a few minutes and each take a turn and review out loud what you and I have accomplished together and the benefits this relationship has brought to us?”
Implicit Cooperating Approach. Sometimes it’s better to just start using Cooperating skills yourself without trying to get your counterpart to explicitly buy in to a different approach. The idea here is that if you simply begin using Cooperating Skills yourself, you may elicit similar responses in kind from others. The shift may not happen quickly – be prepared to persist!
- “Could you help me understand why this is so important to you?”
- “We have a good bit of history here and I’d really like to find a solution that works well for both of us.”
- “There’s a lot of potential good ahead for us if we can figure out a solution to this problem that we’re both happy with.”
- “I see how important this is to you. I really would like to figure out a solution that gives you everything you need. Of course I have my own needs too. But I care about our relationship – I care about you – and it seems important to find a solution that works well for both of us. I’m willing to put a lot of effort into looking at all possible ways to find one.”
- “Could you describe what you see as the benefits of your proposal for this situation?”
- “How do you see this affecting each of us?”
- “Could help me understand what are the things that matter most to you in evaluating any possible solution to this situation?”
- “I’d be interested to hear what you see as the most important interests that need to be protected for each of us as we try to figure out what to do here.”
- “What do you see as key values or principles that should guide us as we evaluate our options here?”
- “Can we make a list of our options here?”
Implicit approaches encourage a cooperating style by either stating a commitment to trying to meet the needs of both sides or by attempting to bring de-polarizing problem-solving approaches to the conversation. The last suggestion in the list above, “make a list of our options”, is a good example of the latter. If you do a web search on “problem solving tools” you can easily find more. Getting familiar with them is a good way to expand your collaborating skills – they are designed to bring order, clarity, and in-depth analysis to decision-making and they excel at this in situations of contention.
Limits of Cooperating
It’s important to recognize that Cooperating is not the right response in all conflicts. Even in the best of circumstances It requires time, energy, patience, and self-regulation to succeed. Some issues and some relationships don’t merit the investment required. Some people have inappropriate agendas that you really should not collaborate with. If you over-use this demanding response or persist in deploying it with people who don’t reciprocate, you may burn yourself out and destroy your optimism about ever using it.
Conflict style agility is the goal. We should be good at every one of the five styles, so we can use each when appropriate. Inevitably there come times when we try a style and realize that it’s not bringing the results we sought. Then it’s time to transition to a different style – see the other posts in this series for help in that.
Work on this style! The rewards – in terms of productivity, healthy relationships, good vibes, and learnings about self and others can be immense. When appropriately used, no other conflict response comes close to its capacity to facilitate expansion of energy and joy in relationships.
This post is part of a series on transition phrases for effective conflict management. See the whole series at www.kraybilltable.com
By Ron Kraybill, PhD, author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory, which provides users with an eight page personalized report offering detailed suggestions based on their scores.
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