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What Goes into a Conflict Style?

An explanation of things displayed in  the "Intro to Conflict Styles" slideshow.

In any situation of conflict, there are two things going on.

One is that people have an agenda, that is, their own goals or expectations. Sometimes we don't care very much whether our own agenda is met and we are not assertive about it. But sometimes we care a lot and are very assertive.So the vertical axis shows this range, from low commitment to our own agenda to high commitment.      Read more here....

A second thing that is going on in any conflict: there is a relationship of some kind. Sometimes we are very committed to that relationship and our response communicates that to others.Other times we are not very committed to that relationship, or at least in that moment we feel and act as though we don't care. That might sound bad, but it is not always wrong - for example, if someone you will never see again shouts an insult at you on the highway, there is no point in worrying about how to"fix" that relationship.Just get home safely and forget about it.On the diagram, the relationship is charted on a horizontal line, again showing that we may have a low focus on ( or commitment to) the relationship or a high focus.

If we put these two dynamics together in a diagram, we can identify five different styles of responding to conflict. The styles differ according to what we are focusing on in the moment of conflict: our own agenda or the relationship or both.

So which style is best?

None of the styles is the best response for all situations of conflict.  Each style is useful for certain situations when other styles wouldn't be very useful.   For example...

The Harmonizing response down there on the right sound great. Isn't it good to give a high priority to relationships?  Harmonizing brings kindness and comfort into relationships.

But kindness and comfort cannot always be our priority. If a child runs into the street, no loving parent will smile sweetly and say "I love you." There's only one wise response here:  Grab the little wanderer fast, and haul him back to the sidewalk, regardless to his feelings in that moment or the quality of the relationship for the next ten minutes.  That's a Directing response, because the parent doesn't focus on the relationship in that moment - the agenda of saving a life takes priority.

In organizations, if staff are not getting the job done, or doing it incorrectly, no competent manager will Harmonize.  Managers have an obligation to challenge people to higher performance, even if some staff are annoyed by the challenge.  That means a Directing or at least a Cooperating response at times, for both of these push others with our own agenda.

Cooperating is another response that sounds great. High commitment to the task, and to the relationship - the best of both worlds.  Yes, it is a great response for many circumstances.  More than any other of the styles, it is one that really improves the lives of most people when they strengthen their skills in Cooperating. More on that later.  But the point for now is different: Cooperating is not the best response for all conflicts. It takes time, effort, and skill to talk things through in the indepth way required to both push your own agenda and support the needs of others. It's not possible to give that much energy to all conflicts.

If you try to use cooperating as a response to all conflicts, you will run out of time and energy.  If your organization is buying new office furniture, is it a good use of staff time and energy to have everyone sit down and talk through all the options in the thorough way that Cooperation requires? Probably it is not. Probably it will be much better for your organization if one person, or a small committee, makes this decision for everyone and simply announces the plans.  

Few people have the time and energy required to use a Cooperating response in all conflicts.  Life will be easier and better if we avoid some conflicts, Harmonize in others, or use Directing or Compromising in still others.

In other words, a key goal is flexibility. 

Each style has strengths and weaknesses.  We manage conflict better when we are able to use each style well.  Then we can choose style responses that fit the circumstances we are in.

The difficulty is that most of us get good at and favor one or two styles, and then we tend to rely on it for all circumstances.  We learn much of this when we are still children.  In a family, maybe big brother learns that conflict is no problem - he just uses a Directing style and little brother falls into line.  It works great - until big brother gets married to a woman who doesn't Harmonize like little brother did.  She wants to use a Cooperating style to work out differences and she gets angry when big brother always insists on things his way.  Now he's in a life crisis.  Can he adapt and learn to use other styles as well?  That's the challenge for all of us.  It doesn't matter which styles we prefer.   The challenge is to get skilled in all of the styles and be able to use each one in settings where it is most effective.

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