Conflict Management Conflict Management

Why the study of conflict is important

Key elements of conflict

The nature of conflict

Variables in the study of conflict

Skills for conflict managers

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Variables in the Study of Conflict

Power Climate
Goals Cultural Assumptions
Gender Strategies and Tactics
Perception Style


Five basic conflict styles. A style is a preferred way of behaving. The Blake and Mouton styles grid has been adapted by numerous scholars as a means of discussing five contrasting conflict styles.  

1.     Avoidance. Avoidance is characterized by behaviors that either ignore or refuse to engage in the conflict.  While avoidance is presented by some theorists as a negative style that shows low concern for both one's own and the other party's interests, there are sometimes strategic reasons to avoid conflict.  For example, when the relationship is short-term and the issue is not important or when the situation has a potential to escalate to violence, avoidance may be the prudent choice.

Some examples of avoidance behaviors include:
- Saying the issue isn't important enough to spend time on
- Saying there isn't enough time to do the topic justice
- Gunnysacking
- Being overly polite
- Defining any emotion as discord and calling for objectivity when discussing differences
- Smoothing over discord whenever a difference arises, so differences never are discussed
- Focusing on details to the exclusion of the real issues
- Demanding rationality whenever emotions arise
- Attacking the other person verbally
- Using evasive remarks to avoid sensitive topics
- Shifting the topic away from the conflict
- Avoiding topics where conflict may occur
- Making noncommittal statements that sound like, but are not really, agreement
- Keeping conversations at an abstract level
- Joking to distract from the real issues in a conflict 


2.     Competition. Competition, or win/lose, is a style that maximizes reaching one's own goals or getting the problem solved at the cost of the other party's goals or feelings.  While always choosing competition has negative repercussions for relationships, businesses and cultures, it can occasionally be the right style to choose if the other party is firmly fixed in a competitive style or there are genuinely scarce resources.  While competitive tactics are not necessarily dysfunctional, competition can easily slide into a destructive scenario.  Understanding the tactics and strategies of others who use competitive styles can assist conflict managers in defusing the negative consequences of competition and working toward a mutual gains approach.

Competitive tactics include:
- Lying
- Concealing one's own goals
- Concealing one's own interests
- Attacking or criticizing the other person verbally
- Becoming positional, and then incrementally compromising toward a middle ground
- Elevating one's own arguments
- Denigrating or rejecting the other's arguments
- Threatening and bluffing
- Denying responsibility
- Pretending to be or actually being hostile  


3.     Accommodation. Accommodation involves giving in to the other's wishes or smoothing the choppy waves of a conflict. Accommodation sacrifices one's own goals for the sake of the other person.  Accommodators often use phrases like:  "Whatever you want is fine with me." When one party in a conflict genuinely does not care about the outcome of the conflict, accommodation may be the right choice for that situation. However, if accommodation is the only style a person utilizes, he or she is advised to learn more skills. 


4.     Compromise. Compromise is a give and take of resources. The classic compromise in negotiating is to "split the difference" between two positions. While there is no victor from compromise, each person also fails to achieve her or his original goal.   


5.     Collaboration. Collaboration occurs when parties cooperatively work together until a mutually agreeable solution is found.  


Beyond one's overall style for behavior during a conflict, other matters of individual style also affect perceptions during conflicts.  Each person has preferences in communication.  When two people in conflict have opposite preferences, misunderstandings are likely to occur.  As Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg (1996) conclude, "becoming more aware of the effects of your differing communication styles [in relationships] can go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings" (p. 200).  

Rules perspective. The rules perspective is another way of analyzing misunderstandings that arise from communication differences.  Julia Wood (1998) examines both regulative rules (rules about when it is appropriate to talk about what:  for example, "take turns during a conversation") and constitutive rules  (what counts as what in communication:  for example, "washing someone's car is a way to show affection").  When different groups or individuals have different rules about what is appropriate or what "counts," misunderstandings are likely to occur.  

Conclusions. While research has yet to be completed in this area, it seems likely that individual style or rule differences may create barriers during conflicts when extreme differences occur in:  

  • Degree of verbal aggressiveness
  • Preference for rapport or report talk
  • Listening behaviors
  • Other nonverbal or linguistic characteristics

A competent conflict manager will prefer collaboration, but recognize that the timing or conditions may not always allow collaboration to occur.  Consequently, a skillful conflict manager will be adept at selecting the right style for the right situation and then engaging each style in a humane and non-harmful manner.  

Sources for the style variable discussion include Kohn, 1986; Lulofs, 1994; Susskind and Field; 1996; Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg, 1996; Tannen, 1994; Wilmot and Hocker, 1998; Wood, 1998


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