Conflicted About How to Respond to Conflict?

Jan 24, 2019

By Susan H. Shearouse

When Sam gets an e-mail from his boss, giving him another assignment that is due this Friday, Sam reads the e-mail, shrugs to himself, and continues with the project he is working on.

When Tasha gets an e-mail from her boss, giving her another assignment that is due this Friday, she sighs, marks it down on her calendar, and scrambles to add it to her to-do list.

When Marvin gets an e-mail from his boss, giving him another assignment that is due this Friday, he picks up the phone and calls his boss to bargain. “I can’t get that project done on Friday, but if you can finish that report I am working on, I’ll get the new project mapped out so someone else can fill in the pieces.”

When Louisa gets an e-mail from her boss, giving her another assignment that is due this Friday, she calls him on the phone and explains, firmly and clearly, “I can’t possibly get that done by Friday. I already have a stack of work to do this week.”

When Bernie gets an e-mail from his boss, giving him another assignment that is due this Friday, he puts aside the report he is working on and goes into the boss‘s office. “What do you need this project for? I need more information. And let me be clear with you about the projects I already have on my plate this week. Let’s see if we can devise a solution that works for you and for me.”

When we face differences and disagreements, we have choices about how we will respond to the situation. If you were to ask Sam, Tasha, Marvin, Louisa, or Bernie what their approach to that moment was, they may not be able to tell you. Each of them just responded in the way that made the most sense to them. We probably do not spend much time thinking about these choices; we may not even consider that we are making a choice. We respond in a way that we feel is comfortable and right for the situation. Most of us use only one or two approaches nearly all of the time.

There is no one right way to approach conflict. Each of these styles is appropriate in some circumstances, inappropriate in others. One challenge is to learn to use different approaches depending on different circumstances. As behavior specialist Abraham Maslow said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Is your approach usually most like that of Sam, Tasha, Marvin, Louisa, or Bernie? The following short quiz will help you find out whether you tend to respond to conflict by avoiding, accommodating, directing, compromising, or collaborating.

Picture yourself in the middle of a disagreement at work. Which of these statements sounds most like you?
1. I back off and let it go, even if it means that nothing is settled (Avoiding).
2. I prefer to do what others want for the good of the relationship (Accommodating).
3. I focus more on my goals and less on what others want (Directing).
4. Everyone should accept a little less than what he really wants so we can get on with the work (Compromising).
5. I go to great lengths to understand what is important to others and to make sure they understand what is important to me (Collaborating).

Let’s examine each of the five styles of conflict resolution in more detail:

Avoiding: “Conflict? What Conflict?”

  • Often appropriate when the issue is relatively unimportant, the risks of harm are too high, time is short, or a decision is not necessary.
  • Often inappropriate when negative feelings may linger, resentment may build, or problems that need to be addressed are not resolved.
  • Often the choice when people fear the consequences of raising issues.
    —To respond to avoidance, create a safe environment for solving problems.

Accommodating: “Whatever you want is okay with me.”

  • Often appropriate when issue is more important to the other person, tasks involved are part of your work responsibility, favors and requests are traded over time.
  • Often inappropriate when others could benefit from your wisdom and experience, or habitual use builds resentment.
  • Often the choice when people are concerned about the relationship.

—To respond to accommodation, raise issues without confrontation, assure others that the relationship is not the issue.

Directing: “My way or the highway.”

  • Often appropriate when differing ideas and opinions need to be expressed, when an immediate decision is needed, or when energy is generated for accomplishing tasks.
  • Often inappropriate when cooperation from others is important to implementation and buy-in, win-lose dynamics are created, or others are treated with disrespect.
  • Often the choice when a person wants respect or control of the situation.

—To respond to directing, respect the person’s knowledge and experience, help the person identify how it is in his best interests to cooperate or collaborate.

Compromising: “Let's split the difference.”

  • Often appropriate when finding some solution is better than a stalemate, cooperation is important but time and resources are limited.
  • Often inappropriate when you can’t live with the consequences, finding solutions that better meet the needs of those involved may be possible.

—To respond to compromisers, slow down. Make sure you understand what the issue is, and identify the interests before jumping to a solution.

Collaborating: “How can we solve this problem together?”

  • Often appropriate when the issues and relationship are both significant to those involved, cooperation and buy-in are essential to implementation, there is reasonable expectation of addressing the concerns of everyone.
  • Often inappropriate when time is short, the issues are unimportant, finite resources make it impossible to create a solution that meets everyone’s needs.
  • Often the choice when a person or group wants joint ownership of decisions.

—To respond, set realistic, definite deadlines for decision making. Encourage individuals to take responsibility for decisions without unreasonable fear.

Understanding these style differences in approaching conflict can help us to hear each other and respond to our differences more effectively. Remember, each person brings strengths as well as weaknesses to any decision-making process. In complex conflicts or disputes, resolution requires using each of these approaches appropriately along the way.

 As a manager, there will be times to clearly state and hold to your own needs and priorities, times to accommodate the needs of others, times when the only solution to a problem is to compromise, and times when you can work with others to achieve a collaborative answer.

© 2011 Susan H. Shearouse. Adapted by permission of the publisher, from Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems so Everyone Can Get Back to Work, by Susan H. Shearouse. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Susan H. Shearouse has served as executive director of the National Conferrence on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution. Her clients have included Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris, the IRS, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She is author of Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems so Everyone Can Get Back to Work.