Managing Conflicts Effectively

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

Workplace conflict management and how to do it well.

Conflicts are inevitable. We can’t avoid them, we can’t eliminate them, and very few of us know how to handle them effectively. Despite what we have been taught, conflicts can be positive learning experiences that result in satisfaction and good feelings for everyone involved. This isn’t wishful thinking or some kind of academic utopian theory that won’t work in the real world. It’s true. Conflicts can be beneficial.

The problem is that most of us just don’t know much about what happens in a conflict and how we can turn it to our advantage. We not only misunderstand the psychology behind this all too common human occurrence, but we have also been taught all the wrong things about conflicts. What lessons did you learn as a child, for example? Do any of these sound familiar?

• “Don’t get into a fight, but if you do, make sure you win it!”
• “Fighting never solved anything.”
• “Girls don’t fight!”
• “Shut your mouth and count to 10.”
• “Turn the other cheek.”
• “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
• “Don’t get mad, get even.”

Each of these messages was based on the beliefs, attitudes, and values of our parents, teachers, church, and community. We adopted these messages and have acted accordingly ever since. The problem is that no one ever taught us techniques to prevent some conflicts and to deal sensibly and effectively with those we can’t avoid. In the meantime, each of us has developed a certain preferred style for dealing with conflicts. Some have learned several methods of conflict management, while others rely on a single, dominant style and use it regardless of whether it works effectively or not.

The ability to cope successfully with conflict is one of the most important social skills one can possess. In the business world, it is an essential skill if one hopes to work well with people. This is true regardless of whether the other people are subordinates, co-workers, superiors, or customers. The man or woman who can turn conflict into a positive experience is a valuable asset to any firm. The question is, how does one do it?

To begin, let’s look more closely at how we learn our conflict-coping styles. Psychologists have found that we learn coping behaviors in three different ways: modeling, prior experience, and trial and error.

Modeling occurs when we pattern or model our behavior after that of someone else. Children who grow up in homes where the accepted way of resolving a conflict is through yelling and screaming are likely to use a similar method themselves.

Prior experience is used when one applies a previous experience to a similar situation. For example, you may find yourself in conflict with a superior. If you remember that the last time this happened, you solved the problem by remaining calm and quietly discussing the issue, you will probably use the same method again.

There are, however, occasions when you come up against a situation entirely new to you. When this happens, you probably resort to a trial and error method, trying several approaches before you find one that works. The more coping strategies you have at your disposal, the more likely it is that you will be able to apply the most appropriate one to a particular situation. The person with only one or two conflict-management techniques is at a serious disadvantage in today’s society.

If you seriously want to resolve conflicts easily and learn more coping strategies, you would benefit from a course or a seminar on conflict management. Normally, these courses help you assess your preferred method of conflict resolution. They may also measure your skills in actual or simulated conflict situations. Usually, they teach a variety of techniques based on certain models of conflict resolution. One of the most useful models describes five major styles we have all either used or had used on us. The model looks like this:

diagram of The Conflict Model

The Conflict Model



The left side of the model shows whether I am achieving my goal, while the bottom of the model shows whether you are achieving yours. At the position marked AVOIDING, both sides in the conflict avoid the issue, hoping it will somehow go away. The result is that neither side is satisfied: the problem remains and no one’s goals are met.

If I use the COMPETING style, I involve us in a situation in which I will win and you will lose. My goals will be met; yours will not, and there will probably be bad feelings between us. The opposite of this occurs when you use the ACCOMMODATING style and I give in completely to your wishes. In this case, you win at my expense and bad feelings still remain.

A middle position is the COMPROMISING style. This occurs when both sides give up part of what they really want for the sake of reaching an agreement and ending the conflict. While this may seem a reasonable approach, in fact it isn’t as good as it looks, because neither side is totally happy with the results. Neither party achieves all he wants and the issue hasn’t really been solved. It may seem as if the compromising style is working, but the issue can rise again to haunt both parties, and there is inevitable a residue of dissatisfaction and bad feeling.

The best technique is to use the COLLABORATING style. When we both use this technique properly, we both obtain our goals. We do not get caught up in a win-lose situation. Instead, we collaborate, negotiate, and co-operate to find a solution that will satisfy both of us.

None of this is easy to apply, although you can learn it all fairly quickly. The secret is to know when to use which particular style and under what circumstances. There are occasions when the competing style is the best. A parent would be correct in using this style to prevent his or her child from playing on thin ice. Clearly a compromising, avoiding or any other style would be foolish under these circumstances. In fact, each of these styles can be appropriate under the right conditions. Having more than one style to bring into play and knowing which to use at the right time distinguish a good conflict manager from a poor one.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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