Five Powerful Conflict Management Strategies (Complete Paid Version)

Learn to choose the best conflict management approach to suit the situation: No more knee-jerk reactions.

The following was originally published as part of our LearnBytes Series, and entitled “Using Your Head To Manage Conflict”. Originally costing $12.95, we are sharing this for free on Medium.com. If you would like to order the full two sided portable card, click here, or go here for our complete catalog.

A Window On Conflict

There’s a common misconception; that conflict is a bad thing. In fact conflict can result in better relationships, and better ideas, provided it’s managed properly. On the flipside, conflict, when improperly managed can destroy relationships, families and work relationships.

Most of us don’t consciously manage conflict situations. It’s normal to get caught up emotionally, and just jump in without thinking. The core of conflict management involves slowing down, and using your head to think through what you should do, rather than reacting in a knee-jerk fashion. That’s how you make conflict work for you. That’s what this card is about — to help you identify your conflict management options, and help you choose the right approach for the specific situation.

Clarifying Conflict Management Purpose

The purpose of conflict management is simple. You want to manage conflict to maximize the positive outcomes while reducing the possibility of negative outcomes. Conflict management isn’t about winning, or getting your way. It’s about creating good things and preventing bad outcomes.

What does that mean? That sometimes it’s best to ignore some conflict situations. Sometimes it makes more sense to give in. Sometimes, it’s time to be strong and more aggressive. What is best is a choice you need to decide for each situation. In a moment we’re going to go through your options, and explain when each is good to use, and when it is bad. Before we do that let’s cover the basic steps in a RATIONALLY based (rather than emotionally based) process for managing conflict.

The Rational Conflict Management Process

Before you can manage a conflict situation you have to be aware that you are in one. So the first step is to pay attention to any symptoms or behaviors of another person AND your own internal reactions to situations and people so you can say “Yes, something’s going on, maybe it’s a conflict“. We call this attending to/identifying conflicts.

The next step is to describe/analyze the conflict situation and parties involved. The better your understanding of your own position and emotions, and those of the other person, the better you will be able to choose an effective conflict management option.

Next comes goal-setting. In a conflict situation you will be much better prepared to create positive outcomes when you are clear about what you want to happen. Take into account the particular conflict issue, and both long-term and short-term possibilities, since sometimes we focus more on winning in the short term, and end up losing in the long run.

Next comes deciding how you want to approach the conflict, or choosing one or more of the conflict management strategies described below. You can see that the point of this whole process is to “use your head” rather than your heart to determine your conflict management options.

Finally you implement your strategy. Of course, that’s easier said than down since conflict management requires a number of fairly advanced interpersonal skills.

Denial/Avoidance

Denial and avoidance are slightly different things. Denial refers to a psychological state where you deny there is even a conflict in progress. You are oblivious. This is always a dangerous situation, because if you are in denial you can’t manage the situation.

Avoidance involves making a conscious decision to “do nothing” about the conflict situation. While it sounds bad, there are many situations in life where there is actually no point in pursuing a conflict because there’s nothing to be gained. For example, creating a conflict with a driver who cut you off has no possible positive outcomes, and a lot of dangerous negative outcomes. Sometimes learning to do nothing is the best course.

When It Fits:

¨ When “doing nothing” won’t damage an ongoing relationship.

¨ When you are not interested in maintaining or creating a relationships with the other party (e.g. with a total stranger).

¨ When you believe “doing nothing” will not result in additional problems down the road.

¨ When the costs (time, energy, frustration) of doing something more directly outweigh any benefits you anticipate.

When It’s A Bad Idea

¨ When the conflict issue is important to you OR to the other party so it’s not going to go away.

¨ When you value the relationships with the other person and believe doing nothing will affect it in the long haul.

Giving In (Accommodation)

Giving in sounds so…well…wimpy. You might prefer the word accommodation. It means that you stop pursuing your “issue goal”, and stop resisting what the other person wants. IF accommodation fits there are some benefits. First it avoids a confrontation, which is a particularly good idea when the other person has significantly more power than you have and is likely to use it. It’s also useful when you value the long term relationships with the other person over and above “winning” this particular argument or issue.

When It’s A Good Idea

¨ When the conflict issue is not important to you and your major concern is having a smooth long-term relationships with the other party.

¨ When the other person has a lot more power and control over the situation and you know you are likely to lose if you use a “stronger” approach.

When It’s A Bad Idea

¨ When the issue is very important to you, and you can’t live with giving in totally.

¨ When you will carry resentment if you give in.

¨ When you find that you almost always give in to a person in a relationship, and need to break out of the cycle to create a more balanced arrangement.

¨ When your role is such (as with your children) where you have to establish some sense of authority for their long term benefit.

Compromise (Finding Middle Ground)

Compromising involves an attempt to come to some solution which is mutually acceptable to both parties, but doesn’t completely satisfy both parties. It’s best characterized by “meeting half-way”. Each party gives up some of their needs, so that a decision can be made. Some advantages of compromise include speed (it’s faster than trying true collaboration (see next column). It can serve as a basis for a temporary solution while more satisfying solutions are explored.

When It’s A Good Idea

¨ When there is some wiggle-room on both sides, so each side can give up a little.

¨ When there is not enough time to develop more creative permanent solutions.

¨ When investment in the issues on both sides isn’t too high.

When It’s A Bad Idea

¨ When any compromise solution is bound to be disastrous. Compromise solutions may not be effective in meeting anyone’s needs.

¨ When either or both parties may carry resentment about not getting what they want, because the issue is exceedingly important to them.

¨ When the other person is clearly not interested in compromise, or has moved to an attempt to impose a solution or use power.

Imposing (Using Power)

Sometimes called “competing”, this method involves a strong response in an attempt to “win” while the other person loses. A key component of this strategy is the use of power and influence.

This is a high risk strategy for two reasons. When you use power and win, while you may get what you want in the short term, you may also poison the relationship for the future. Second, if you lose, you lose completely. On the other hand if you are in a position to use power to manage a conflict, you will find it’s often the fastest way to address a conflict, and while doing so, enhance an appearance of power and authority.

When It’s A Good Idea

¨ When a decision needs to be made immediately or a disaster will result, and you are in a position to make the decision unilaterally.

¨ When you have more power and influence than the other person.

¨ When the stakes are high.

¨ When you cannot live without achieving your goal.

¨ When you are absolutely sure you are correct.

¨ When you are in a position of formal power (let’s say a CEO), and you are EXPECTED to make tough decisions.

When It’s A Bad Idea

¨ When the stakes are low and the issue isn’t important.

¨ When you will need ongoing cooperation with the other party over time.

¨ When you can’t afford to lose completely.

Collaboration (Working Together)

In an ideal world, working together to solve a problem or manage a conflict is probably almost always the best choice. Unfortunately we don’t live in that ideal world. The purpose of collaboration is to work together cooperatively to identify a solution (usually a creative and harder-to-find-solutions) so that both parties WIN.

This approach is the most time consuming since it involves in-depth discussion of the problem, analysis and a great deal of open honest communication between the parties. The advantages are clear. If it works, both parties will be pleased with the outcome. It enhances long term relationships through increased listening and communication, and builds a sense of “team”. That’s one reason why many counselling approaches are aimed at creating a collaborative process for couples.

When It’s A Good Idea

¨ When there is enough time to undertake a longer process, and when an immediate decision may not be required.

¨ When team and relationship building is a high priority.

¨ When both parties have strong commitments to their goals AND maintaining good relationships in the future.

When It’s A Bad Idea

¨ When a decision is needed immediately and there is insufficient time to work in a collaborative way.

¨ When one party insists on using a power based or competitive strategy and is unwilling or unable to apply collaborative skills.

¨ When the importance of the conflict issue is minimal , and the time to collaborate can’t be justified.

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