5 Styles Of Conflict — What’s Yours?
Posted September 6, 2018 in Membership
By Donna Howard
When we think of style, we normally think of clothes, hairstyle, hats and shoes. In the legal field, we may also think of writing styles. Conflict style is not usually at the top of the list. However, we each have a conflict style, or more accurately, a combination of styles, which dictate how we view and respond to conflict. Understanding our conflict style allows us to become aware of our own patterns. We can then pay attention to whether these patterns are working for us and choose to explore alternative behaviors.
I have worked in the legal field since the mid 1980’s. It is no secret that the legal field is fraught with conflict because without conflict, there would be no need for the profession. We work with and for people who are experiencing a great crisis in their lives – litigation, divorce, death, and tax issues to name a few. Often the anxiety of our clients, leads to our own anxiety due to challenging deadlines and personalities.
My experience in the legal field resulted in a curiosity about how processes, other than litigation, can be used to resolve conflict. I returned to college and obtained my bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Restorative Justice and my master’s degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. I am now seeking to share my education and experience with others in the legal profession to increase the likelihood of deliberate and constructive decisions when dealing with conflict. The goal of this article is to provide the reader with a cursory understanding of the five conflict styles. The reader can then test the effectiveness of the various styles for their own situations.
The five styles are collaborating, compromising, accommodating, avoiding, and forcing. All five styles are necessary for maneuvering life. There is not a wrong or right style. For example on the surface one might think “forcing” should never be used. However, forcing is a necessary style when a two-year-old is reaching for a hot stove or attempting to run into traffic. I have listed the five styles below with a brief explanation of the perspective one typically holds when using the style and under which situations the style is most effective.
When we have a collaborating perspective, we view conflict as neutral. We affirm the differences of each other and respect each other’s uniqueness. We recognize there are tensions in the relationship and contrasts in viewpoints. We see conflict as an opportunity for growth. There is an underlying belief that win-win outcomes are only limited by our imagination. This conflict style requires time and effort as the parties reach towards consensus. This style is best used when a conflict requires a more permanent solution. Research has shown that parties are more likely to hold true to their commitments when a conflict is resolved through collaboration.
A compromising lens views conflict as mutual difference which is resolved through the democratic process. There is an underlying belief that in order to resolve conflict one must “lose” something. This style requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation. This style is more appropriate for situations where one needs a temporary solution or where both sides have equally important goals. The pitfall of compromising is that it is often chosen because it takes less effort than collaborating, not because it is the better strategy.
An accommodating style indicates an underlying belief that conflict is usually disastrous so one must abdicate. Relationships are prized at any cost. Normally the accommodator relinquishes their own interests, ignores the issues, and attempts to keep the peace at any price. This style frequently works against one’s own goals, objectives and desired outcomes. It is often motivated by fear of the unknown. This style can be used effectively as a short term strategy. For instance if someone has decided they are going to seek other employment, they may opt to accommodate the current employer because they know it is a temporary measure. This style is also effective when the other party is an expert or has a better solution. It is also effective for preserving future relations with the other party. This style should be used infrequently and with intention.
This style has an underlying belief that conflict is hopeless and should be avoided at all cost. This style is often referred to as the flight or fight style. There is a strong belief that conflict cannot resolve in a positive outcome. Therefore one must concede to the other party or leave the relationship. The overuse of avoidance often leads to a cycle of unresolved conflict which can lead to violence. Often this style is identified with delayed responses and withdrawing – emotionally or through physical distancing. Avoidance is a useful strategy when the issues are trivial or when you are not concerned about the outcome. It can also be an effective tool during an emotionally charged atmosphere and where space needs to be created. Although issues sometime resolve themselves, “hope is not a strategy.” Avoidance is not considered a viable long term strategy to conflict. This style should also be used with great intention.
The underlying belief in this style is that there is only one “right” answer and that only one party can be “right.” Pressure and coercion are seen as necessary in the resolution of conflict. There is a need to manipulate and control the outcome. This is also known as the “win-lose” approach. A party acts in very assertive way to achieve their goals without seeking to cooperate with the other party. In fact, there is little consideration to the expense of the other party. As discussed above, this approach may be appropriate during emergencies and when time is of the essence. When the parties are aware of the need for quick, decisive action, this approach is supported.
When I was first introduced to conflict style, I was certain I was a collaborating individual. What I discovered after taking a conflict assessment was that my first inclination was to collaborate but I quickly moved to forcing and then avoidance. It was difficult to accept that although I believed in collaboration, I did not possess the skill. I learned our conflict styles are more often than not taught to us by observing our parents and other relatives. As we grow older, life’s pressures and stressors make it difficult to find the time to consider whether our conflict styles are helping us to obtain our goals in life. I also learned that conflict style, because it is a learned skill, can be modified at any point in our lives through education, awareness and practice. Recently when I retook the same conflict assessment and I was pleased to learn that my ability to remain collaborating has increased and my tendency to force or avoid have diminished significantly. I hope this article encourages you to think about your conflict style and how it can be modified to help you obtain your goals in life. Please look for future articles which will address each style individually.
About Donna Howard
Donna Howard has worked in the legal field as a legal secretary and then paralegal for more than twenty-five years. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Restorative Justice and a Master’s degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. She currently works at Cuesta College as the Student Support Resolution Coordinator and as a freelance paralegal. Ms. Howard can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.