Conflict is often best understood by examining the consequences of various behaviors at moments in time. These behaviors are usefully categorized according to conflict styles. Each style is a way to meet one’s needs in a dispute but may impact other people in different ways.
A style in which one’s own needs are advocated over the needs of others. It relies on an aggressive style of communication, low regard for future relationships, and the exercise of coercive power. Those using a competitive style tend to seek control over a discussion, in both substance and ground rules. They fear that loss of such control will result in solutions that fail to meet their needs. Competing tends to result in responses that increase the level of threat.
Also known as smoothing,accommodating is the opposite of competing. Persons using this style yield their needs to those of others, trying to be diplomatic. They tend to allow the needs of the group to overwhelm their own, which may not ever be stated, as preserving the relationship is seen as most important.
This is a common response to the negative perception of conflict. “Perhaps if we don’t bring it up, it will blow over,” we say to ourselves. But, generally, all that happens is that feelings get pent up, views go unexpressed, and the conflict festers until it becomes too big to ignore. Like a cancer that may well have been cured if treated early, the conflict grows and spreads until it kills the relationship. Because needs and concerns go unexpressed, people are often confused, wondering what went wrong in a relationship.
An approach to conflict in which people gain and give in a series of tradeoffs. While satisfactory, compromise is generally not satisfying. We each remain shaped by our individual perceptions of our needs and don’t necessarily understand the other side very well. We often retain a lack of trust and avoid risk-taking involved in more collaborative behaviors.
This is the pooling of individual needs and goals toward a common goal. Often called “win-win problem-solving,” collaboration requires assertive communication and cooperation in order to achieve a better solution than either individual could have achieved alone. It offers the chance for consensus, the integration of needs, and the potential to exceed the “budget of possibilities” that previously limited our views of the conflict. It brings new time, energy, and ideas to resolve the dispute meaningfully.
By understanding each style and its consequences, we may normalize the results of our behaviors in various situations. This is not to say, “Thou shalt collaborate” in a moralizing way, but to indicate the expected consequences of each approach: If we use a competing style, we might force the others to accept ‘our’ solution, but this acceptance may be accompanied by fear and resentment. If we accommodate, the relationship may proceed smoothly, but we may build up frustrations that our needs are going unmet. If we compromise, we may feel OK about the outcome, but still harbor resentments in the future. If we collaborate, we may not gain a better solution than a compromise might have yielded, but we are more likely to feel better about our chances for future understanding and goodwill. And if we avoid discussing the conflict at all, both parties may remain clueless about the real underlying issues and concerns, only to be dealing with them in the future.