Handling Conflict Effectively
by Jansen Thacker
Conflicts are bound to happen, even in the best relationships. Because it is impossible to avoid conflicts, the challenge is to handle them effectively when they do arise.
What is conflict? Conflict takes many forms. Sometimes there’s angry shouting, as when parents yell at their children, or vice versa. Sometimes conflicts involve restrained discussion, which is common at work. Sometimes conflicts are expressed through hostile silence, as in the unspoken feuds of angry couples. Some conflicts may wind up in physical fighting between friends, enemies, or even total strangers. Whatever forms they may take, conflicts are bound to happen, even in the best relationships.
Because it is impossible to avoid conflicts, the challenge is to handle them effectively when they do arise. Decades of research show that people in both happy and unhappy relationships have conflicts, but that they perceive them and manage them in very different ways.
Communicators can respond to conflicts in a variety of ways: avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise, or collaboration. Each of these approaches can be justified in certain circumstances.
- Avoidance (Lose-Lose): occurs when people choose not to confront an issue directly.
- Accommodation (Lose-Win): occurs when we entirely give in to others rather than asserting our own point of view.
- Competition (Win-Lose): involves high concern for self and low concern for others.
- Compromise: gives both people at least some of what they want, although both sacrifice part of their goals.
- Collaboration (Win-Win): involves a high degree of concern for both self and others, with the goal of solving problems not “my way” or “your way” but “our way.”
After reading through the different styles, is it obvious which one is typically the most effective? For the most part, I think we can agree that collaboration (win-win) is the answer. Of course, a win-win approach is not always possible or even always appropriate. Collaborative problem solving can be quite time consuming, and some conflict decisions need to be made quickly. Much of the time, however, good intentions and creative thinking can lead to outcomes that satisfy everyone’s needs. But, you are probably wondering, “How do I implement it?” I have good news! Win-win problem solving can be enacted through a seven-step approach.
Seven steps to a successful squabble:
Step 1: Define your needs.
Step 2: Share your needs with the other person.
Step 3: Listen to the other person’s needs.
Step 4: Generate possible solutions.
Step 5: Evaluate the possible solutions, and choose the best one.
Step 6: Implement the solution.
Step 7: Follow up on the solution.
Although collaborative problem solving might seem like the most attractive style, it’s an oversimplification to imagine that there is a single best way to respond to conflicts. A conflict style isn’t necessarily a personality trait that carries across all situations. Several factors govern which style to use, including the situation, the other person, and your goals.
Here is a quiz to help you figure out your method of conflict resolution. It may be helpful to take it several times, thinking of different people/conflicts each time. You may be more of a competitor with a spouse, and more of a collaborator with a co-worker.
Your Method of Conflict Resolution
Think of a close relationship with someone you see regularly (e.g., a parent, sibling, roommate, close friend, spouse, or partner). How do you usually respond to conflicts with this person? Indicate the degree to which you believe each of the following statements applies to you during these conflicts, using a scale ranging from 1 to 5, where 1 = “never” and 5 = “very often.”
____ 1. I am usually firm in pursuing my goals.
____ 2. I attempt to deal with all of the other person’s and my own concerns.
____ 3. I try to find a compromise solution.
____ 4. I try to avoid creating unpleasantness for myself.
____ 5. It’s important to me that others are happy, even if it comes at my expense.
____ 6. I try to win my position.
____ 7. I consistently seek the other’s help in working out a solution.
____ 8. I give up some points in exchange for others.
____ 9. I try to postpone dealing with the issue.
____ 10. I might try to soothe the other’s feelings and preserve our relationship.
____ 11. I persistently try to get my points made.
____ 12. I try to integrate my concerns with the other person’s.
____ 13. I will let the other person have some of what she or he wants if she or he lets me have some of what I want.
____ 14. I sometimes avoid taking positions that would create controversy.
____ 15. I sometimes sacrifice my own wishes for those of the other person.
____ 16. I try to show the other person the logic and benefits of my position.
____ 17. I tell the other person my ideas and ask for his or hers.
____ 18. I propose a middle ground.
____ 19. I try to do what is necessary to avoid tensions.
____ 20. I don’t worry about my own concerns if satisfying them means damaging the relationship
Add your responses to items 1, 6, 11, and 16. This is your competition score.
Add your responses to items 2, 7, 12, and 17. This is your collaboration score.
Add your responses to items 3, 8, 13, and 18. This is your compromise score.
Add your responses to items 4, 9, 14, and 19. This is your avoidance score.
Add your responses to items 5, 10, 15, and 20. This is your accommodation score.
Scores on each dimension can range from 4 to 20, with higher scores indicating more of a preference for that particular conflict style. You may wish to complete the assessment several times, with different people or different conflicts in mind, to get a better sense of your preferred conflict styles.
Another great resource to use when dealing with conflict is Extension's Getting Our Hearts Right. Learn the three keys to getting OUR hearts right and having better relationships. If you'd like an in-depth video, check out the At Home with UAEX page on Facebook. JoAnn Vann has broken down the keys into different video posts, and you can check them all out here:
Reference: Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2010). Interplay: the process of interpersonal communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
“My name is Jansen Thacker. I am a senior at Harding University studying Family Life Education. I will be continuing my education at Harding’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate program. In my spare time, I enjoy painting and hanging out with my friends and family.”