A Three Minute Slide Show in Powerpoint
Learn the five conflict styles and two key factors in how they differ.
Detailed explanation text below the slideshow viewer.
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Learn the Basics of Conflict Style Management in Five Minutes
To accompany the "Intro to Conflict Styles" slideshow.
In any situation of conflict, there are two things going on.
One is that people have an agenda, that is, their own goals or expectations. Sometimes we don't care very much whether our own agenda is met and we are not assertive about it. But sometimes we care a lot and are very assertive. So the vertical axis shows this range, from low commitment to our own agenda to high commitment.
A second thing in any conflict: there is a relationship of some kind. Sometimes we are very committed to that relationship and our response communicates that to others. Other times we are not very committed to that relationship - at least in that moment we feel and act as though we don't care.
That might sound bad, but it is not always wrong - for example, if someone you will never see again shouts an insult at you on the highway, there is no point in worrying about how to"fix" that relationship. Just get home safely and forget about it! On the diagram, the relationship is charted on a horizontal line, showing that we can have a low focus on (or commitment to) the relationship or a high focus.
If we put these two dynamics together in a diagram, we get five different styles of responding to conflict. The styles differ according to what we are focusing on in the moment of conflict: our own agenda or the relationship or both.
So which style is best?
None is best for all situations of conflict. Each is useful for certain situations when other styles wouldn't be very useful. For example...
The Harmonizing response down there on the right sound great. Isn't it good to give a high priority to relationships? Harmonizing brings kindness and comfort into relationships.
But kindness and comfort cannot always be our priority. If a child runs into the street, no loving parent will smile sweetly and say "I love you!" There's only one wise response here: Grab the little wanderer fast, and haul him back to the sidewalk! We don't worry about his feelings in that moment and the quality of the relationship for the next ten minutes might be terrible! That's a Directing response, because the parent doesn't focus on the relationship in that moment - the agenda of saving life takes priority. Leaders of many kinds need to use Directing from time to time.
In organizations, if staff are not getting the job done, or doing it incorrectly, no competent manager will Harmonize. Managers have an obligation to challenge people to higher performance, even if some staff are annoyed by the challenge. That means a Directing or at least a Cooperating response at times, since both of these styles push others with our own agenda.
Cooperating is another response that sounds great. High commitment to the task, and to the relationship - the best of both worlds! Yes, it is a great response for many circumstances. More than any other of the styles, it is one that really improves the lives of most people when we improve our skills in it. But Cooperating is not the best response for all conflicts. It takes time, effort, and skill to talk things through in the in-depth way this style requires!
Cooperating is a great goal, but choose carefully the issues that merit the investment of effort it requires. For example, if your organization is buying new office furniture, is it a good use of staff time and energy to have everyone sit down and talk through all the options in the thorough way that Cooperation requires? Probably it is not. Probably it will be much better if one person, or a small committee, consults and then simply announces the plans.
Life is easier and better if we Cooperate sometimes, but also Avoid, Harmonize, Direct, or Compromise at times.
In other words, a key goal is flexibility.
Each style has strengths and weaknesses. We manage conflict better when we are able to use each style well. Then we can choose style responses that fit the circumstances we are in.
But here's the problem: Most of us get good at one or two styles early in life, and rely on it for all circumstances. We learn much of this as children. In a family, maybe big brother learns that conflict is no problem - he just uses a Directing style and little brother falls into line. It works great - until big brother gets married to a woman who doesn't Harmonize like little brother did. She expects to use a Cooperating style to work out differences and she's angry when her husband loudly insists on things his way. Now he's in a life crisis!
Can he adapt and learn to use other styles as well? That's the challenge for all of us. It doesn't matter which styles we prefer. The challenge is to get skilled in all of the styles, to understand the benefits and costs of each, and to be able to choose the one most effective for the particular situation we face.