In my work place, when you ask people how they feel about conflict, the most common answer you will get is: Oh, I don’t mind conflict, as long as it’s healthy and productive.
Is that like saying: Oh, I like snow as long as it’s soft, clean, fluffy, falls after December 20th and melts before January 5th? Does that ever really happen? Is conflict ever really healthy and productive? Not really. Conflict is by it’s nature, competitive, a struggle, and often involves incompatibles. So what is everyone talking about? In my view, when someone references a positive, healthy, and productive conflict – they are really talking about successful communication and ultimately agreement on desired outcome.
Great, Akiko – but what do I do when my desires are different from other people’s desires? What if we really don’t agree?
It’s a great question. The first and perhaps most important step is to understand what you want out of the situation. In any conflict there are two key factors: the importance of your goal (related to an idea, item, or issue) and the importance of the relationship between yourself and the person that you are “in conflict” with. In order to be truly successful at managing conflict (i.e. communicating well and arriving at a mutually agreeable outcome), we must:
- recognize that these two factors will vary in importance from situation to situation
- recognize the importance level of each factor within a specific situation
- understand five key approaches to conflict and how to apply them based on what is important and not important in the given moment.
How can we make this easier?
Luckily for us, two leadership experts, Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann introduced the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (or TKI for short). The Instrument was based off of Robert R. Blake and Jane Mouton’s Managerial Grid Model. This Model has been used in theories, tools, and assessments that are far too numerous to count, but in it’s simplest form, the five section grid measures concern for the task (called assertiveness) and concern for people (called cooperativeness). By assessing what is important to you in any conflict situation, you can place yourself on this grid and determine how best to move forward and communicate!
This is what the grid looks like:
What do the five approaches mean? Let’s look at them one by one.
Avoiding – this is low on the assertiveness scale and low on the cooperativeness scale. You’ll find yourself on this section of the grid, when don’t particularly care about your goal or your relationship. Sounds weird right? Let’s put this another way: You just sit down to dinner with your family. You’re starving and super glad to get off your feet. Just as your bum hits the chair the phone rings. Without thinking, you jump up and grab it. It’s someone wanting to sell you duct cleaning services…..Oh HELLL no!!! Your brain screams: Why did you pick up the phone? How dare this person phone me? Your fist clenched around the phone and your face flushed, you inhale and get ready to let them know exactly how you feel. Then, you happen to glance up and see your kids looking at you. This is the moment to consider: how much do I care about my goal (yelling at this super annoying person on the phone)? How much do I care about my relationship with this total stranger who I will likely never meet? Chances are – in the face of ruining a perfectly lovely meal by ranting for 10 minutes, having your food go cold, and upsetting your family who will have front row seats to your melt down, you will find you don’t care about yelling at the person on the phone and you CERTAINLY don’t care to forge your relationship with him by being honest and telling him how you feel. In this case, it’s in your best interest to avoid the conflict. Simply say, no thanks and hang up the phone thus sending you, your family, and the duct cleaner on with the night!
Competing – this is high on the assertiveness scale and low on the cooperativeness scale. This approach is most effective in situations where your relationship is less important than your goal. In times of emergency, this is often the most effective approach to communicating. If there is threat of a fire and you need to get people to exit a building, spending time communicating with them in a way that helps to build your relationship is not important. What is important is their (and your) safety. This approach can involve cutting people off when they are talking, giving orders, even yelling. In that moment you don’t care about your relationship and you care only about your goal.
Compromising – is right in them middle of the grid. We have been conditioned to think that compromise is always a good solution. However, in a compromise, no one really gets what they want. When a compromise is successful the goal that each person came into the situation with is sacrificed and replaced. The new goal is coming to agreement and both parties are willing to let go of their original goal in order to move forward. The relationship between the parties is strengthened because in the moment they are “on the same side”. This sounds like a win-win right? The issues is, over time, both parties may come to feel resentful because they abandoned their true goals for the sake of moving forward and while that was important at the time, the further away from the decision they get, the less important the agreement seems. The original goals start to feel more important (because they now have to live without having accomplished them). Additionally, the relationship bonds may start to fray. Because of the resentment, either party may become frustrated with or angry at the person who was once their partner. So what do we take from this? Never compromise? No. Just remember that compromise is best used when moving forward is more important than your original goal and when you will likely not have to “live with” the results for extended periods of time.
Accommodating – this approach requires high cooperativeness and low competitiveness. This is most effective in situations where your primary focus is your relationship with another person. Let’s say you and your partner are thinking about where to go for dinner. You’re in the mood for Mexican but your partner is craving pasta. You absolutely could dig your heels in and insist on the local cantina BUT you have to ask yourself, what is really important here? Tacos or an enjoyable night out with my partner? If it’s the latter, this would be an excellent time to be accommodating.
Collaborating – high on the scale for both competitiveness and cooperation, collaboration is closest to a win-win in the TKI model. Use this approach when both your goal and your relationship are truly important. Use this approach when you are in conversation with someone you care about, who you will maintain a relationship with, when the conversation is about something that you care about and that will have a lasting impact in your life. A great example of this is buying a house with your partner. Like compromising, the time factor is important here. In order to successfully collaborate you need to have enough time to work out the details of your goal in a way that respects and builds your relationship.
The potential for conflict exits in almost every interaction we have. Good conflict is really good communication. We all have an approach that comes most naturally to us and that we prefer to use but understanding and being able to flex between these approaches will really help you to accomplish your goals and build the meaningful relationships you want.