I bet I can predict how you deal with conflict.
How can I do that? Because there are only five possible ways: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition and collaboration.
I recently took a weeklong Basic Mediation Training at the Pierce County Center for Dispute Resolution in Tacoma to learn how to become a mediator. One of the things I learned is that conflict is a normal and inevitable part of human life. Because it is a given, we all need to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Whether we realize it or not, we all fall into one or more of these five coping strategies.
Which is the best way? Read on.
Let me define each of the terms to help you understand which one(s) you use as your way of coping with conflict:
Avoidance: Rather than dealing with conflict, people who use this technique don’t deal with it. They leave the room, don’t answer questions or change the subject. They don’t even want to think about strife so they blot it out of their consciousness. In my experience successful politicians are masterful at this approach. They are avoiders in that they know just exactly how to give nonanswer answers to questions by talking so long people forget what was asked. Sometimes avoiders also just don’t answer; they leave the listener hanging.
Accommodation: “Peace at any price” is the goal of those who use this technique. They give in to demands in hopes that doing so will quiet the attacker, who will be satisfied and not demand any more from them. Unfortunately, if one is dealing with a bully, giving in is only the beginning of demands. The bully is looking for limits and boundaries, not peace. Historically, accommodation was called appeasement and was the major cause of World War II.
When dealing with nonbullies, accommodation will often bring peace without creating conflict and life will go on. I find that it’s easier to say, as I get older and find myself in conflict with my wife on matters of décor, “Yes, dear.” Sometimes it’s a better form of conflict resolution than a debate. Choosing one’s battles is part of the art of living.
Compromise: Representative democracy is supposed to be good at this technique for coming to agreement; lose a little, gain a little. Unfortunately, our current Congress seems to have lost the art of compromise. It’s either I win, you lose, or you win, I lose, or we both (or others) lose. This is what is happening after the recent decision to allow sequestration – government workers are furloughed and vital programs are cut without any choices allowed as to where the cuts should be made.
Competition: With this approach, dealing with conflict means that the stakes are raised to the point where long-term relationships are endangered and/or destroyed. Of course, sometimes this is necessary, especially if the opponent is not worthy of a continuing relationship. The ultimate example is war where you win or you lose and there is nothing in between. Trial lawyers use this approach in our adversary-based court system. These are the times this approach is absolutely necessary.
Collaboration: This approach seeks synergy where both sides benefit from agreement, and neither loses. Creative solutions are found as both sides feel like their needs are met. The problem with this approach is that it takes a lot of time to get agreement, something not always available.
In my view, this is the ideal technique, but unfortunately with some personalities and egos, the stakes are often too high to be able to reach this ideal. The ultimate goal with this approach is to maintain and improve long-term relationships. This technique recognizes that the most important conflicts do not end; there is just a resolution or recess until the next conflict. As long as people remain in relationship with each other, there will be conflict. We all have perspectives and values that will clash with others. Reaching maturity in conflict requires us to realize that all these ways to attain conflict resolution work, depending on the situation. The correct solution to a conflict will depend on the stakes, and the importance of the relationship of the opposing sides.
King Solomon stated this principle in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes:“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, …a time to search and a time to give up a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
The difficulty we mortals have in dealing with inevitable conflict is knowing which of the five conflict resolution techniques to use at the right time and with the right finesse. That is the art of living in relationship with other humans.