Many people dislike conflict because they worry it will have a negative impact on personal relationships and that they will end up falling out with colleagues. The truth is that conflict is an inherent part of running projects and it can generate surprisingly positive outcomes when tackled correctly.
When conflict is approached with an open and constructive mind, different points of views can be expressed and team members can learn from each other and come to a mutual agreement. It’s far more problematic when a disagreement is dismissed and pushed under the carpet. Then it will mushroom below the surface and become destructive.
The five styles of conflict
Back in the 1970s, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a simple model describing the extent to which we are assertive and cooperative during a conflict. The more assertive you are, the more you will assert your own will over others to get your needs met. The more cooperative you are, the more you will prioritise other people’s interest over your own needs. Based on these two dimensions, they devised five different conflict styles:
- Collaborating: Highly assertive and highly cooperative. You seek a win‑win situation.
- Compromising: Moderately assertive and moderately cooperative. You seek a middle ground.
- Competing: Highly assertive but not cooperative. You want to win.
- Accommodating: Not assertive but highly cooperative. You give in.
- Avoiding: Not assertive and not cooperative. You want to delay.
When you use the avoiding style, you neither pursue your own concerns nor those of the other person. Instead you push the issue aside and play down its importance. You may do so because you feel you don’t have all the details at hand to have a meaningful discussion or because you are fearful in some other way.
Kicking the can down the road may feel good in the short term, but in your heart you know that the issue hasn’t been resolved.
To begin approaching conflict in a more open way, first become aware of the situations and conversations you tend to avoid. Notice how you feel and where in your body you sense tension. Also notice if your breathing pattern changes. If you hold your breath or breathe rapidly from your chest when conflict approaches, deliberately slow down and deepen your breath. Your physiology and psychology are closely linked. By breathing slowly and deliberately you’re signalling to yourself that you’re safe and that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Question and listen
With your physiology in check, begin to explore the challenging situation by asking open questions of the other person. The best open questions begin with ‘what’ and ‘how’. What are they looking to achieve? What makes this topic so important to them? What do they worry about? How do they propose the issue is resolved? Which risks do they foresee? What would they do if they were in your shoes? And so on.
Deeply listen to their answers and see if you can identify the underlying needs and wants of the other people involved. When you’re able to suspend your own agenda for a moment and overcome your instinct to avoid conflict, you open yourself up to a deeper exploration of the issue. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but it’s a skill that can be practised and that can make all the difference to the success or failure of your project.
Going for a win‑win may not always be possible but it’s good to aim for. It’s when you collaborate that you’re able to come up with creative solutions and turn conflict into something positive.
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