How Do You Handle Conflict?

3 people struggling with conflict

What do you do when…

  • You’re not able to sleep due to a neighbor’s late-night music or barking dog?
  • Your boss wants you to work overtime this weekend when you’ve planned a big outing with your family?
  • You and your partner have totally different opinions when it comes to a major life decision?

This is just a small sampling of the kinds of conflict we face on a pretty regular basis. Notice a few characteristics of these situations: our emotions are aroused, the stakes are high, the outcome is uncertain, and opinions vary.

Most of us don’t like dealing with these situations. In fact, unresolved conflict is the biggest reason that people leave their jobs. It’s why family members become alienated and why 50% of all marriages end in divorce.

Dealing with conflict is not easy.

And yet conflict, at least disagreement, is an inevitable part of life. We know this. We come from different backgrounds, have distinct personalities, needs, values, perspectives, roles, goals and priorities, all of which set us up to experience disagreements if not outright conflict.

So, the question is not whether we’ll experience conflict but rather how we’ll handle it. I’m going to suggest that many of the most successful people, in any walk of life, are good at handling conflict. They face it directly and are willing to enter into difficult and sensitive conversations when others want to flee and avoid. They can do this because they understand the dynamics of conflict and how to create conditions that open up communication and lead to positive, even amazing outcomes.

And yet, unfortunately, we receive very little training in how to manage conflict. And my professional experience tells me that many of our natural tendencies are harmful. Some people, when facing conflict, go into an aggressive and fight mode, others run emotionally and resort to silence or appeasement, and still others distract and avoid. These tendencies are common and yet make conflict worse in the long run.

A Framework

Here’s a framework for understanding our responses to conflict.

Four styles of communicating

Notice the two dimensions that make up good communication: One dimension is assertiveness which has to do with concern for self. People high on this dimension stand up for their own rights, look out for their own needs, and defend their own position. They seek to influence others to their point of view. The second dimension, along the bottom axis, is empathy, which is concern for others. People who are high on this dimension are sensitive to the needs, opinions and feelings of other people. They want to hear other’s opinions and take these into account when making decisions.

By combining these two dimensions we come up with four styles of communication: dominate, avoid, accommodate, and collaborate. Of course, we can fall anywhere along either dimension of the model and so not everyone is a “pure” or extreme type. However, everyone can be characterized as having natural tendencies in one or another of these four quadrants.

Notice, from the chart, that when we dominate, we are high on assertiveness and low on empathy. When we accommodate, we are high on empathy and low on assertiveness. When we avoid, we are low on both assertiveness and empathy. When we collaborate, we are high on both assertiveness and empathy. We are good at taking care of our own needs and good at helping others meet their needs as well.

I want to point out that sometimes it’s hard to see the styles in our day-to-day conversations when everything is going smoothly. In fact, the styles are complimentary and work well in our day-to-day interactions. However, they become more important and apparent during disagreements or conflicts (emotions are aroused, stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and opinions vary) which is why this model is important as we discuss conflict management. So, let’s explore these four styles in a little greater depth.

Dominators

Dominators impose their will on people and try to get them to do what they want with little regard for other’s thoughts, needs or feelings. Dominating behaviors include: lecturing, arguing, defending, belittling, controlling, attacking, blaming, pointing fingers, shaking fists, refusing to listen, being sarcastic, taking over, being bossy, etc.

Dominators don’t like to be wrong and they don’t like to lose. Their strategy is to convince, control or even coerce other people into thinking, doing or believing what they want. They tend to say things like:

Dominator telling others what to do

“You must (should, ought to, better)”

“My way or the highway”

“You always/never”

“That’s dumb”

“Why don’t you…”

“You ought to know better than that”

Dominators remind me of a friend I was talking to recently. He and his wife had gotten into an argument and couldn’t settle it. Finally, in an attempt to bring some peace, his wife said, “Okay, Let’s compromise. I’ll admit I’m wrong if you’ll admit I’m right.”

“Okay,” He agreed.

So she mustered all her humility and said, “I’m wrong,’  to which he immediately replied, “You’re right.”

 Dominators communicate the message, “If you don’t do what I want, I will intimidate, coerce, or overpower you until you do.” At the extreme, dominators go on the offensive and attack other people, trying to win through intimidation, power, and control. They tend to be action-oriented, direct, demanding, opinionated, critical, and appear to be self-assured.

 Accommodators

 Accommodators, on the other hand, put the opinions, needs and feelings of others ahead of their own. Such behaviors include: silent treatment, deferring to others, shutting down, giving-in, appeasing, harmonizing, taking the blame, placating, pleading, apologizing, etc. Whereas dominators don’t like to lose, accommodators don’t like to be disliked or rejected. What other people think about them is more important than what they think about themselves. So, they get wrapped up in being nice. They try to get others to change using indirect tactics. They communicate messages like:

Couple waiting for other to give in

“What do you want?”

“I want you to feel good about this”

“It doesn’t matter to me”

“I may be wrong, but”

“Is that okay with you?”

“Let’s try to get along”

“I just can’t seem to”

“What do you need?”

Accommodators don’t want to offend. They hope that by being nice they can not only avoid rejection and criticism, but that others will see how nice they are and eventually come around. Over time, accommodators may also feel and act like martyrs, pout, get sick, be depressed, or act out their feelings in passive-aggressive kinds of ways. They tend to be polite, easy to get along with, non-judgmental, passive, and self-aware.

Avoiders

 Notice that avoiders are on the low end of both the assertiveness and empathy scales. They tend to minimize differences. Avoiding behaviors include: denying the seriousness of a situation, suppressing their feelings, using humor, minimizing, being apathetic, rationalizing, acting as if it’s “business as usual,” distracting, dismissing, escaping, etc.

Avoiders don’t like conflict and, in particular, the strong emotions conflict brings, so they try to pretend that everything is okay. Their strategy is to leave issues alone and hope that they will go away. They tend to say things like:

couple avoiding each other after argument

“It’s no biggie”

“Let’s not make a mountain out of a mole-hill”

“What problem?”

“You’re cute when you’re mad”

“I said I was sorry”

“Let’s be logical about this”

Avoiders communicate the message “Let’s pretend that everything is okay.” They don’t want to make waves and hope that by glossing over a situation it will go away. Because they have a hard time dealing with emotional issues, their relationships aren’t as deep. They don’t disclose their true selves to other people but seek to play it safe. Avoiders tend to be easy going, independent, rational, and detached.

Consequences

Unfortunately, the long-term consequences of each of these three communication styles, not all the time but during conflict, are harmful. Dominators may get their way but set up an unsafe and adversarial atmosphere of “me versus you” and “us versus them” which causes resentment and ill will. Accommodators withhold valuable information about their own opinions or needs which limits the quality of decision-making and leaves them eventually feeling like pawns or martyrs who can’t influence what’s happening. Avoiders direct conversations away from unsafe topics and so prevent people from talking deeply about important issues.

The net effect of any of these styles is that conflicts go unsolved or, more likely, are solved in ways that are not fully satisfying to all parties.

Application

 I’ll talk about Collaboration in my next article. But in the meantime, my invitation to you is simply to be aware of the disagreements and conflicts you face as you go through these next few days and weeks.

  • What are the situations most likely to trigger you?
  • When and where do they occur?
  • Which style are you most likely to use on the job or in some other public role?
  • How about in your home?
  • What is your fallback conflict style as conflict heats up and your emotions are aroused, the stakes are high, opinions vary, and the outcome is uncertain?

Consider these questions and feel free to share this article or leave a comment below.

(And by the way, I was recently invited by the Udemy staff to publish a program on conflict resolution. It is now live on my web page. See Become a Master at Resolving Conflict at Home and Work to learn more or enroll.)


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “How Do You Handle Conflict?”

  1. Joye Whitaker says:

    wow what an eye opening article. I’ve been all of these with different people. I would be anxious to learn of constructive ways to handle conflict. Thank you for the great insite Roger. I really appreciate these helpful newsletters.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Hi Joye. I’m glad you liked the article. It’s true that we take on different styles in different relationships, although I find we have a preferred. What do you think? I now have my new course up on Udemy. You can find it under products on my webpage. Watch for a promotion and price discount for my subscribers in the next few weeks.

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