Conflict management styles and use of dialogue to transform conflicts into a possibility for creative change
Conflicts are part of the natural process of any relationship including the ones with your teammates. A conflict can happen because of miscommunication and misunderstanding, but also because due to differences of approaches, opinions, attitudes and perspectives on a situation, or in some instances lack of resources. Acknowledging the conflict as part of the teamwork it’s only the first step of transforming it into a synergizing process of team creativity. There is value in connecting the diversity within a team which could lead to better team connection and thus performance. That could be done through awareness of different conflict strategies that you and your teammates use during your work and through proactive use of dialogue to promote collaboration over competition.
Conflicts happen all the time, yet, people respond to them differently in different situations. Thomas-Killman has categorized 5 different conflict styles, based on different responsive patterns, in which people have to manage conflicts. Knowing these conflict styles can help you recognize conflict situations in your team.
5 different styles by Thomas-Killman
Using the graphic above Thomas-Killman defined the following conflict styles:
- Competition/Aggressiveness (Win/Lose)
One chooses this conflict style when the goal or result is more important than the sustaining of a good working relationship. This is usually a conflict style of people who are confident and assertive and do not consider that there is a value of collaboration, needed to solve the issue at hand. Their own concerns are at the expense of the other person.
- Avoidance (Lose/Lose)
In a situation when one feels that neither the goal nor the relationship is important and the concern is not worth the time. This is a conflict style when one simply chooses not to invest any energy/time in solving the conflict or improve the collaboration because it’s not considered worthwhile. Therefore, this strategy does not produce any change to the circumstances nor offers solutions.
- Comforting (Lose/Win)
This conflict strategy reflects when one values more the relationship within the team than the goal itself. In this case, the person chooses to comfort and follow what the other/s is/are suggesting for the sake of the collaboration within the team.
- Compromise (Win some, lose some/Lose some, win some)
When one decides to compromise, then bargaining is at the table. In this case, both the goal and the collaboration are important, nevertheless, there is a space to give up something in order to win something and meet halfway with the other/s.
- Collaboration (Win/Win)
Collaboration is a strategy when the team members who are in conflict explore the causes and the needs of each other with the goal in mind. This means that both the importance of the goal and the relationship are considered. This strategy may offer coming up with solutions that have not been considered before.
If the conflict remains difficult to resolve and transform one could call for authority as a third party that could decide the issue. This is especially applicable in hierarchical team structures, but it could also be relevant when you have an expert in the team who you could revert to.
How to transform conflict using dialogue and thinking together?
William Isaacs, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management, author of the book “Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together” defines dialogue as a conversation with a center, not sides.
“It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense.” (P.19)
To enable dialogue, one needs to seek shared meaning with the intention to understand before being understood. This is why William Isaacs process of thinking together consists of four steps:
Not only hear, or listen to respond, but listen to really understand and learn the meaning of the other/s. Be curious about what is the person saying, how are they feeling, what is their truth? Hear their story and perception without judgment and interpretation. In case a resistance rises, notice your reactions and try to let go. Getting still and setting your intention to listen with an open mind and heart can help you deal with your reactions.
To respect someone means to acknowledge their worth as human being, who may be different or have different views, yet has the same dignity, legitimacy, and right to have his own opinion. Respect allows different viewpoints to be presented and can encourage learning and creativity if everyone welcomes them with a positive and constructive open mind. Be curious about your reactions and the underlying causes of them. Sometimes our reaction to others can be a great mirror of own values and experiences. Respecting means to banish any kind of violence including blame, attack, intrude, dismiss or dispute the viewpoints of the other/s.
We are programmed to judge as part of our self-defense mechanism. Being aware of the reactions and judgment which as you listen to the other/s, could help you let go of them. Be curious about the new possibilities that could arise instead of sticking to your solution as the only one. This means to embrace your ignorance and acknowledge what you don’t know or struggle to understand. Remind yourself to be curious to cope with your emotional reactions. Dismiss the conclusions that arise and explore alternative meanings, new ideas and motives.
This is the moment you present your contribution to advance the dialogue. Make sure you take time to formulate and choose the words that really articulate your honest and authentic expression. Consider what is important and of value to the discussion. Sometimes that might be the way you feel or your doubts and concerns. Speak your truth, clearly, directly and with courage. Speaking with “I messages” (using the first person) is what can help you voice your perspective of the truth.
Isaac’s Art of thinking together doesn’t mean engendering a kind of false harmony and pretending that people agree. It also means that people don’t go into “argument” mode where they talk only from their own predispositions and certainties, which they blindly defend. Conversations are seen as either opportunities to trade information or arenas in which to win points. In fact, leaders anywhere in an organization can learn to take dialogue one step further than finding shared meaning, to produce shared action. From shared meaning, shared action arises. (P.10)
Dialogue addresses problems further upstream than conventional approaches. It attempts to bring about change at the source of our thoughts and feelings, rather than at the end of our thinking process, where reactions are being generated. It seeks not to correct defects after they have occurred, but to alter processes so that next time, they do not occur in the first place.
- When was the last time when you witnessed a team trying to talk together about a tough issue?
- How did it go?
- Which conflict strategy do you and your teammates use predominantly and why?
- What can help you really penetrate the heart of the matter?
- What does it take to be proactive in seeking common understanding within a team?
- How can you and your teammates help each other recognize when you are reacting prematurely, focusing only on your own fears and feelings, and hearing only what fits your own preconceptions?
For one to transform conflict and stimulate dialogue, it is needed to use a proactive instead of reactive language. Use the following exercise to transform the reactive statements into proactive language:
“There’s nothing I can do”
“They make me so mad”
“That’s the way I am”
“I don’t have the time”
“They do that to me”
“I have to do this”
“I can’t, that’s me”
Tip: Try using verbs such as I will, I can, let’s, I choose, etc.