Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 23, 2014

How to deal with conflict: Different situations call for different methods

conflictThere are five main ways people deal with conflict, and each of them has its appropriate uses — even avoidance and competition.

That was one of the insights from Human Resources organization development consultant Maureen Lazar, who recently led the annual “Working Through Conflict” workshop for Pitt staff.

Lazar said the workshop focused on teaching people to become aware of their own usual modes of dealing with conflict and to be more flexible in choosing among alternatives, figuring out which mode is right for a particular situation. She even distributed a “conflict planner” that suggested conflict conversations could be strategically outlined: who is involved; what’s the potential outcome; what information is needed, and how the group can brainstorm, develop an action plan and review its success.

Conflict is not just arguing, Lazar said. Conflict happens “where your desires are different from someone else.”

The five different modes with which people face a conflict, as determined by researchers Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, former faculty member in the Katz Graduate School of Business, are competing, accommodating, avoiding, collaborating and compromising.

Lazar said none of the five techniques predominates among workshop attendees, in her experience. Some people want to confront and fix a conflict right away. Others want to avoid conflict at all costs. Often, it depends on how much it affects the individual, she said. “We recognize where they are at,” she said of those looking to learn how to deal with conflict, “but we recognize that their preferred style may not be most appropriate.”

There are times when each of the five styles works best. Avoidance, for instance, has a bad reputation, but “there are a lot of places to use avoidance. What we’re really talking about is delaying.” When an email arrives and you aren’t happy with the message’s content, or when tempers are raised in person — take five, Lazar said. Not only is cooling off a worthwhile move, you might also want or need to gather more information to decide on your position before answering the email or returning to the meeting table.

Similarly, competition, with its winners and losers, would seem anathema to conflict resolution in higher education; the word “collegial,” after all, has come to symbolize good-hearted cooperation.

“Competing can be good if you are on tight time constraints” and someone’s idea has to prevail, Lazar explained. If you are passing along a directive from a supervisor, sometimes no counter-arguments can be broached. Being a competing conflict-solver also may work “when you’re really passionate about something and you really feel like this needs to be heard. Or if everyone’s up in arms … and no one is able to make a decision.”

In the course of the workshop, Lazar said participants composed statements that would work in each of the five conflict-solving modes. To successfully use avoidance, for instance, you might employ the sentence, “We’re both clearly upset about this situation; let’s revisit it tomorrow.”

In the end, Lazar said, “you have your style, but you’re always adapting it, based on the situation and the individual.

“Conflict isn’t always bad,” she added. “It can lead to productive change for an organization.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 5