Conference Gem: Managing Conflict Your Way, What’s Your Style?

By Terry Sommer 

One of the (WOW) Workshops on Wednesdays, Managing Conflict Your Way, What’s Your Style? , was well worth my stay to the end of ASPE 2011 in Nashville.

Warmly and engagingly led by Peter O’Colmain,* this thought-provoking morning took us through a comprehensive look at the what, why, and how of conflict in the workplace—and then delved deeper as we surveyed, reviewed and discussed our unique personal strategies for handling (and avoiding) conflict when it arises. Finally, it offered alternative ways to manage conflict that perhaps were not intuitive to us.

Peter defined the concept of conflict unthreateningly as a natural phenomenon, inherently neither good nor bad, that takes place when two or more people disagree. Things resonated immediately with us when we reviewed the causes of conflict—too many to list, but major examples include unclear expectations, miscommunication, differences in values, differences in cultures and ego issues.

By the time we got to the nine hot button behaviors typically at the root of workplace conflicts: abrasive, aloof, hostile, micro-managing, overly-analytical, self-centered, unappreciative, unreliable and untrustworthy—everyone in the room was relating hard and the individual examples elicited bursts of knowing laughter.

As we turned to analyzing our own conflict management styles with a survey, I especially appreciated that it included a look at our styles under stress—most relevant to life at my institution—and I assume I am not alone.

I learned a lot that I found useful. Conflict Management Styles break down into four categories:

  • I Win/You Win – Collaborative Response
  • I Win/You Lose – Self Assertive or Competitive Response
  • I Lose/You Win – Accommodating or Martyr-Like Response
  • I Lose/You Lose – Aggressive or Mutual Harm Response

Just having categories—I love categories—already my brain was organizing and I was feeling better about this octopus that is “conflict management styles.”

Another helpful element—Peter compared the response styles to animal “totems.” For instance, the collaborative response was characterized by the Eagle; the accommodating compared to a Teddy Bear. There were helpful notes on what happens when the approach is used, when it is ideally employed or best avoided. For example, when the Teddy Bear (Accommodating/Martyr) style is used, differences are played down and surface harmony is maintained. (You’re OK, I’m not OK.) It is appropriate to use when preservation of the relationship is more important at the moment. It is inappropriate to use if smoothing over leads to evading the issue when others are ready to deal with it.

Examples of when—and when not—to use each style were a helpful reminder that there are no wrong answers here. Every situation is unique and ideally we can be flexible enough to find the best approach for each situation.

I won’t elaborate much on the different approaches for Conflict Styles Under Stress (Competition; Aggression; Accommodation; Martyrdom) or Conflict Avoidance Styles (Folding or Helplessness; Denial or “Fixing;” Surrogates; Covert Aggression) except to say that just having these categories (as well the baseline categories above) and keeping them in mind when the tension ratchets up, has helped me keep my cool under fire.

The workshop concluded with a reminder of four constructive elements we can implement to repair any negative effects wrought by conflict:

  • An Overt Invitation to discuss the problem
  • Intent to Address Emotional Damage
  • Offer to Take Responsibility and Apologizing—easier said than done he reminds us
  • Expressed Interest in Resolving the Issue

Full disclosure: As the New Near approached I began thinking about resolutions, as well as mulling over this article and wanted to approach some old problems in new ways. I have tried out some new approaches to conflict on two fronts. Once I used a Win/Win approach and once used an Accommodating Response.  With another party, I have decided to resist using the full on approach Peter suggests with the four behavioral elements, as I don’t sense enough receptivity there. Regardless, I have begun a constructive thought process about the situation and am ready for an opening should one arise.

This workshop had me thoughtfully engaged from the beginning and trying out new behaviors that are leading to useful alternatives in my ability to manage conflict and all its attendant stresses. I highly recommend the experience to others should you have the opportunity!

Thank you, Peter for a productive and useful workshop.   Please contact Peter directly for more information. (POcolmain@ECFMG.org)

*NB: Co-leader Artis Ellis was emergently detained at the last moment.

Have you incorporated an idea gleaned from a conference discussion or presentation? Have you built on an “Ah Hah!” moment that came to mind during a workshop or plenary speech? If you are an ASPE member and would like to share what you have built on with others in our field send it to Valerie Fulmer (vfulmer@medschool.pitt.edu) and we may air your idea here in Conference Gems.

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.
Winston Churchill

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