Conflict management

Psychological tools for wellness / Category / Emile Du Toit / May 9th 2014

Conflict management 1: Conflict management styles

In this article on conflict management we will take a look at the 4 typical conflict management styles. Let us start though by discussing conflict management.

Conflict management

A large part of what goes wrong with interpersonal conflict has very little to do with the content of the argument. Yes, relationships do break up over irreconcilable opinions, but this is actually the exception. Much more commonly the problem with interpersonal conflict lies in the process of the argument, in how that conflict is managed.

In fact most of the time the positive or negative effect of a conflict is determined not by what we fight about but by the way that we fight about it!

With this in mind let us consider the four commonly delineated conflict management styles. For ease of use I have summarised information for the 4 conflict management styles just beneath their headings.

Passive-avoidant conflict management style

  • Behaviour: avoid conflict at almost any cost including backing down and pretence that the imposed outcome is okay
  • Function: not to experience conflict and the stress it induces
  • Function: lose-win

  • Passive-avoidant people find conflict so stressful that they avoid it at all costs, which unfortunately means that they never get used to conflict management. This ultimately means that they never desensitize to their fear by reality testing it. They also struggle with diminishing self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to cope) and a lack of practise of conflict management skills means that the thought of conflict only gets scarier over time. Passive-avoidant people are often people pleasers in many areas of their lives and struggle with behaviours like self-sacrifice and subjugation. They also quite often struggle with co-dependency.

    Passive-avoidant people are prepared to ‘lose’ by letting others ‘win’, which superficially may seem like a selfless act. However, I would contend that it is ultimately selfish as it is designed solely around not experiencing conflict (and sometimes secondary considerations such as not being abandoned).

    By not engaging with conflict they deny the other person an opportunity to get to know them on a deeper level and the relationship a chance to grow stronger

    Aggressive conflict management style

  • Behaviour: Be as emotionally, verbally or physically aggressive as necessary to succeed at imposing your opinion on the other.
  • Function: win at all costs
  • Function: win-lose

  • Aggressive people will use any direct form of intimidation that is necessary to ‘win’ and get their way. In an odd way it is honest, in that they are expressing their opinion and sometimes some of their feelings. However, it is entirely disrespectful and often abusive, and the cost of them ‘winning’ is that the other person has to ‘lose’. Aggressive people rarely express their softer feelings and hardly ever create a safe space for their partner to. Clearly the outcome is the same as with the passive-avoidant, where their understanding of each other remains stagnant and the relationship cannot grow.

    It is not uncommon for passive and aggressive people to end up in the same relationship together. Sometimes they are drawn to the other as it makes their position easy to implement. Aggressive people are happy to take the lead and passive people tend to be content not to challenge them and to follow their lead. Sometimes though this dynamic is created within the relationship itself. So if someone with a relatively aggressive conflict management style were to date someone not all that assertive then initially there might be fireworks. However, if the ‘not-so-assertive’ did not stand up for themselves (by engaging in the conflict or leaving) then over time they might well become more and more passive, and the aggressive person step more into an aggressive role.

    The same is often true when a passive person exhibits strong dependency traits and despite encouragement doesn’t really step up and express their opinions or make decisions. This can result in the other person taking on a central leadership role in the relationship and often over time they become so used to not being questioned that any discontent is quickly (and sometimes unknowingly) squashed.

    Passive-aggressive conflict management style

  • Behaviour:: Verbal content of what you say indicates acquiescence, whereas tone and body language indicate anger. Often involves sarcasm, sulking and dishonesty, including practicing desired behaviours under the radar.
  • Function: win at all costs
  • Function: lose-lose

  • The passive-aggressive conflict management position is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    Passive aggressive people rarely stand up for themselves in an open and transparent way and share their feelings and opinions. They tend to shut down and superficially acquiesce to the other person, but then act out their anger in other ways. Unlike with a passive person you will know when a passive-aggressive person is hurt or angry. They will use sarcasm, sulking, not talking and other means to ‘make you sorry’.

    Similar to the goal of the aggressive conflict management style, passive-aggression uses aggression in order to ‘win’. It is just thinly veiled! The bottom line message of the passive-aggressive is ‘you have done or are about to do something that I don’t like and should be / should have been aware of this, and now I will make you very sorry for it so that you don’t do it / will not do it again’.

    If only they would just verbalise that! Passive-aggression is particularly dishonest as there is a gulf between what is said and what is meant. Generally speaking neither party ends up happy during what is often a protracted conflict, and neither learns anything about the other or builds the relationship in any way, so the outcome is described as lose-lose.

    Assertive conflict management style

  • Behaviour:: Open and honest feedback on your position, what you feel and how best to proceed, together with hearing the others position and staying open to compromise where possible.
  • Function: Build the relationship and interpersonal understanding through conflict
  • Function: win - win

  • People often misunderstand what assertiveness is all about. Passive people generally mistake assertiveness for being argumentative and aggressive. Aggressive people generally see it as weak and passive. This forms part of the denial system that allows passive people to stay passive and aggressive ones aggressive!

    In fact assertiveness doesn’t really fit on this passive-to-aggressive continuum at all. Where then does is fit? Perhaps I should begin by describing where it does not fit. It is not passive. It is not aggressive. And it is definitely not passive aggressive!

    Assertiveness is a conflict management style born out of the realisation that process is more important than conflict; that the relationship is worth more than the particular squabble in progress!

    Generally in couple’s therapy by the time that couples get to me their conflict management dynamics are blown to pieces. It is all about winning and losing. The tiniest issues become sources of fully fledged war. There is no perspective, and no attempt to actually understand the other person’s perspective. Even when they get their way the the relationship continues on a downhill spiral and they both feel miserable.

    They have failed to understand that irrespective of who wins the battle they are both losing the war!

    Assertiveness comes from a position of strength and respect. Assertive people pick their battles and decide how important something is to them before engaging in conflict. They manage conflict with transparency, allowing the other party to understand both their position and their feelings on the matter. They respect themselves in that they stand up for what they believe in – and will not back down if it is important enough (unlike with passive-avoidance) . Yet they respect the other in that they do not attempt to dominate or subdue them (as would happen with aggression or passive-aggression).

    The primary focus of conflict management becomes deepening the understanding of, and trust in the other. The primary focus is on relationship building!

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