Module 2: Starting with Self: Section 1

The following is Section 1 from Module 2 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University.  These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.

1.  What is your Conflict Style

Most of us have developed a “way of being” when confronting conflict.  While, in many cases, our response is somewhat situation specific, we tend to have a “default response” or style.  While the literature identifies a range of models for reflecting on this notion, this is not about differentiating a “right style” from a “wrong style”.  For the most part one can identify both pros and cons of just about any style.  The point is that our ability to be intentional in choosing a conflict response style is dependent on a level of self-awareness as to what we tend to do.  In fact, much of preparation occurs in the context of increasing our personal reflection and self-awareness.

In the book, Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes are High introduced in Module 1, the authors state:

“As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down one of two unhealthy paths.  They move either to silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool)”.

They go on to say:

‘Silence consists of any act to purposefully withhold information from the pool of meaning.  It’s almost always done as a means of avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of meaning.  Methods range from playing verbal games to avoiding a person entirely.  The three most common forms of silence are masking avoiding, and withdrawing”.

Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view.  It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool.  Methods range from name-calling and monologuing to making threats.  The three most common forms are controlling, labeling and attacking”.

In the book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, introduced in Module 1, William Isaacs introduces a schematic for describing an unfolding conversation. He goes on to describe what he refers to as Fundamental Choice Points which will influence the structure of the conversation and our ultimate experience with others.  When engaged in a conversation where there are differences of opinion, strong emotions and important issues at stake we initially engage in deliberation.  This means to take careful thought, to reflect or to weigh out.  In other words we think about what is being said.  In the context of this deliberation we tend to make one of two choices; suspend judgment or defend our point of view.

Suspending judgment starts with awareness that I am making a judgment about your point of view.  I choose to dis-identify with this judgment in order to “listen without resistance”.  My goal is to more deeply understand your thinking and point of view.

When describing the choice to defend, Isaac says:

The word defend comes from roots that mean “to ward off an attack.”  This is a billiard ball model of conversations.  In a discussion people see themselves as separate from one another.  They take positions to put forth arguments and defend their stakes”.

A third, and well known model for reflecting on conflict style comes from the work of Kenneth Thomas.  He proposes a two dimensional model for assessing conflict style based on assertiveness and cooperativeness.  Assertiveness is the extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy his or her concerns while cooperativeness, the extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy the other persons concerns.   From this model he proposes five different styles of conflict engagement.  They are:

  • Competing:  described as being assertive and uncooperative.  When competing an individual is more focused on addressing his/her concerns, sometimes at the expense of the other person meeting their needs.  The competing person will often use any resources available to win.
  • Accommodating: is described as unassertive and cooperative.  It is considered the opposite of competing and is sometimes described as self-sacrificial.  When accommodating the individual neglects his/her concerns in order to meet the needs of the other person.
  • Avoiding: is described as both unassertive and uncooperative.  In this case the individual does not pursue his or her objectives nor those of the other.  In many cases the conflict is denied.
  • Collaborating:  is both assertive and cooperative and is fundamentally the opposite of avoiding.  In the context of collaboration the parties seek to find solutions and make decisions that address the concerns of all involved.  In this case the parties are committed to achieving mutual gain or mutual benefit for all involved.
  • Compromising:  is seen as moderately assertive and cooperative.  In this case the parties are looking for expedient, mutually acceptable solutions that may only partially meet the objectives of those involved.

As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of conflict style.

  • Where do you typically find yourself on the silence/violence continuum?  What triggers you from one to the other?
  • In what situations do you find yourself defending yourself?  In what types of situations are you more likely to suspend judgment?
  • What conflict contexts prove most challenging for you?  Which of the five styles described above might be considered your default response.
  • Reflect on the five styles of conflict engagement described by Thomas and identify three pros and three cons of each.


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