Monday, June 29, 2009

Dealing with Conflict

How much of your workday do you spend dealing with conflict? According to one expert, most of us spend 20 percent of our time dealing with irritations, frustrations, and annoyances (at least seemingly) caused by other people.
"The ability to manage conflict has become a key skill," says Dr. Kenneth Thomas in Dealing with Conflict, a 1992 training video that capitalizes on some of the management professor’s best-selling theories. "Customers, suppliers, regulators, bosses and co-workers" are all sources of conflict that he says we must contend with if we are to keep our collective cool.

Thomas is professor emeritus of business and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He became famous for his conflict management theories more than thirty years ago when he and Dr. Ralph Kilmann developed a 30-question survey that measures individual use of five conflict management styles. The resulting Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory has since become a favorite of human resource departments and organizational psychology consultants.

The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory, or TKI, posits that most of us use some combination of the following five behaviors when facing a conflict.

• Competing , or satisfying one’s own concerns at the expense of another. A person who competes may pull rank, get involved in power struggles, or develop a reputation for always doing things by the book. Competing may be useful, however, when quick action is needed, you know you are right, and the issue is vital to protecting yourself or others.

• Collaborating , or seeking a win-win solution that completely satisfies both people. Collaborating tends to take a lot of time because the parties must ascertain each other’s concerns. One cannot assume anything about what drives the other party. For example, an employer cannot assume that a young female employee is chronically late because of childcare problems or that an older employee is afraid of computers. The employer must take the time to find out . And the other party may not wish to divulge what he or she regards as a weakness until some degree of trust has been established. The payoff may be worth the time and money invested, however, if the result is a permanent solution based on deeper trust and understanding.

• Compromising , or seeking an acceptable settlement that only partially satisfies both people. Often called "splitting the difference," compromising is useful when time is of the essence, the parties possess roughly equal power, and the issue is of only moderate importance. "Half a loaf is better than none," may be compromisers’ rallying cry.

• Avoiding , or sidestepping the conflict without trying to satisfy either party’s concerns. Choosing to avoid an issue is not always a cop-out. Picking your battles allows you to focus on important issues and avoid wasting time on trivial matters. It also allows you to let other parties resolve a situation if it really is their problem and not yours.

• Accommodating , or attempting to satisfy the other person’s concerns at your expense. People who use this response to the exclusion of all others may come to feel like doormats. "I’m just asking" or "It was only a suggestion" may be their frequent refrain. Still, accommodating may be used to show reasonableness, build trust, or keep the peace.

Not surprisingly, collaboration is the one that requires each of them to each pay attention to the needs of all involved. Needless to say, this is not always easy. As Dr. Thomas says, "Of all five positions, collaboration requires the most patience and commitment to achieve. But when you’re successful, you completely satisfy the concerns of both parties."

He adds that a concern is "anything you care about." A concern, he says, can be an intangible, such as:
• Your image;
• Power in an organization;
• A goal, such as a deadline or a production quota; or
• Something you believe in.

Conflict arises, Dr. Thomas says, when a person feels that one of his or her concerns is threatened. But, he says, we often have some choice as to how we respond to conflict, and knowing our preferred conflict response may help us navigate those choices. It also helps us understand the actions of others.

For more information on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, see (formerly Consulting Psychologists Press), which sells the TKI. The web site includes a free sample report that demonstrates how those taking the TKI might expect to receive feedback as to their preferred conflict management style.
Christine Martin is a freelance writer and 1997 graduate of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

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