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The Conflict Resolution Matrix

We all have different styles of handling conflict. Embedded in these are our beliefs about ourselves and other people. Situational parameters also influence our responses. Scholars sort situations and people into categories by identifying key dimensions pertaining to the parties in conflict and the situations’ dynamics. The two most central dimensions relate to the importance of the outcome and the importance of the relationship. These factors vary from situation to situation and, consequently, so will your approach to conflict resolution.

Conflict Dynamics: The Basic Strategies
How invested are you in having things your way in a conflict? How important is it that the relationship remains viable? Let’s take marriage. You want your marriage to continue, and you really want to move to Seattle for that new job. Your spouse wants to stay in Poughkeepsie. That’s a tough conflict. Here’s an easier one: A perpetually truculent client wants you to buy a very expensive and, in your opinion, unnecessary piece of Pilates equipment; if you don’t, she’ll go to another studio. This is simple: You bid farewell.

Analyzing conflict using the importance of the outcome and the importance of the relationship provides insight into why people do what they do. The following four approaches to conflict resolution normally apply to variations on these two dimensions.

Detachment/Disinterest. You don’t care about the outcome or the relationship. You’re not going to lose sleep over the issue, no matter how it turns out.

An instructor is threatening to leave unless she gets a raise. She is easily replaceable, and the amount requested is miniscule. Whichever way it goes, you aren’t invested. Recognize, however, that she may have very different feelings about your relationship and the outcome—differences that could be consequential.

Accommodation/Appeasement. Keeping the relationship going is far more important to you than achieving your personal goal.

In this kind of conflict, you may accommodate the other person’s interests. You appease the person who wants your car, because he has a gun to your head. Even though your car is important to you, it is—relatively speaking—only a car.

Accommodation approaches can be habit forming. Being flexible about your personal goals is important, but putting yourself second to all others can be an ineffectual life stance.

Tough-Love Negotiation. You place equally high value on your goal and the relationship.

The move to Seattle isn’t going to happen unless your spouse comes with you willingly. You may think that tough-love negotiation is the ideal approach to conflict resolution. However, the temptation to push the eject button will be quite strong throughout the myriad challenges this process presents.

Goal-Centered Negotiation. You don’t care whether the other person likes you, whether the relationship continues or how badly the other person feels; you just want to win.

In the world of sports, we accept this approach with the proviso that certain rules are respected. It’s similar in business. You want to hire a yoga instructor being hotly pursued by the competition. You don’t care if the competition gets mad at you if she accepts your offer over theirs. Of course, ecology has something to say about this. The world is a very small place, so you can’t play cutthroat forever without the risk of “karma-uppance.”

Not the Whole Story
Now that you have some comfort with strategies related to conflict dynamics, let’s build on the basics. Three other factors influence our style of handling conflict: power, emotionality and time.

Power. We may believe that all people are created equal, but within organizations, all people do not have equal power. While power can be understood in terms of rank and role, it can also be defined by other aspects of a relationship. For example, what if someone has information critical to your success? How much power we perceive ourselves as having in relation to another person influences the strategies we choose.

It’s rare in a civilized world that one person has all the power. Employees can quit at inopportune times, spread nasty rumors and threaten legal action. We need to position people realistically, somewhere between powerless creatures and all-powerful foes. 

Emotionality. Now comes a second juicy dynamic. Certain strategies are typically accompanied by more expressed emotion, and certain emotions can influence which strategies we use. We mentioned earlier that tough-love negotiation has some inherent challenges—one being the ability to express, tolerate and manage emotions. Think back to the Seattle job offer. Imagine how many lamplight discussions it might take to resolve this conflict amicably.

Even when appeasementis the approach, it’s likely someone will be pretty emotional. Having a gun to your head or an instructor saying negative things about you behind your back requires some emotional management. On the other hand, when you have an abundance of power and don’t care about the other person (goal-centered negotiation), it’s less likely that your emotions are outwardly churning.

Imagine you are emotionally detached or just going for the gold. But then a real-life human being with cuts and bruises gets inside your calculator and your heart. He tells his story, which encourages you to tell your story, which creates some openings, and—uh-oh—there you are in a more caring negotiation. Isn’t that what the whole Scrooge Christmas story is about?

Time. Completing the triad of factors influencing the matrix is that ever-present awareness of time. Back to the example of the yoga instructor you want to hire. You know she will get snapped up by the competition before you can say peanut butter, but your employees have, shall we say, diverse views. The clock is ticking. This is when you are most likely to say the following: “I’d love to hear your views, butas your director, I must go with my gut on this . . . because frankly, we just don’t have the luxury of time.”

Often, we may want to work it all through so everyone is satisfied and we reach commitment and consensus. Tough-love negotiationtakes time. You’re patient and hear the other person’s whole story. Then you respond carefully and in kind with your whole story. Conversely, consider the quickest scenario, which is that you simply don’t care. You are detached. Whatever!Decision made.

Somewhere between tough-love negotiationand detachmentis the situation in which you think you won’t need to deal with the other person tomorrow and it’s all about who wins. In this goal-centered negotiation, the process can go more swiftly; the person with the bigger this or the better that wins, although proving whose is bigger or better may take a little while.

Since life is full of conflicts, the better you can deal with them, the happier (and hopefully more successful) you will be. Your conflict management style may have less to do with logic than with your personal history and experiences. Before you engage the other person, know how much you want what is at stake and how much you are willing to “pay” for it. A discarded friend, employee, client or competitor could play a role in your future. Remember, the world is a small place. Time is money, but bad decisions are money, too. If you deem an objective important and you also value the person with whom you are in conflict, reaching a resolution will take time. That time will be well spent.

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