Common Approaches to Conflict

Chess Strategies
Conflict Styles are the default strategies we use.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Explain Gray’s Biophysiological Responses to Conflict including the FFFS, BAS, and BAI
  2. Identify and explain each of Rahim’s Interpersonal Conflict Styles
  3. Identify and explain each of the bargaining styles in the Thomas-Killman TKI
  4. Conceptually understand the slippery slope
  5. Identify the attack, avoidance and peacemaking responses of the slippery slope
  6. Understand the basic overall concepts of The Empowerment Dynamic
  7. Understand the peacemaking responses of self-knowledge, depersonalization, and compassion

Terms to know

  • Approach – Avoidance
  • Attack Responses
  • Avoiding Responses
  • Behavioral Approach System
  • Behavioral Inhibition System
  • Compassion
  • Conflict style
  • David Emerald
  • Depersonalize
  • Enabler
  • Fight, Flight, Freeze
  • Five Interpersonal Conflict Styles
  • Five Thomas Kilmann Bargaining Styles
  • Gray’s Biopsysiological Theory
  • I do, we do, you do
  • Ken Sande
  • M. Afzalur Rahim
  • Peacemaking Responses
  • Persecutor
  • Slippery Slope of Conflict
  • The Empowerment Dynamic
  • Victim

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Introduction

Not too long ago I was walking along a trail in a local park when I noticed a snake sunning itself along the edge of the path. Immediately, I began to slow my pace and felt my body become more alert and tense. All of my life I have been deathly afraid of snakes—all snakes! I know I’m not acting rationally; but, the primitive part of my brain tends to hijack my reasoning abilities leaving me tense and fearful. One part of me said, “Run on by, that snake won’t hurt you.” Another part of me worried that the snake might be poisonous or dangerous. Even though I have been told by friends that, with help, I could overcome my fear of snakes, I do my best to avoid them.

I think many people feel the same way about conflict as I do about snakes. Situations involving conflict create feelings fear, anxiety, danger, and stress. We don’t always know what to do—whether to run away, freeze, or mount some form of attack. Conflict is unique among human experiences because, like the snake, it often stimulates our physiological receptors that signal danger. Our reptilian-brain triggers the limbic system which then kicks in and overrides our higher cognitive processes. People who are normally are calm, cool, and collected can become quickly undone when interpersonal conflicts arise. But why is this so?

Trial and Error Approaches

In many ways, our approach to handling conflict is the result of previous behavioral programming where we learned what works for us through the process of trial and error. In behaviorism, once we find our definition of success, we tend to repeat the behaviors. Should we experience failure, we may find ourselves becoming fearful and anxious. Successful or not, as we use the same strategies over and again, we develop a habituated pattern of handling problems which we call a conflict style. This style becomes our go-to method for dealing with stress.

Conflict also triggers a certain amount of fear in people which, in turn, often hijacks our higher reasoning processes. This means that, under stress, our default styles may not serve us as well as we need them to. An understanding of conflict styles is foundational to growing our abilities to solve interpersonal problems. Once you learn more about your habits and approaches, as well those used by others, you will be in a position to conceptualize helpful new approaches. In this chapter, we will examine the most common conflict styles.

Gray’s Biopsychological Theory

Conflict stresses both the body and the mind. As might be expected under anxiety producing conditions, people normally utilize some form of an approach-avoidance strategy. That is to say, they either run towards or away from conflict depending upon a host of factors. Researchers Jeffrey Gray and Neil McNaughton (2000) in their work on Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory propose that people utilize three common defensive stress reaction systems depending upon one’s situation and context. They are the Fight, Flight, Freeze System (FFFS), the Behavioral Approach System (BAS), and the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS). These are trait-based approaches to conflict rather than stimulus-response behaviors.

The FFFS is rather self-explanatory. It states that in stressful situations, people either run away, become aggressive, or remain frozen in indecision. These general categories are useful for describing overall approaches–but it does not explain the motivation behind them as do the BAS and BIS.

Behavioral Approach System (BAS)

The BAS approach to conflict suggests that we are motivated to participate and solve conflicts to the degree that we perceive positive rewards for doing so. While we often don’t focus upon the positive benefits of conflict, sometimes it can be a reliable strategy for implementing much needed changes. For instance, if co-workers have been doing extra work or picking up slack for a co-worker, at some point they might intentionally stop doing so knowing that a conflict will soon cause management to realize that work isn’t being completed as before. The hope would be that the lazy co-worker would either be replaced or motivated by management to work harder.

The Behavioral Approach System also suggests that people are motivated to solve conflicts as they see benefits for doing so. For instance, couples will often seek marital counseling because they see a benefit to themselves as well as their children. There are many other reasons as well including higher productivity, the lowering of long-term stress, and improved working conditions.

Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS)

As proposed by Gray, people generally avoid conflicts and/or solving them when there is no reward for doing so, or when they fear punishment or some negative outcome should they become involved. Many times, people allow problems to build rather than face them because they perceive the reward-cost ratio is not in their favor. For instance, many sexual harassment cases go unreported because there may be fears of humiliation, public exposure, worries that they will not be believed, and a fear of workplace retaliation. These and other factors inhibit one’s willingness to engage someone in conflict.

What makes Gray’s theory so interesting are the differing perceptions people may have as they decide to approach or avoid conflict. While one person may perceive few if any benefits for engaging in conflict, another might perceive the possiblity of all kinds of rewards. Thus, the ability to see a reward or beneficial outcome makes a great motivational difference in whether one chooses to approach a conflict or not. We should point out that training makes an important difference here. As one learns methods for successfully and effectively managing conflict situations, one becomes more willing to try and resolve situations that once frightened them. The ability to resolve and remove life stresses is an important reason for studying conflict management and peacemaking.

Rahim’s Interpersonal Conflict Styles

One of the most cited researchers in the field of conflict styles is M. Afzalur Rahim. In 1983 he published A Measure of Styles of Handling Interpersonal Conflict. His work uncovers five primary styles that correlate to two overall dimensions–Concern for Self and Concern for others. The five styles are: integrating, obliging, dominating, avoiding, and compromising. As we study these styles, it is important to keep in mind that each of these styles represents favored or default approaches people most commonly use. At the same time, the fact that one tries to utilize any of these approaches does not mean that a person will find success in their approach. There are many other factors that determine the relative success one will have using any given approach.

M. A. Rahim’s Interpersonal Conflict Styles

Integrating

Those who prefer integrating styles have equal concern for themselves and others. These are the individuals who will do their best to see that the needs of others are realized as they achieve their goals in a conflict. Though similar, the integrating style is not the same as compromise. In a compromise, it is usually necessary for one or both parties to give up something in order to maintain peace or solve a problem. In the integrating approach, it is the intention to maximize the needs of all concerned. An example of an integrating approach might be the way an organization approaches and negotiates the hiring process. Both the organization and the candidate will have primary needs that must be fulfilled. When successful, the needs of both the organization and the candidate will be met in such a way that neither feel the other got the better deal.

Obliging

In this approach to conflict, the person utilizing the obliging style sets aside their preferences in favor of meeting the other person’s needs or wishes. An example of this might be when you agree to go to a restaurant that you don’t enjoy all that much because your out of town guest wants to eat there. This style is easy to adopt when desires are inconsequential or not perceived to be all that important. At other times, this approach can be dysfunctional and related to avoiding important issues–such as the person who feels they must always give others what they want while never getting their needs met.

Dominating

The dominating style insists upon having their needs met with little to no concern for the needs of others. Since this is a very one-sided approach to problem-solving, it is not a very useful long term strategy. It can be a very effective strategy in emergency situations–such as when police and first responders must take control of health and safety situations. In organizations, managers are often tempted to use this style because they hold power over employees who have little recourse to change things.

Avoiding

People who use an avoiding style understand there are troubles that need addressing, but they usually withdraw or ignore the situation. This tends to create a lose-lose dynamic where none of the parties involved can find workable solutions. An illustration of this might be an estranged parent who isn’t making their child support payments. Rather than searching for some kind of mutually beneficial agreement, the avoider drops out of sight, ignores requests, and so forth.

Compromising

Rahim places the compromising bubble so that it falls across each of the four potential conflict style quadrants. This illustrates the notion that compromise is a potential recourse no matter what style one uses. Sometimes, it is best for participants to agree to disagree on points of contention in order to move forward towards a greater good. The benefit of the compromising style is that it lessons or removes competing concerns from the solution process. For instance, the integrating style participant might accept an approach or solution that does not deliver all of their wants and desires provided they perceive an offsetting benefit gained through compromise. As an example, I recently bought a car with more miles than I actually wanted because the dealer was willing to provide an extended warranty to offset my concerns. The compromising approach allowed me to have the peace of mind I needed while giving the dealership an opportunity to sell me a car.

The Thomas-Kilmann Bargaining Styles Model

Another highly popular approach for examining conflict styles is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument–or TKI (1977). Similar to Rahim’s notions of conflict styles, the TKI assesses five conflict styles across the dimensions of assertiveness and cooperation. Assertiveness refers to the willingness of a person to satisfy their own needs while cooperation is their willingness to consider the needs of others. The five TKI styles include competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument Profile and Interpretive Report
  • Competing–Persons using the competing style insist upon meeting their needs and show little to no concern or consideration for the needs of others. Their attitude is, “I want what I want.”
  • Collaborating–This style will assert their own needs while paying attention to the concerns of others. Their attitude is that the best solutions come as each person gets as many of their needs met as possible.
  • Compromising–People choosing this style fall in the midpoint of the two dimensions. They show equal concern for themselves and others. Their attitude is that all people should be willing to give up something in order to solve a problem and move forward.
  • Avoiding–The avoiding style ignores people and problems by checking out. They neither assert their needs or cooperate with others to solve difficult situations. Their attitude is “If I ignore the problem maybe it will go away.”
  • Accommodating–Though willing to go along with the ideas of others, persons using the accommodating style rarely express their needs or wishes. Their attitude is, give them what they want!

Pragmatic and Popular Approaches

We also want to include some non-empirical based approaches to our discussion on conflict styles. Though these approaches lack the scientific rigor we appreciate from scholars like Rahim and Thomas-Kilmann, they are impressive nonetheless because they pass what we call the “Ahhh ha! Test.” In other words, many people have tried these approaches and found them to be of great value. We are especially impressed with an organization known as Relational Wisdom 360 and David Emerald’s The Power of TED*.

The Peacemaker Approach

An organization known as Relational 360, headed by Ken Sande has trained thousands of laypersons to mediate conflicts. Though trained as a professional engineer and lawyer, Ken Sande became very interested in applying Christian religious principles along with his legal knowledge to problems facing churches, religious organizations, and interpersonal relationships. His book, The Peacemaker, first published in 1991 met with great success. It has since been revised several times and translated into fifteen foreign languages. Ken is a member of Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee of the Montana Bar Association.

Peacemaker’s Slippery Slope of Conflict

Of interest to our discussion on conflict styles, Peacemakers note three broad approaches one may use to resolve conflicts. These include escape responses, attack responses, and peacemaking responses. Sande believes that unless we have been trained, most of us will naturally gravitate towards either an avoiding or attacking style. He further compares one’s approach to conflict to that of a slippery slope where individuals are always sliding from one side to the other. Though we may wish to remain above the fray, most people typically gravitate towards an escape or attack response.

Escape Responses

On one side of the slippery slope are escape responses. Many people, when faced with interpersonal difficulties, resort to dysfunctional approaches such as denying that a problem exists, physically running away from the problem (flight), or even the extreme of resorting to suicide. Interestingly, suicide not only includes physical harm to one’s self but psychological dysfunctions where one checks out emotionally, physically withdraws, or gives up any hope for any future happiness. For instance, some abused people continue to stay in dysfunctional relationships because they have given up hope of solving their problems for having a better life. Ken Sande calls the avoidance techniques “peace faking.”

Attack Responses

The other side of the slippery slope includes the attack responses of physical assault, litigation, and murder. As with suicide, one does not have to physically murder another person to destroy them. It can also be done by “murdering” the reputation of another by speaking ill of them to others or do all that one can to ruin the personal success of another. Ken Sande calls these approaches “peace breaking.”

Peacemaking Responses

At the top of the slippery slope are the peacemaking responses. These include a variety of options that have proven value in solving problems and creating a space for peace. These include overlooking, reconciliation, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and accountability. Sande and the Relational 360 organization believes that, with training, ordinary people may learn how to effectively practice all of the peacemaking responses.

The Power of TED*

Our last pragmatic approach examines the work of David Emerald and The Power of TED*. TED stands for The Empowerment Dynamic. It is based upon the work of Stephen Karpman’s (1968) Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT) and follows a conceptual framework that is related to the Transactional Analysis work developed by his friend and noted psychologist Eric Berne. Emerald’s DDT describes three common default approaches people resort to as they face interpersonal difficulties. The three points of the drama triangle include a persecutor, rescuer, and a victim.

The Persecutor

The persecutor approaches conflict using anger, blaming, shaming, and judgmental techniques. The persecutor often resorts to criticism, belittlement, and personal put-downs of other people when they become upset. Emerald’s antidote for this behavior requires that persecutors learn to recognize their tendencies to behave in this way and to adopt the role of a Challenger instead. The challenger holds people accountable while encouraging them to do better and learn new approaches for doing things.

The Enabler

Enablers are people who like to do things for other people. Enablers may seem like kind people, but they usually assume that victims do not have enough skill, mental abilities, or willpower to do whatever is required of them–so they take over. This compounds problems since a person cannot learn to improve if their work is always being done by someone else. Emerald’s antidote for this type of behavior is to adopt the role of a coach. Coaches help people solve their own problems–instead of doing the work for them. They become problem-solving teachers instead.

The Victim

The last role we will discuss on the dreaded drama triangle is that of the victim. Victims believe themselves to be incapable of solving their problems and constantly seek help from other people. The victim does not take responsibility for their own actions and they blame everyone and everything for their problems. Victims remain in their chaos until an enabler comes along or they manage to change their attitudes. The antidote for victimhood is to adopt the role of a creator. Creative people look for new and unusual approaches to solve their problems. Instead of allowing themselves to become overwhelmed by difficulties, they find satisfaction in uncovering unique ways of moving forward.

Peacemaking Principles

Now that we’ve provided an overview of the basic concepts of conflict styles, let’s look at some peacemaking principles we may learn from these concepts.

Get Control of Your Breath

The fight, flight, freeze response does not solve conflicts. They are self defense adaptations of the body. In other words, our natural reactions may save us in a dangerous situation but our body does not always discriminate between true threats and stressful threats. When conflict comes, it is important not to let the limbic system hijack one’s ability to use the higher thinking processes. One way we do this is to intentionally slow the breathing by taking deep long breaths. This helps to slow down physiological reactions to stress.

Learn to Depersonalize Fear Responses

As I mentioned about my fear of snakes, my reactions aren’t personally directed towards any particular snake. It is a fear response my body produces when I am in these situations. In the same way, it is helpful to remember that many of the unhappy and inappropriate responses we observe in the conflict process are as much a result of fear and psychological pain than anything else. Keeping this principle in mind helps us depersonalize negative outbursts and responses and focus more on the underlying issues of a problem. Though it may not seem so, it is always a choice to personalize or depersonalizing any angry behavior in a conflict. Through training, we may become more skilled and understand those fear behaviors should not be taken personally but understood to be the most likely result of a physiological and psychological response to fear and stress.

Counter Fear Responses with Compassion

If we were to see a crying child we would not belittle or attack the child because of its behavior. We would feel compassion and seek the cause for the crying. Perhaps the child is scared and needs to be held. Perhaps it is hungry, or wet, or tired. It is compassion that drives us to relieve the child’s suffering. In the same way, peacemakers train themselves to recognize the underlying fear that is hijacking an “opponents” higher reasoning abilities. In the same way, Conflict produces fear and anxiety in many people–causing them to react in ways that may not always make logical sense. One of the best tools of a peacemaker in situations such as these is compassion.

In the context of conflict, compassion is the ability to recognize the underlying fear behind the observed conflict behaviors as well as a desire to lessen its suffering. With time and training, all may learn to address common issues that fuel conflicts. A compassionate attitude allows the peacemaker to focus upon solving issues rather than becoming anymore personally involved or escalating difficult situations. The ability to remember this principle can cause a shift in one’s thinking and bring about a tipping point whereby one may favorably solve problems.

Be Aware of Your Conflict Style

Peacemakers need self-knowledge of their own weaknesses. All conflict styles have some positive and negative aspects to them and no one style can adequately address all conflicts. Sadly, many people rely on one approach which they exclusively use in all situations. Additionally, some of the approaches available to us work only under limited conditions. Some of these approaches can often make matters worse. As the slippery slope illustrates, the attacking and avoiding syles many people use are rarely useful approaches for finding solutions. Aggressive approaches drive people away from us–but the underlying problems remain firmly in place. Avoiding approaches may give one side what they want–but that only encourages people to keep on doing harmful things at a great cost to the other side’s self-esteem and worth. To become an effective peacemaker, one must learn to adjust to circumstances and utilize conflict styles that bests complements them.

Choose Action over Avoidance

Are you a conflict avoider? This behavioral style allows resentments to build. It sends silent messages that either you do not care or think enough of others to try and make things better. It is usually not a helpful way of making things better. Ken Sande would call this “peace faking.” As peacemakers, we must learn how to address the concerns of ourselves and others by being active participants in peacemaking processes.

Instead of avoiding conflict, learn peacemaking skills so you may become more successful at addressing your concerns. Start by noticing the things that you tend to avoid or that cause you fear–leading to avoidance behavior. Have you put off a doctor’s appointment? Set-up the appointment. Do you need to speak with your teacher about a grade? Send an email or drop by their office. Do you need an extension on a bill? Call the company and speak with a representative. Begin by taking baby steps and do what needs to be done.

On the other hand, as peacemakers encounter avoiding behaviors in others, it is important to remember that many people resort to this because they are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed by their circumstances. Even though avoiders are not present to scream and shout as some do, they are acting out their fear and pain responses through avoidance nonetheless. The attitude of compassion we discussed earlier is useful for working with avoiders as well. In these situations, peacemakers should do their best to create and maintain a simple and threat-free environment for solving problems.

Finally, we think it wise to note that some problems are so large and complex that one honestly may not know what steps to take. In situations like these, seek professional help. For instance, coming out as LGBTQ+, deciding to get married, divorce, financial problems, and abuse situations all may require the experience of a skilled counselor. These problems left to themselves will only worsen. Don’t try and handle them on your own–seek professional advice.

Do Not Escalate Conflict

A general rule in peacemaking is that we do not escalate or make a conflict worse. This is not a hard and fast rule because there are times when escalation can be a helpful strategy. That being said, we have noticed that the conflict styles involving attack, domination, and ignoring the concerns of others usually cause conflicts to escalate. These approaches often lead to increased conflict and cause others to believe they must become as defensive or more–making things worse. Physical violence often leads to more physical violence–and killings. Strategies involving revenge or getting-even may feel satisfying in the short term but do not solve underlying problems. In fact, these approaches create even more problems later on as each side behaves more outrageously than the one before.

Except for emergency situations, conflict styles in which one side insists on meeting their needs whether or not the other’s is met does not lead to a peaceful resolution. Peacemaking, unlike litigation, desires adequate resolution for all concerned–not just one side. In many organizations, top-down management styles are routinely practiced. Decisions are made with an emphasis on benefitting the company rather than those within the company. What many seem to forget is that people always find a way of protesting perceived ill-treatment–causing further problems for these top-down systems.

As an example, the father of a friend of mine worked for a railroad company. As a way of protesting some newly created top-down regulations, the workforce decided to strictly enforce their working contracts by not doing anything that was not specifically required of them in their contracts. This brought the railroad to a halt as many of the jobs which were formerly being done by the workers to move things along were no longer being done. The point is this, conflict styles which seek to enrich only one party at the expense of another usually winds up causing more pain in the long run than benefits in the short term.

Remember, Enabling Doesn’t Resolve Problems

As we noticed in the The Empowerment Dynamic, some people think they are being helpful by doing things for other people. Yet, there is a difference between being helpful versus hindering someone from solving their own problems–even if they are willingly asking you for help. Peacemaking isn’t about taking problems away from people, it’s helping them to resolve their problems so that they resolve once and for all. Still, it is true that some people need our help from time to time.

Here is a useful approach for helping people. It is called the “I do, We do, You do” principle. As an example. Suppose you want to teach your child how to clean a bathroom. In many ways, it would be much easier and faster for the parent to do the job themselves. However, this would not be beneficial for the child later on once they are on their own. First, the parent would bring the child into the bathroom and demonstrate how to clean the bathroom. Next, both of them would do the job together. Finally, the child would clean the bathroom by themselves with the parents giving feedback as needed. The “I do, We do, You do” method is an effective way of helping people learn how to take care of their own problems.

Conclusion

In this chapter we have looked at common approaches for approaching conflict. These styles range on a continuum of effectiveness. An understanding of conflict styles helps us gain self-knowledge of our default styles and approaches and allows us a larger view of available options. Generally speaking, approaches involving attack and avoidance are poorer techniques for solving difficulties than peacemaking responses. We have noted that many of the negative behaviors associated with conflict are biophysical results of fear and psychological pain. An understanding of the biophysical processes helps the peacemaker to understand and overlook many negative responses in favor of compassion and a focus upon underlying issues.

Bibliography

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Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) assesses an individual’s behavior in
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Attributions

Peacemaking Applications

Peacemaking Applications

  1. Take the Conflict Styles Assessment offered by the United States Institute of Peace. Using 250 words or more, Describe what you have learned about your approach to conflict.
  2. Review Rahim’s conflict styles? Which style best describes your default approach? If you were to change your default style, which style would you adopt and why?
  3. Review the material covering the slippery slope and answer the following questions. Forgetting for the moment the center peacemaking approaches, which approach–attack or avoidance–best describes you? Think about your family growing up, which style best describes your mother and your father?
  4. Review the biblical story of the prodigal son found in Luke 15: 11-32. In your opinion, which of the three TED* approaches to conflict best describes the characters of the father, prodigal son, and the older brother? Why would you say so?
  5. Describe a time when you and another had an angry conflict? How might the situation have been better had each of you understand the concepts of depersonalization and compassion?
  6. If you’ve never practiced the power of deep breathing, we encourage you to try the quick coherence technique offered by Heartmath. You can find any number of free videos and descriptions on the internet. They are very soothing and effective for creating a peaceful physical state.