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The Style of Conflict Management

The Style of Conflict Management

One of the last in our #30Days of greatest hits. This one from Molly Linebarger, featuring Chris Gambill.

There is just no avoiding conflict. If you work with people, it’s there. If you are in a position of leadership, it never goes away. We can all think back to times when we handled conflict well and to times when we handled conflict poorly. There are different styles of conflict management. The key to handling conflict well may be in knowing these styles and when to use each one.

Chris Gambill is an ordained Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. As part of his dissertation, he studied conflict management style among Christian clergy using the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. The instrument graphs five conflict management styles, or modes, along two axes, labeled, "assertiveness" and "cooperativeness.” The modes it identifies are competing, (assertive, uncooperative), accommodating (unassertive, cooperative), avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative), collaborating (assertive, cooperative), and compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness).

What Chris found in his study of 118 mostly Baptist ministers surprised him. Out of the five styles of conflict management, Chris hypothesized that most clergy in the study would choose a collaborating or compromising style, and that the higher the respondent’s emotional intelligence, the more likely he or she would be to choose these styles since they are high in both assertiveness and cooperation. That hypothesis proved false; the study showed that emotional intelligence has no bearing on a respondent’s preferred style of conflict management. Most experts agree that there is no best conflict management style. The effectiveness of each depends upon the situation at hand. Chris explained that even Jesus, himself, used each of the five styles, during his conflict-filled ministry.

The five conflict management styles as defined by the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument:

Competing is assertive and uncooperative, a power-oriented mode wherein an individual pursues his or his own concerns at the other person’s expense. Jesus took this route when he cleansed the temple. You might use this when standing up against an injustice.

Accommodating is the opposite of competing. It is unassertive and cooperative. Here an individual neglects his or her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person. Jesus was accommodating when he appeared before Pilot. Your accommodating might take the place of charity or selfless generosity.

Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. The individual who is avoiding does not address the conflict and so does not immediately pursue his or her concerns or those of the other person. Jesus demonstrated this style in Luke 4:29, when after reading the scroll in the temple and declaring himself the fulfillment, he was taken to the top of a cliff in order to be thrown off by an angry mob. Jesus simply walked through the crowd and left the scene. Your avoiding might be to postpone a discussion for a week in order to let emotions cool off.

Collaborating is the opposite of avoiding. It is both assertive and cooperative. It involves working with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both. Jesus collaborated when he fed the 5,000 by taking the loaves and fish brought by the disciples and multiplied them. You might collaborate by exploring a disagreement with another to learn from both of your insights, or by confronting another to try to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising is the intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here a mutually acceptable solution is sought to partially satisfy both parties. Jesus compromised when he was asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mt. 22:21 NIV) You might compromise by splitting the difference or seeking a quick, middle ground position.

If emotional intelligence does not predispose an individual to favor one style over another, how might it affect conflict management style? According to Chris, most people have a preferred style of conflict management and many have a secondary fallback. For example, competing and then leaving or avoiding. Each of the styles is effective in the right context, but it is not productive to use the same style every time. The goal is knowing which approach is most helpful in a given situation and then developing the capacity to implement that approach. That’s where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence may help an individual to more accurately read a conflict and then decide which style to use and how to use it most effectively.

Based upon the data from Chris’s analysis, ministers can and do choose a variety of conflict management styles. In this study, the preferred conflict management styles for the majority of the study group were (in preference order) compromising, accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, and competing. Perhaps compromising and accommodating were the preferred styles because of the fact that nearly all of the ministers in the study group were Baptists – a denomination where governance is based on the congregation itself, which typically limits the power of the clergy. Chris says that in such a context of limited power, clergy may feel they have to work primarily through a compromising or accommodating style.

To learn more about conflict management and the training that can help you become better at it, contact the Center for Congregational Health.

Posted in: Congregations, Leadership

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