Conflict Styles: What Sciences Says
And how Liberating Structures can help create an environment where the most effective styles are possible.
In a previous post, I wrote about how conflicts in groups are often “invisible elephants”. Instead of what we expect conflicts to be — raised voices and slamming doors — conflicts are often subtle and take place below the waterline. Like a team where everyone feels they are contributing more than the others. Or one person who feels they can’t get their voice in because another person is claiming all the air time in conversations. In the previous article, I also dived into research that shows how even light conflict can cause team productivity to drop, as members are increasingly occupied with the fall-out.
In this post, I explore what research shows on how you can navigate conflict more effectively.
Conflicts are about (unmet) needs
One question that often pops up is: when is something a conflict? One distinction that is commonly made is between conflicts that are disagreements on how to proceed on a shared task and conflicts that are about feelings of animosity with another person. But this distinction is not clearcut, as even a difference of opinion can be taken very personal (e.g. Simons and Peterson, 2000).
“A way to understand conflict is to understand it in terms of unmet needs [ … ] Most conflicts in our day-to-day life are about unmet social needs.”
A simpler way to understand conflict is to understand it in terms of unmet needs. Some needs can be very tangible, such as a salary raise or getting something that is owned by someone else. Or it may be about getting someone to see your point of view. But most conflicts in our day-to-day life are about unmet social needs; the need to be seen and respected by others, to be accepted, to be heard and listened to and to feel valuable. The extent to which they manifest are deeply personal and influenced by our culture, personality, and history. These conflicts are often hard to see and often experienced acutely by one party but not at all by the other party.
Although light conflict is not necessarily cause for alarm, scientific research overwhelmingly shows that all-but-the-lightest conflict has a negative effect on the productivity of teams (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). This means that the ability to effectively navigate conflicts is crucial for any group of people wanting to work together productively.
How can we navigate conflict?
When we find ourselves in conflict with the needs or goals of others, there are different styles for how to navigate it. The past decades, social and organisational psychologists have converged predominantly on the Dual Concern Model (Pruitt & Rubin, 1986). It states that when we find ourselves in conflict, two aspects determine how we approach it intuitively: our ability to assert our own needs and our ability to empathize with the needs of the other(s). Based on these two dimensions, five styles emerge:
- We can avoid the conflict by withdrawing from it. This can be done actively, by changing the subject or by physically moving away. But avoidance can also be done passively by not talking about it, by trying to remain neutral or by avoiding certain people, relationships or “hot” topics;
- We can yield by giving in to the other for the sake of harmony. This is usually driven by a fear of conflict and how hurtful they can be. But yielding can also take the shape of understating how conflict affects you, by smoothing it over or by maintaining (an often fake);
- We can force our needs onto the other(s) by taking an aggressive stance with the aim to win. This can take the shape of putting pressure on others, issuing threats and ultimatums, insulting them or even using physical violence;
- We can use problem-solving or integration to seek ways to resolve a conflict in a way that meets the needs of both parties. This takes the shape of actively confronting the conflict together and openly talking about it. By objectively evaluating different viewpoints and experiences, we often find entirely new and creative solutions;
- Finally, we can compromise by giving everyone involved part of what they want, but not enough to make them truly happy with the outcomes. This style risks being a lazy form of the integrative style;
Which style is the best one?
Research has shown that Integration is the most effective way to navigate conflict in the majority of situations (for an overview, see Friedman et. al. 2000). Because this style takes the needs of all parties into account, it has the highest chance of resulting in gains for everyone. But more importantly, this style builds both the skills, trust and an environment where further conflict can be navigated more effectively. Research shows that groups and individuals using this style experience less stressful conflict afterward. Contrary, the other styles tend to result in degradation of trust, safety and an environment where future conflict is amplified.
“Research has shown that Integration is the most effective way to navigate conflict in the majority of situations”
How can Liberating Structures help?
So if an integrative style is preferable, what can you do to make this possible for yourself or in your team? We strongly believe that — among other approaches — Liberating Structures create an environment where people can express both their own concerns as well as listen to those of others. These are some suggestions:
- ‘Heard, Seen, Respected’ is all about building empathy and understanding for others when it comes to unmet social needs. It is a great structure to help teams build the skills they need to actively listen to others, as well as express where their social needs where unmet;
- You can use ‘Integrated~Autonomy’ to help groups find solutions that allow both sides to gain, instead of just one or none at all;
- You can use ‘TRIZ’ to help teams playfully identify all the things they can do to guarantee that they won’t be able to navigate conflicts in such a way that everyone gains, and then identify what it is they already may be doing;
- You can use ‘What I Need From You’ to allow people to clearly express (social) needs and receive clear responses. Although this may be a difficult process, the clarity it creates builds both trust and understanding;
“Liberating Structures create an environment where people can express both their own concerns as well as listen to those of others”
Want to learn more?
Want to know more about how to develop an integrative style to navigating conflicts? Together with experienced conflict navigators Karen Dawson and Julie Huffaker, we’re hosting a 1-day workshop in Amsterdam on November 22 that is all about helping you. We will be making extensive use of Liberating Structures to allow you to share experiences and learn from others, while also building effective and practical strategies to navigate conflict together. Sign up here.
Pruitt, D. G. & Rubin, J. (1986). Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement. Random House: New York;
Simons, T. & Peterson, R. (2000). Task conflict and relationship conflict in top management teams: The pivotal role of intragroup trust. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 102–111
Friedman, R. A., Tidd, S. T., Currell, S. C. & Tsai, J. C. (2000). What goes around comes around: the impact of personal conflict style on work conflict and stress. The International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol 11., no. 1, pp. 32–55;