Presentation: Conflict Styles

This information was presented at our annual retreat on Saturday morning. It is from Oren Jay Safer’s online course “Mindful Communication” and, mostly, David Augsburger’s book, Caring Enough to Confront: How to Transform Conflict with Compassion and Grace.

When the going gets tough, we tend to default to habitual conflict styles based on a “fight, flight or freeze” response to stress. All of these conflict styles have their place; they are not necessarily “wrong.” But, in this series we are trying to increase our repertoire of responding to conflict by getting beyond our habitual styles and learning how to “speak the truth in love.”

Competitive confrontation or “I’ll get them.” This correlates with the “fight” stress response. In this style we push  full steam ahead with aggressive behavior. We are not really willing to do dialogue. In our mind, someone is clearly right (us) and someone is clearly wrong (you), and it’s my duty to put you right. We’re pushing for our own way so much that we can’t see or are unwilling to see another’s point of view. Examples of this are plastered all over social media, the comments section of the Internet, and talking head talk shows on cable. In this style, we attempt to meet our own needs at any cost, through control, dominance or coercion.

One strength of this style is that we are good at being assertive and we know what we want. This may be useful when time is very short or the task is extremely crucial — like a rescue effort in an emergency — or when someone is being taken advantage of and intervention is necessary. However, this style can come at a cost. People may stop trusting us and they may avoid us.  People may be unwilling to give us feedback, and we stop learning or we lose creativity because we’re not as exposed to as many ideas. We may feel isolated as a result.

Conflict Avoidance or “I’ll get out.” This correlates with the “flight” response to stress. In this style, I will do anything to avoid dealing with this conflict. I will change the subject, focus on the positive, ignore the problem or deny it exists. Our aim here is to keep the peace — to feel feel connected and safe and maintain a sense of belonging. Or, we may believe that conflicts are hopeless and that people cannot be changed, so why bother?

The strength here is that people who avoid conflict are often good at sensing the needs of others. Often people who live in a community that values group cohesion over individual expression may default to conflict avoidance to maintain group harmony. (This is particularly common in spiritual circles.) Avoidance has an advantage, also, if safety is all important; when you have little to no power; when the damage that would be inflicted by any confrontation is too great for a very sensitive person to deal with; or when the issue is trivial and not worth addressing.

However, the cost of always choosing this style is that your own needs are not honored. Doing this over time can breed resentment and can destroy a relationship from the inside out because we’re not dealing with what’s going on. And avoiding conflict doesn’t add to the “shared pool of meaning.:

Passivity or “I’ll give in.” This correlates to the “freeze” response to stress. Here, we attempt to avoid conflict by giving up our own needs. What I want or feel or need doesn’t matter. We become a doormat. This can become so deeply ingrained that we abandon our needs preemptively.  In the “conflict avoidance” style above, we know our needs but choose to not pay attention to them. Here, we basically abandon our needs such that we may not even know what we need or want.

The strength of this style is that it actually takes a lot of strength to suppress our own needs! Yielding can be the path of wisdom if you suspect that you could be wrong or when harmony is more important than the particular difference. It’s also a strategy a lot of people use when they are in relationships of unequal power.  But people feel weak on the inside when they consistently use this style. Over time, we lose the capacity to even discern to even discern what’s happening or what is true.

Passive aggressiveness or “I’ll look like I’m giving in or meeting you halfway, but I’ll really get you one way or another.” This style is a combination of fight and flight! We pretend everything is fine but combine that with an indirect expression of hostility. Let’s say somebody might ask us to do something, and we really don’t want to do it but we say yes. But then we don’t do it, or we do it wrong. Sarcastic, snarky remarks are usually passive aggressive.

With this style, we’re trying to find a way to meet our needs when we think or believe that engaging directly might not be useful or when we’re not courageous enough to do so. We’re able to stay connected to our own feelings and  needs in situations that might not be supportive of our own autonomy or power. And we can be very creative at finding alternative ways of expressing ourselves. But, this style can come with a cost over time: It erodes trust and nursing hostility can eat away at our own well-being.

Compromise or “I’ll meet you halfway.” This is less a habitual conflict style than a tactic for getting our needs met. In other words, all the styles above can be more or less habitual; compromise is less habitual and more something we intentionally enter into. Compromise is definitely a gift to relationships. But it can call for at least a partial sacrifice of deeply held views and goals that may cost all of us the loss of the best to reach the good of agreement. Both sides in a compromise can feel depleted, disillusioned, or dissatisfied with the outcome. (This is my experience of conflict around LGBTQ inclusion within Mennonite Church USA; the leadership was often trying to compromise, and this ended up leaving those on either side of this conflict dissatisfied.)

When this is our first choice in conflict, we run the risk that my half of the truth added to your half may not give us the whole truth but two half-truths. This can be the better choices when the goals are only moderately important, so relinquishing half is acceptable; or when time is a factor and you need to reach a decision immediately; or when a temporary settlement is satisfactory and can be adjusted later.

Speaking the truth in love. In this style, we both speak our authentic truth and express care for the other person. See the sermon “The Case for Conflict” for more about this conflict style!