Last month we summarized the five conflict strategies– avoidance, competition, compromise accommodation and collaboration–and reviewed some general characteristics of each. In the next few issues of our newsletter we will explore each style in greater detail.
Avoidance and accommodation are both low on the assertiveness scale. This means that someone using these strategies is generally not getting their individual needs met in conflict situations. This has various associated costs and benefits. The benefits of avoidance include reduced stress, saved time or reduced risks, whereas with accommodation, restored harmony, reduction of loss and enhanced relationships are the potential gains. On the other hand, the costs of avoidance include resentment, potential delays and decreased communication. For accommodation the downside risks are loss of motivation and self-respect.
Avoidance is generally the denial of conflict, treating it like an ostrich whose head is buried in the sand. The avoider usually side steps an issue by either changing the topic or withdrawing from the controversy. Sometimes this is a calculated strategic response and may be effective. For example a company may ignore minor complaints from disappointed consumers. In relationships avoidance of conflict may result in lower satisfaction but it can also be used for stability and predictability.
When analyzing avoidance the basic question an individual faces is whether to avoid or engage. You may not be conscious that you are making a real choice. People who experience trauma tend to avoid conflict. Wilmot, William and Joyce Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print. Engagement and avoidance are both good options depending on the circumstances. The danger is when someone develops a rigid style for responding to certain types of conflict or certain people. This avoidance cycle, see our June 2011 newsletter article on destructive conflict processes, has a chilling effect on communication. The cycle looks like this: we think of conflict as bad, anxiety increases as we experience conflict, the conflict gets out of control and then we handle it poorly. The spiral of destruction just continues.
Another cycle that is evident in relationships is avoid and criticize. Criticism of another’s actions or complaints substitute for taking action and engaging with the individual’s whose conduct you have an issue with.
The effectiveness of avoidance as a conflict strategy depends on culture. In collectivistic or high-context cultures, such as Asian societies, social hierarchy and sensitivity to people’s feelings is of paramount importance. Use of avoidance thus preserves the status quo. In such cultures your colleagues will talk to you about healing wounds and making amends. By contrast, in low-context or individualistic culture like the United States, your coworkers may urge you to “fight on” and escalate the conflict. In these situations use of avoidance may be seen as a weakness. Id.
Tactics are specific actions that an individual chooses for a response. Researchers have identified the following four categories of avoidance tactics: denial and equivocation (“that’s not a problem”), shifting or avoiding topics, noncommittal remarks and irreverent remarks. Id. at 155.
With this strategy the engagement choice is to yield one’s needs to another person or cause. An accommodator likes to please others- the family, the team or the group. Accommodation is one of the most common responses but it is the least noticed. This is because it is not overt. The accommodator may not express a countervailing preference for a different restaurant choice when her spouse says, “Let’s go to out for Greek food”, but she really wanted Italian. If an issue is important to one person then accommodating their needs is a good choice. Accommodation to a more seasoned colleague can be a good strategy of managing a workplace conflict. On the other hand, if accommodation is overused it can create resentment.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.