III. Choosing a style
To be in harmony with the spirit and practices of community participation, the collaborative style is the ideal to aim for. This would hold true whether you are in a one-to-one relationship with a colleague, trying to work through a difference of opinion, or a facilitator of a residents' group, trying to establish a housing plan with a city authority. For the style implies interactive, participatory modes of communication in problem- solving and decision-making.
However, which particular conflict style is appropriate will depend on the specific situation. To be an effective leader or facilitator in conflict situations, you need to be able to use any of the styles and have a sense of which is appropriate at any given time. However, what tends to happen is that individuals and groups become "locked into" one preferred style and use it in most situations. The consequence is that they neglect other styles that could be effective in reaching their goals.
One of the purposes of this manual is to introduce the full range of styles in such a way that you will have the chance to extend your repertoire and have some guidelines for making a choice. What follows is a brief review of the potentially negative consequences of either overuse or underuse of the five styles described above.
People who habitually use a competitive style might well find that other people react against being perpetually forced into win/lose situations. Also, competitors often are pressured to express anger and aggression, when they are frustrated in getting their way. When this occurs regularly, people tend to avoid them, choose not to give them information. So the consistent competitors can cut themselves off from interaction with people. However, people who never or rarely compete might also, suffer adverse consequences: when encountering competitors, they might feel powerless.
To use the accommodating style to excess is to run the risk of convincing yourself that your own ideas, needs and concerns rarely get the attention they deserve. Accommodators tend to be very reserved and quiet; they are such that they often are not noted or even heard when they do make a contribution. In group interactions, they might well lose respect and influence. However, those who rarely use accommodation might be seen as unreasonable. They might fail to make good relationships with people, because they never gain the goodwill that accommodation can bring.
Some people assume that there are no negative consequences associated with the avoiding style. They consider that, if you do not engage in conflict, you cannot experience negative outcomes, but this is not so. The very avoidance of conflict can create problems for both parties. The person who refuses to participate in making a decision will have a low commitment to it. The decision will be made without that person's input, and the result can be low levels of commitment by both parties and poor implementation.
Never to avoid conflict can also bring adverse consequences. Those who confront every conflict situation head on are likely to stir up hostilities and hurt others' feelings: selectively avoiding conflict is a wise tactic to employ. This calls for the ability to weigh up every potential conflict situation in terms of its importance and of whether engaging is likely to do more harm than good.
Those who always compromise never have the experience of having all their needs met. Also, they might become so caught up in the tactics of negotiation that they lose sight of important purposes, principles and values. However, those who never compromise do not give themselves the chance of developing necessary negotiating skills for those situations where compromise is ethically appropriate or realistically inevitable.
The processes of collaboration are more demanding of time and energy than any of the other styles. Some issues do not merit the expenditure of the time and energy necessary to ensure consensus - some conflicts are so minimal that they are not worth the trouble of actively seeking to resolve them. Collaboration is being overemployed if it is tapping and sapping energies that could be better employed on other issues (one would not, for instance, call a meeting to decide whether a meeting should be called).
However, creative ideas about ways of solving problems are most likely to come from collaborative approaches. Strong commitment to decisions are most likely to come from collaborative approaches. Those people who never use collaboration deny themselves innovative ideas and solidarity in implementation.
Of all the five styles, collaboration most fits the rational, three-stage procedures of problem-solving:
1. Acknowledging that there is a conflict.
3. Analysing solutions and their consequences for each party.
5. Implementing the decision and evaluating the outcomes.
However, there is nothing necessarily right or wrong with any of the conflict-management styles - each will be more or less appropriate depending on the nature of the problem and the characteristics of the parties involved. We all have access to all the styles. What we need to do is develop our skills in executing any of the styles. One of the crucial skills is the ability to explore the conflict situation and choose the most appropriate way to deal with it. However, our ability to respond flexibly will depend on our sensitivity in expressing either or both of the two main determinants of style assertiveness and co-operation. The next chapter explores these two factors in turn and asks you again to engage in some reflective exercises.
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