Many of us associate increased stress with work/life balance and a heavy workload. Did you know that the way you manage conflict may also contribute to increased stress?
Since the seventies, conflict resolution theorists have considered styles of conflict management. The most popular assessment tool, the Thomas Kilman Instrument (TKI) breaks it into five styles: Competing, Accommodating, Collaborating, Compromising and Avoiding. There are many other tools on the market which use slightly different language, but they do share the common basis that your conflict style depends on your focus on self, versus other, and your focus on task, versus relationship.
The Competitor is more directive and dominating, and more focused on self and task. The benefit of dealing with a competitor is that you know what you are dealing with – there is no beating about the bush here. On the other hand, the Competitor is not often a good listener. In the workplace where supervisors have a highly competitive conflict management style, staff are less likely to want to listen to them and work with them. Relationship stress increases with the competition for scarce resources, and productivity goes down. Trust also erodes.
The Avoider withdraws from relationships and from task in conflict. It could be that they withdraw because they are fearful of escalating conflict, and wish to ensure harmony. Possibly they withdraw to manage their own emotions and maintain professionalism. Or, the Avoider may withdraw to take time to process and think. There is a stress contradiction here: the Avoider experiences less stress because they are not in the conflict, but relationship stress increases because of the perception that the Avoider doesn’t care, or is weak. Task stress increases as work is not getting done or decisions are not made, and trust erodes.
Accommodators are focused on supporting the needs of others, and often in conflict stress increases when they work hard to put the needs of others in front of their own needs. Task stress increases with the perception that the work or getting the job done lacks priority.
When relationship conflict escalates, when conflict gets personal, stress and anxiety increase. As stress goes up, people paradoxically begin to depersonalize the conflict. Often when I arrive to help, people are not even able to use each other’s names. People become known by their job description and their actions, not by their names or their personalities.
A collaborative conflict management style contributes to decreased stress and anxiety. Collaborators have the patience and the skills to facilitate the dialogue required to identify and meet the needs of all stakeholders. The Collaborator has a highly integrative style.
Often when people complete these conflict styles instruments in the comfort of a secure classroom, or at home, they score high in their investment in task and relationship, and in self and other. Yes, when we have blood in the brain, and we are professional and deliberate with our speaking and listening skills, we can all be collaborative. But what happens when our buttons are being pushed? When the personal stakes are high and we are under threat? I know what happens to me, I head to the corner of avoidance, and my stress and anxiety go up.