Conflict Management and the Case of the Stacking Plates

Twenty-five years ago my sixty year old father remarried. Although it’s often difficult for young children to adjust to a “new” mummy or daddy, it was challenging for a thirty-two year old, too — me! On my first “sleep over” visit, I tried my hardest to be agreeable and helpful around the house, shopping for groceries, peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables for dinner, etc. Have you heard the expression, “A new broom sweeps differently ” (or something like that)? Or, “You can’t have two women in one kitchen,” or, “Too many chefs spoil the broth?” Well, all applied to my experience of that long weekend.

We certainly had our different ways. Although nothing was said, one could definitely feel the low grade tension throughout the first day, especially. Then came time to do the dinner dishes. I jumped up, ready to help. That’s the gracious and decent thing to do — right? My stepmother reluctantly handed me a tea towel, knowing that that, too, was the gracious thing to do — to say “yes” to help sincerely offered. Well, dry those dishes I did, followed by stacking them, one-by-one, in the assigned cupboard. I saw my new stepmom wince with each dish I stacked. I silently wondered what I was doing wrong. When she couldn’t stand it another minute, she blurted out that I was stacking the dishes incorrectly. Each plate, apparently, should be stacked so that the plate pattern below precisely matched the one above. With this, I’d just about reached the end of my tether for the day, but the best within me won. Rather than blurt out something regretful, I quietly, afterwards, asked my father, “How do you put up with this, daddy? You must know this is really intensely neurotic and controlling, don’t you? Doesn’t this drive you crazy?” He replied, “I know it’s quirky, but it means so much to her, and it’s no big deal to me. If she wants the dishes stacked in a certain way, that’s easy enough for me to accommodate.”

Conflict is the “process which begins when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about to frustrate, some concern of his,” according to Kenneth Thomas, author of The Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and co-designer of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Thomas outlines that conflicts are situations in which the needs, wants or values of two parties clash or in some way interfere with one another. Conflict needn’t be damaging; it all depends on how we handle presenting situations.

Our reactions to conflict arise from two general impulses: (a) our desire to satisfy personal concerns, (which manifest as assertive behaviour) and, (b) our desire to satisfy the concerns of others, (which manifest as nonassertive behaviour). Plot these two behaviours on vertical and horizontal axes and you’ve got yourself another fabulous quadrant model — The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.

According to the Thomas-Kilmann instrument, when it comes to dealing with conflict, people will:

  • compete
  • collaborate
  • avoid
  • compromise or
  • accommodate

These behaviours are plotted along two axes. The vertical focuses on the self/degree of assertiveness; the horizontal focuses on the other/degree of cooperation.

A high degree of assertiveness, mixed with a low degree of concern for the other involved in the conflict, creates a “win-lose” scenario. “I win, you lose;” a.k.a. Competing (domination; upper left quadrant).

When one rates highly on both assertiveness/self-interests and desire to maximally cooperate with another, Collaborating (upper right quadrant; integration) behaviour is demonstrated, and “win-win” results. “I win and you win, too.”

A low degree of assertiveness, mixed with a low degree of cooperation to resolve a conflict, creates an Avoiding (neglect; lower left quadrant) reaction; a
“lose-lose” situation.” “I lose and you lose, too, because, for some reason, I don’t want to address the conflict between us.”

When one demonstrates both a moderate degree of self-concern and assertiveness, and willingness to cooperate with another, the middle-of-the-road behaviour of Compromise (middle of the quadrant model; sharing) is plotted. The compromiser neither fully avoids the conflict, nor fully collaborates to resolve. It’s a half-baked “win-win.”

Then there are those Accommodating types (lower right quadrant; appeasement), practicing “lose-win” behaviour. “I lose and you win, because of what I choose to surrender.”

There is not any one conflict management strategy which works with all of the people all of the time. There are both effective and ineffective moments to demonstrate each of these behaviours. Although you may prefer one conflict management style over another, it’s valuable to release your “inner chameleon” and sincerely learn how to flex your conflict reactions.

Compete when:

  • there’s an emergency or crisis to resolve; a “fire” to put out.
  • there’s an unpopular decision to make (and you must make it!).
  • you’re certain that you’re correct about a critical issue or situation.
  • defending yourself against an underhanded, unethical opponent who’ll take advantage of any “weaker” conflict management style you exhibit.

Collaborate when:

  • you must get “buy-in” from others for a successful result.
  • attempting to gain understanding of another’s ideas or opinions.
  • bringing a variety of views to light on an important issue.
  • seeking consensus.
  • smoothing over previous workplace hostilities or tension in a relationship.

Compromise when:

  • there’s some latitude about “what you can live with.”
  • you don’t want to “lose,” but you also realize that the stubbornness of conflict would be emotionally or literally costly.
  • two people of equal influence and strength have reached a stalemate.
  • a quick, temporary “fix” will help move things forward.
  • a deadline looms and you must have some semblance of agreement.
  • competing or collaborating has failed.

Avoid when:

  • the conflict is “silly” and you can’t be bothered.
  • you know you can’t “win.”
  • the payoff for resolving the conflict is lower than the damage which may be created by pushing your point.
  • you need more time to examine the issue and/or to think.
  • someone else can take care of it better than you.
  • the conflict at hand is merely the “presenting issue” and not the real reason why the strain exits.
  • the conflict is too politically hot to handle from your position within the workplace.
  • you’re too “hot under the collar” and need some time to cool off.

And Accommodate when:

  • the other’s position makes more sense, has more validity, etc., than yours.
  • it’s your heart’s desire to make amends or be of service.
  • building “OB’s” (obligations/favours upon which you can later collect).
  • the other has all the power and influence, and you know it.
  • keeping the peace and being happy is more important than being “right” or having your own way.
  • the issue between you and the other means so little to you and so much to the other.

Plenty of time can be spent examining one’s preferred conflict management style, back-up style and learning the leadership and attitudinal skills to master all five of the Thomas-Kilmann Strategies. I easily fill a full day’s workshop (and sometimes two!) facilitating the topics of Conflict Management/Resolving Workplace Conflict and Dealing with Workplace Emotions. For now, at least, contemplate your preferred conflict management style; consider how that auto-style helps or hinders the conflict situations in which you periodically find yourself embroiled. Open up to other possibilities of reacting and responding in new and diverse ways when conflict comes a calling, as it surely will.

In “The Case of the Stacking Plates,” I realize now that my dad, in his confession to me, was demonstrating a kind and classic example of accommodating for one he deeply cared — loved. That example was handed to me on a “china platter” some 25 years ago. I have remembered it well ever since.

My father died three days before Christmas in 2003. Coincidentally perhaps (or maybe not so?), the year that followed saw me delve into a “middle-aged about face” regarding my taste in so many “things,” e.g. fashion, home decorating, etc. To illustrate, I whimsically indulged in “ditching” my old china pattern of 20 years (which had long since reflected the “real me”), and started all over again. As I excitedly ripped open the boxes of plates and bowls and such, I knew what I would do. I ceremoniously and strategically placed each plate on my dining room sideboard, “just so” (with all the plate patterns lined up “properly”), in honour and loving memory of my dad. Perhaps he’s somewhere right now, smiling, to know I learned his “plate” lesson well, and found the pleasure in being comfortable with exhibiting behaviour I once deemed “intensely neurotic and controlling.”

You don’t need to love someone to step aside and accommodate — you just need to care enough to sometimes “give it up” with an authentic and peaceful heart, whether at home or at work.

Do you really need an excuse to resolve your conflict with another — to try a different conflict management strategy on for size? With whom at work could you be a little more accommodating between now and year’s end? Go on — give it a try. I bet it’ll feel good. And if you do need an excuse to shift your style, lean on the light-heartedness of the summer season to see you through.

Nine-tenths of serious controversies which arise in life result from misunderstandings. — Louis D. Brandeis

Don’t permit yourself to show temper. Always remember that if you are right you can afford to keep your temper, and if you are wrong you cannot afford to lose it! — J. J. Reynolds

The words you say today should be soft and tender, for tomorrow you may have to eat them. — Anonymous

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