Conflict and negotiation styles
How do you react when you are in a situation that you perceive as conflict-ridden, or where you are part of a tough negotiation? This could include situations where you feel pressured to make a decision, or when you’re on your way to a steering committee meeting to discuss the future of your project.
Do you tend to go on auto-pilot? Do you react with the approach that an attack is the best defense, do you pull back, or do you try to illuminate the situation from all angles to find a common solution?
Whatever your strategy, a closer inspection can give you more insight about yourself and your natural reaction patterns, and how you can change them, if necessary.
The different reaction patterns – also called conflict and negotiation styles – have their own value, but the outcome is dependent on the situation. When you know how you affect others and, at the same time, are aware of which style (or mixture of styles) that work best in the situation, you create a foundation for sustainable solutions and strengthen your position as a project manager.
There are five concrete behavior patterns (typologies) that can come into playduring conflict or discussions, which we will examine more closely. The tool we will introduce is based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).
For the sake of clarity, the term “negotiation styles” will be used throughout the rest of this article.
The five negotiation styles
Our reaction patterns in negotiations and conflict are two sides of the same coin. Both situations involve fulfilling our needs.
A person’s conflict and negotiation style can be measured on the basis of two dimensions. The first is a willingness to have your own interests and needs fulfilled. The other is a willingness to cooperate and fulfill other’s interests and needs.
On the basis of the two dimensions, five different conflict and negotiation styles will occur. (See Figure 1). None of us can be characterized by the usage of just one style, but most of us will have a clear sense of which style we utilize most often. Everyone typically has a preferred style and a secondary style that they bring into use.
We’ll go through each of the five styles.
Figure 1: The five conflict- and negotiation styles
-I want to do it my way
People who lean towards a competitive style stand firm, and are prepared to push through their own wants and requirements – irregardless of it happening at the cost of others’ interests and needs. This style can be useful when quick negotiation is needed, when important and unpopular decisions have to be made, or when you need to mark your territory clearly. The disadvantage is that important relations risk being lost, that the target can become winning just to win – and that you focus on what will objectively serve the project best. Users of this style prefer that others are ambiguous or accommodating.
-Let’s solve it together
People with this style invest in possibilities, and seek the opponent’s cooperation to find a common solution that meets the needs, demands, and interests of both parties. This style is useful when you want both parties to take ownership of the solution, when the solution has long-term consequences, and at the same time, you want to support teamwork and a sustainable solution. This is therefore often referred to as the parties seeking a “win-win” solution. The disadvantage can be that it is a time-consuming process, and it can be hard to use when unforseen contradiction occurs.
Users of this style prefer that others solve problems and will not compromise.
-I’ll budge a little, if you do the same
People with this style seek to find a solution through compromise – if everyone gives up something, we can all keep something. The parties stand firm in their positions and try to find a middle way to unite different demands, needs, and interests. The lowest common denominator often becomes the goal. The style can be useful in classic negotiations when useful solutions are needed under time constraint, or when innovation is not a possibility. Some disadvantages could be the risk of losing the grand perspective, that the solution is temporary, that both parties feel they lost the negotiation, or that you miss the development of new solutions. Users of this style prefer that others seek compromise or adjust.
-Conflict – what’s conflict?
People with this style are willing to withdraw or try to avoid the problem. To avoid a conflict or confrontation becomes the target. They seek to avoid hurting other people.
The style can be useful when it contributes to tensions being reduced, that others can solve the case better, or when the right timing means that the negotiation has a better chance to succeed later on. The disadvantage is that misunderstandings and conflicts can grow bigger, or that missing responsibility can damage relationships and that you don’t take action. Users of this style prefer that others are avoidant.
-Everything you say is fine with me
This style is the opposite of the competitive style. The target is the build-up of goodwill. People with this style seek to sustain a mutual atmosphere of peace and tolerance. This is, to a degree, compromising your own needs and interests to oblige others. The style can be useful when you want to build up goodwill, or the matter is more important for the other party than for yourself/your project. The disadvantage is that you minimize your influence and risk compromising your values and integrity. Users of this style prefer that others take control.
The knowledge of The Five Styles expands your bandwidth of options for actions and makes it more simple to prevent conflicts or stand strong in a given negotiation situation.
Each of the five styles have their strengths and disadvantages and a very different effect, depending on the situation in which they are used.
An optimal interest-based approach starts in a nuanced assessment of a situation. For instance – “what is the baseline?”, “is the meaning that I attribute to the situation true?”, “what do I want to obtain?”, “what is best for the project” – and so on.
This is combined with the capabilities that the individual project manager has in using each style, where you will ask yourself questions such as “how is my own behavior?” and “how do I counter the situation in the best way with which style?”
The usage of the styles
If you, as a project manager, often experience resistance, conflicts, and devastating bumps on the road, or if you do not feel that you have the necessary impact, it can be valuable to look inward at your own behavior and immediate reaction patterns when situations become critical. Imagine a situation where you called a kick-off meeting with a new steering committee. Here, as project manager, you witness a massive disagreement and loud argument between the participants that is not about your project. This is a meeting where you hoped to add more resources to your project in need.
Example: Experience 1
You experience a growing aggravation while you try to take control of the situation.
Behavior: You get irritated, smack the table, interrupt the discussion, and shift focus to your wish for resources for the project.
Benefits: The project manager’s attitude becomes clear and creates peace here and now
Disadvantages: The project manager risks being in resistance and harming the relationship witn the steering committee and the project.
Example: Experience 2
You feel discomfort while you consider how to get out of the situation.
Behavior: You are passive, you withdraw, and let the discussion continue
Benefits: You make room for the others to finish the discussion and reduce tension
Disadvantages: You give up your influence, and the inability to hold focus on the project can cause the steering committee to lose faith in the project manager’s capabilities.
In both situations, the project manager risks harming the relationship with the steering committee, and thus reduces the opportunity to make a good start and create a foundation for a healthy cooperation. It can make sense if the relationship is not important for the project and it stays that way. But what if one’s behavior contributes to escalating an unnecessary conflict and you end up burning bridges? Should you have instead built long-term relationships to carry the project through? A brief analysis of the importance of the issue and relationship can help in choosing the most appropriate style. (see Figure 2)
In the previous situation, it can be argued that the case is significant (the needy project should be on the right track). The relationship is similarly important because cooperation with the steering committee can have crucial importance for the success of the project. An interactive behavior will be the most appropriate style here.
Example: Experience 3
You feel a growing aggravation in yourself and discomfort in the situation, but at the same time see an opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings, which obviously takes away focus from the project.
Behavior: You actively take control while you acknowledge the argument and the individual’s point of view, and here, challenge the different interests and needs.
Benefit: The project manager shows power and at the same time highlights various opportunities for development of the project in cooperation with the group.
Disadvantage: The process becomes more time-consuming. Be aware that the interest in creating solutions in a “win-win”-perspective and the problem-solving style can be low, as it means that the parties must think untraditionally and move away from the comfort zone found in a rules and rights-perspective.
Internal management that begins in the conflict and negotiation style is about actively initiating the behavior that creates value, and it can effectively be reached in three steps:
a – Know and control your conflict style.
b – Find the right style for the situation. Hold this situation up against the issue/relationship tool and evaluate the field it’s in, and choose your style based on what you wish to impact.
c – Use the styles effectively. It can be an advantage to use several styles at once. If you’ve chosen a collaborative style and the dialogue drags out, you can shift to another style to break up the situation.
As people, we don’t just interpret, but are active creators of meaning in our lives, which become the starting point for our actions. Your understanding and the foundation of your experience will instinctively influence your behavior in situations.
The more nuanced a self-image we have, the better we can develop our ability to register and understand the different nuances in a situation, and understand others. This gives us greater freedom to shift the focus from our own story to what’s needed in a situation, and conciously act on the basis of that knowledge.
It’s one thing to be aware of in your own internal conflict and negotiation style, and use it purposefully. It’s another thing how you relate to others’ style and can influence that and others’ behaviors.