Conflict and negotiation styles
How do you react when you’re in a tense, conflict-ridden situation? How do you handle a tough negotiation? Do you know how you conduct yourself when you feel pressured to make a decision? And what goes through your mind when you’re on your way to a steering committee meeting to discuss the future of a struggling project?
Do you switch over to an unpredictable autopilot? Do you go on the attack believing it to be the best defense? Do you withdraw from the dispute and quietly accept the outcome? Or do you try to illuminate the situation from all angles to find a common solution?
Whatever your strategy, this article aims to give you greater insight into your natural reaction patterns – and how you can change them, if necessary
Each of the various reaction patterns – also called “conflict and negotiation styles” – has value under certain circumstances and they can be used interchangeably to influence the outcome of almost all situations. When you understand how your behavior will affect others and when you are able to identify which style (or mixture of styles) will work best in a given situation, you create a foundation for sustainable solutions and strengthen your position as a project manager.
There are five distinct behavior patterns (bb vcd) that can come into play during conflicts or discussions. We will examine each and introduce you to a tool based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).
For the sake of clarity, these behavior patterns or typologies will be referred to as “negotiation styles” throughout the rest of this article.
The five negotiation styles
All negotiations, even those that escalate into conflict, are ultimately about the same thing: Fulfilling our needs. And a person’s conflict and negotiation style can be identified by assessing two facets of their behavior. The first is their drive to satisfy their own interests and needs. The second is their willingness to cooperate and see to it that the interests and needs of others are satisfied.
The varying degrees by which these two features are combined produce five distinct conflict and negotiation styles (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 occasionally bring into use.
Let’s 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 tend to stand firm. They are prepared to push through their own agenda, regardless of whether it is at the expense 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 disadvantages are that important relations risk being damaged or lost, that the target can become winning for winning’s sake, and that focus on what will objectively serve the project best can be lost. 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 their opponent’s cooperation to find a common solution that meets the needs 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 when you want to support teamwork in order to create a sustainable solution. This style is therefore often referred to as the “win-win style.” The disadvantages include that it can be a time-consuming process, and that it can be hard to use when unforeseen differences of opinion occur. Users of this style prefer that others solve problems and, while willing to accommodate others, they will not compromise their own needs.
– “I’ll budge a little, if you do the same”
As the name suggests, people with this style seek to find a solution through compromise: “If everyone gives up something, we can all keep something.” The parties will tend to stand firm on their positions but try to find a middle ground that partially meets their different needs. The lowest common denominator often becomes the goal. This style can be advantageous 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 overall perspective, that the solution is temporary, that both parties feel they lost the negotiation, or that you miss an opportunity for the development of new solutions. Users of this style prefer that others also seek to compromise or adjust their expectations.
– “Conflict? – What conflict?”
People with this style withdraw from the discussion and do their best to avoid the problem altogether. Circumventing conflict or confrontation becomes the target. They refrain from hurting other people by following the path of least resistance.
The style can be useful when it is employed to reduce tensions so that others have more flexibility to solve the problem. Being elusive is also advantageous when carefully timed to prevent a negotiation from descending into an unresolvable conflict, thereby ensuring that it has a chance of success at a later stage. The disadvantage is that, when inappropriately timed, misunderstandings and conflicts can escalate. Inaction can also be construed as avoiding responsibility, which can damage relationships. 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 objective is to build up goodwill. People with this style seek to maintain an 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 when the matter is more important to the other party than it is to you or 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.
Knowledge of the five styles expands your range of options when the time comes to take action (or refrain from it). Understanding how and when to use each style makes it easier to prevent conflicts and produce the best possible outcome for any negotiation situation.
It is important to remember that each of the five styles has its strengths and weaknesses and can produce a range of effects depending on the situation in which it is used.
Once you’re at the negotiating table, determining the optimal approach starts with a nuanced assessment of the situation. For instance, you may ask yourself the following questions:
“What is the baseline for each project variable? What do I want to achieve in this negotiation? And what is the best possible outcome for the project? Is my interpretation of the situation accurate? Or is it possible that we have misunderstood one another?”
These questions are then combined with questions designed to assist you, the project manager, with determining which style to use:
“How am I behaving? Is my body language assertive and confident? Or am I apprehensive and withdrawn? Am I avoiding the problem? Or seeking a mutually beneficial compromise? Now that I am aware of which style I’m using, is it the best option for the situation? And if not, which style is?”
The usage of the styles
If you, as a project manager, often experience resistance, conflicts, bumps on the road of any kind, or if you feel that you do not have the necessary impact, it can be valuable to reflect on your 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 intense disagreement among the participants, and a heated argument ensues, one that is not even about your project. You had hoped to add more resources to your project with this meeting. How do you react?
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 needs: more resources for the project.
Benefits: Your attitude is made clear and brings order back to the meeting.
Disadvantages: You risk appearing hostile and harming your relationship with the steering committee..
You feel discomfort while you consider how to get out of the situation.
Behavior: You are passive, you withdraw, and you 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 your inability to keep the focus on the project can cause the steering committee to lose faith in your project manager’s capabilities.
In both situations, you – the project manager – risk harming your relationship with the steering committee and potentially squander an opportunity to create a foundation for healthy cooperation. It may be insignificant if the relationship is not important for the project’s success, and it stays that way. But what if your behavior contributes to escalating an unnecessary conflict and you end up burning bridges? Should you rather have focused on building 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).
Our hypothetical situation, it can be argued, is indeed a significant one (your project needs more resources to keep it on the right track). Likewise, the relationship is important because cooperation with the steering committee can be crucial to the ultimate success of your project. So, how should you have reacted? Consider the third scenario:
You observe the argument for a moment and, even though the situation is aggravating and the idea of getting involved makes you uncomfortable, you identify and seize an opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding that is taking away focus from your project.
Behavior: You actively take control while also acknowledging the argument and respecting each person’s point of view.
Benefits: You demonstrate leadership to the group by creating a cooperative environment, and you successfully shift the discussion to the development of your project.
Disadvantage: The process becomes a time-consuming one and the benefits of creating win-win solutions by way of a problem-solving style can be low. Getting the various parties to change their ways of thinking about the situation also requires them to take a step out of their comfort zones, which is often no easy task.
When it comes to conflict and negotiation, internal management is about actively identifying and initiating the behavior that will create the most value in the situation. At first glance it may seem overwhelming, but it can be achieved in three simple steps:
- Know and control your conflict style.
- 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.
- Use the styles effectively. It can be advantageous to use several styles throughout a single meeting. For example, if you’ve chosen a collaborative style and the dialogue drags on, you can shift to another style to break up the situation.
Throughout our lives, we don’t just interpret our surroundings – we are active creators of meaning. And from this meaning our actions naturally flow. Your experience creates the foundation of your understanding of situations, which will instinctively influence your behavior.
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 consciously acting on that knowledge gives us greater freedom to shift the focus to what’s needed in a situation.
It’s one thing to be aware of your own internal conflict and negotiation style, and to use it purposefully. It’s quite another to be able to identify the styles of others, and then to subtly influence them until their behavior suits your needs and interests.