Thursday, 13 May 2010

Is This Relationship Going To Work?

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, working with people who aren’t our natural soulmates. Whether the relationship is Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, or two colleagues sharing an office, conflict is probably going to arise at some point.

Messrs Clegg and Cameron are both assertive and persuasive individuals who are used to winning the argument. But if they are going to work successfully together they will need to use a range of styles to manage potential conflict between themselves and their party members.

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann describe five approaches we can take to handling any particular conflict:

Compete – we aim to win.

Accommodate - our priority is to keep the other person happy.

Compromise – we do a deal. It’s not perfect but we can both live with it. At least in the short term.

Avoid – we take the view that it’s better not to open the can of worms, so we don’t address the issue.

Collaborate – we look for a solution that fully meets our needs, and also satisfies other person. A true ‘win/win’.

Which One To Use?

Looking at these five styles, you would think that the ‘right’ approach to conflict would always be to collaborate. However, there are a couple of problems with collaboration:

• It can take a long time – you have to sit down, explore the other person’s position, analyse the underlying needs and concerns then try to thrash out a resolution. It’s great when you have the time (and the energy) to do this. But sometimes there’s a deadline. Sometimes the markets are showing signs of impatience.

• It isn’t always possible. For example, when you and your colleague have fundamentally opposing views or values.

The trick is actually knowing which type of approach is most appropriate in any situation, and consciously adapting your natural preference for one of the five styles.

When To Use Each Style

When you are determined to get your needs met, or the issue is something that you aren’t prepared to compromise on, and you are not concerned about maintaining the relationship.

In situations where the relationship takes priority. For example if your partnership is looking fragile, you might decide to postpone getting your needs met in order to placate the other person.

When time is short and you need to agree a practical resolution that you can both live with.

When the costs of discussing the topic outweigh any likely benefits. There are some issues which might not be open to resolution, and even discussing them can create bad feelings on both sides.

When you will be having an ongoing relationship with other person. You will be working closely together and it is important that both of you get your needs met.

One of the secrets of handling conflict successfully, whether it’s in a shared office or the House of Commons, is choosing the right strategy.

For more on handling conflict, and coping with difficult conversations generally, take a look at the Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook.

You might also be interested in my courses on Negotiation Skills, Tackling Difficult Conversations or Influencing and High Impact Communication.

Reference: Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update
Journal of Organizational Behavior; Vol. 13; 265-272; (1992).