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Conflict Resolution Strategies by Cathy Bolger, PhD

Most people have a most preferred and least preferred strategy when handling conflict. There are five strategies: Postpone, Enforce, Accommodate, Compromise, and Explore. Sometimes the chosen strategy is effective and sometimes it is not.

What is your preferred strategy when dealing with conflict? Do you avoid or temporarily avoid conflict? Do you push your point and rarely give in? Do you surrender your position for the sake of harmony and the relationship? Are you willing to compromise? Or are you willing to take the time and energy to use your communication skills to explore ways that both parties can meet their needs?

The following are the five conflict resolution strategies:

The Postpone strategy involves delaying discussion until a later time. At that time, you may need to adopt one of the other four strategies to resolve the differences and come to agreement.

Choose the Postpone strategy if there are heightened emotions around the issues making a rational discussion temporarily impossible. You may choose to postpone the discussion if you don't have all the information needed, or if you want to try to allow the issue to resolve itself with time. Indeed, you may choose to avoid the issue if you feel there is no chance of satisfying your concerns.

If used too often, it can be viewed as running from or avoiding conflict. Also, if a major conflict is delayed too long, it can sometimes evolve into a much larger conflict.

The Enforce strategy involves doing what is necessary to support a non-negotiable point of view. This strategy is used when it is imperative to resolve the conflict in a predetermined way. In many cases, this is driven by an executive decision, or when a person feels strongly about a particular point of view and simply will not compromise.

Choose the Enforce strategy when you must stand firm, such as in the case of an ethics violation. It is also effective if the decision has already been made by company executives. It is used when quick, decisive action if crucial, for instance in an emergency, when there is no time for discussion.

If you choose this strategy too often, you may be viewed as pushy or selfish. In addition, you may find yourself surrounded by people who are afraid to express a different point of view or have just given up being heard. If you underuse the Enforce strategy, you may lack assertiveness or be seen as weak. You must take a firm stand when you see the need.

This strategy involves going along with another's viewpoint or desires. It sometimes involves giving in because you believe it is a good way to enhance or preserve the relationship.

Choose the Accommodate strategy when there is a subject matter expert who has more insight than you or when the other party has strong ownership and it is less important to you. Also choose this strategy when decisions have been made that are outside your control. Choosing to accommodate also helps preserve harmony and helps you appear reasonable by giving in to the other person's wishes. It may build good will for future bargaining. If you use this strategy too often, you may appear weak or lacking opinions. If you underuse this strategy, others may see you as unreasonable because you don't move away from your point of view even when it is appropriate.

The Compromise strategy involves both parties agreeing to small concessions so they can resolve their differences. It is sometimes referred to as splitting the difference. No one has all her needs met. The compromise strategy has a positive result when both parties feel ownership of the agreement or outcome, and neither feels defeated; however, sometimes the best answer can become weakened due to overuse of Compromise.

Choose the Compromise strategy when you must reach a solution soon and therefore don't have the time to use the Explore strategy. Compromise can also be a temporary settlement to a complex issue.

Like the underuse of the Accommodate strategy, if you underuse Compromise, you may find it hard to make concessions. You may also need to learn more about the art of bargaining.

When using the Explore strategy, both parties work together to create and explore new ideas. This results in a greater sense of ownership and teamwork because all parties feel their needs have been met. Explore is an effective strategy because in some cases, the best solution is one that is not being considered by either side.

Choose the Explore strategy when you need a Win/Win resolution. Everyone's concerns and feeling are considered. This strategy ensures that all parties are heard, allows everyone to work through feelings/emotions and at the same time work toward the best solution. In other words, choose the Explore strategy when the decision is so important that it needs everyone's full participation and commitment. Also, use this strategy if your goal is to integrate diverse viewpoints.

The only danger associated with this strategy is that it takes time and effort and depends on open minds and good communication skills. The importance of the issue itself may not warrant the time required to reach a solution using this strategy. Also, there may not be time, depending on the urgency and complexity of the issue, as well as the number of people involved. In other words, this strategy may not be appropriate for less important decisions. In addition, groups can become tired and/or paralyzed if they feel they must always reach consensus.

If you underuse this strategy, you may find others uncommitted to the final decision. You may need to view conflict as an opportunity to find a creative third point of view

All five strategies have their time and place. When choosing a strategy look at the importance of the issue, the urgency of the issue and the power of the people involved. Be aware that you may tend to use some strategies more or less than others, and there are consequences to overuse or underuse of any strategy. It is therefore important to have all five strategies in your tool kit.

Cathy Bolger has designed and delivered Conflict Resolution training for over a decade. She also coaches individual managers on their conflict resolution skills. In addition, Dr. Bolger has written several articles for professional publications on Conflict Management. Cathy Bolger is an outdoor facilitator for the San Diego branch of the Center for Creative Leadership.

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