Conflict, as has already been said, involves tension, tension and some rivalry. It divides the participants into two sides who aim to gain control of the situation. How do we resolve this dilemma other than by running or fighting, the natural, almost instinctive responses to real or imaginary danger? Do we abandon the situation or engage in conflict? There are many people who say that conflict is not worth the effort to resolve because they disapprove of any form of aggression, overt or covert. And then, we see them avoiding or refusing in one way or another to participate in such a relationship.
There are other people who see conflict as a challenge, a way to assert or confirm their superiority, their power and are often labelled as incisive. But we are often put in a situation that requires us to get involved and it is up to us what happens next, the outcome. Whether we like the situation for the opportunity it presents or dislike it because of the tension it creates, it is important and preferable to learn to handle the situation in such a way as to cause minimal immediate damage and the greatest possible gain, not only for ourselves but also for the other party. But why should our partner in the conflict matter, let alone what they gain from what they may have caused? Because an "all for me and nothing for the other" mindset will lead to future conflicts and damage our image in the eyes of our colleagues or employees, which again will make our relations with them unpleasant.
There are, however, several ways of avoiding conflict and almost as many ways of engagement identified by B. Mayer (2000), and Ana Stoica-Constantin (2004) presents them in her book, "Interpersonal Conflict".
Avoidance is sometimes necessary and can even be useful, but at other times it may lead to conflict escalating or degenerating into something more difficult to control. There are eight types of avoidance that can be combined and used successfully if the situation allows.
- Aggressive avoidance involves intimidating your partner to prevent them from continuing. The message conveyed, verbal or non-verbal, is more like a threat of "you'll regret it".
- Passive avoidance achieved by interrupting or avoiding contact, remaining silent, changing or avoiding the subject or leaving the partner's location is based on a clear, explicit refusal to accept the conflict.
- Passive-aggressive avoidance is used by those who provoke, then abandon the fight. We will see them respond to provocation with a strongly emotionally charged statement, but they seem unwilling to receive a response. Ana Stoica-Constantin (2004) also includes in this category those who make a complaint, but refuse to participate in solving the problem.
- Avoidance through renunciation occurs when the individual sees no way out of the situation.
- Surrogate avoidance happens when we push others into conflict and remain bystanders, or when the conflict is not with the target person but with a less intimidating one. For example, I will avoid arguing with my boss, who is overbearing, and would rather have a conflict with his secretary because I feel less tension in my relationship with her.
- Avoidance through denial is a strategy by which we do not acknowledge the conflict, hoping that this will make it go away, and minimise its purpose and size.
- Avoidance through premature resolution of the problem is aimed at the initial phase and can sometimes lead to total resolution of the conflict. At other times it confuses the partner by the confusion it creates and allows the real problem to be avoided.
- Avoidance through surrender is done by accepting a greater degree of responsibility than we feel we are entitled to, or surrendering to all "charges". A variant of this, says the author, can be the premature and artificial presentation of excuses to avoid what follows.
What are the advantages of avoiding conflict after all? The first and most readily available answer is that it protects the individual from the tension of the conflict, but also from the impact of a negative response it might bring. At the same time, it can lead to alternative resolutions of the situation without a conflict state and, in this case, keeps the relationship with the partner intact. But in other cases, it allows the conflict to grow out of its unaddressed nature to a point where it will be much harder, perhaps even impossible to contain. This is why the choice of avoidance as a solution must be made according to the partner and, above all, the situation. If our goals and our partner's goals are important, then avoidance should not be the chosen solution.
So how do we engage in conflict? Engagement can be done in five basic ways in which those involved seek to satisfy their needs or interests.
- Power-based approaches are often the sure way to damage relationships. Although aggressive at times, they can also lead to positive outcomes. This includes strikes, boycotts, public protests, etc.
- Rights-based approaches invoke procedures, regulations, laws, policies that are required to be followed.
- Interest-based approaches are about discussing the needs and objectives of each party rather than forcing a solution.
- Principle-based approaches are moral in nature and consist of invoking written or unwritten standards of conduct.
- Manipulative approaches aim to implement the solution in a covert but not necessarily malicious way.
Engaging in conflict has the advantage of addressing and resolving it immediately, without giving it the opportunity to "fester" and grow in the background. In addition, psychological tension does not build up in such a way as to affect individuals later.
An obvious disadvantage is that, if the situation is not handled correctly, it can damage the relationship if the solution involves one party losing. And if this is avoided, a conflict can leave a bitter taste and, for a time, prevent partners from returning to normal functioning.