Options for conflict management

If a conflict develops, there are a number of approaches which may be taken in seeking a resolution. The model presented in Figure 54.1 provides an overall description of five conflict management techniques. The discussion below examines the applicability of each in the outdoors, considering the balance between the need to satisfy others’ needs against your own.

A collaborative approach requires a level of trust and commitment from both sides. This draws each party into an honest examination of both positions, and encourages each side to make an effort to understand the other. The aim is to reach a win/win solution that both sides are happy with—which may be quite different from the initial position of both. Clearly this can be a time-consuming process and may not be possible in some circumstances, such as when there is an emergency or a time pressure, or when one or other party is not prepared to make the effort needed, or even acknowledge that a conflict exists.

Approach: ‘Let’s talk this through’. ‘Let’s get together and thrash this out’.

A compromise approach, each party shifting to a middle position, may be deceptively similar to the collaborative approach. However if goodwill is missing, or if one or other party feels that they have given up more than they wanted, then the compromise is more of a win/lose or even a lose/lose outcome. Negotiating a compromise in an atmosphere of mistrust can encourage distortions of the truth, and will not work well where there are ‘either/or’ situations involved.

Approach: ‘I’ll give a bit – you give a bit, and we’ll meet half way’.

Power and dominance
When the resolution process becomes a power struggle and a lack of cooperation prevails, then we can finish up with the lose/lose option of power and dominance. The power may come from the set up in the group (such as the leader taking charge) from other forms of manipulation, or a power base evolving from the social dynamics in the group. Voting, while seemingly a democratic form of collaboration if not compromise, may be a form of power-based leadership.

A resolution such as this does not always feel very comfortable and the problem may re-emerge later. At times however, such as in an emergency, a dominant leader may take charge. In this situation the process may well have the ready compliance of the whole group, or may rapidly achieve acceptance if the strategic direction selected appears to be working.

Approach: ‘I have decided that we will…’. ‘You will…’. ‘If you don’t come with us, we’ll…’.

Suppression of conflict, while quite common, is not generally a satisfying outcome. It is a lose/lose form of conflict management. While it is in one sense cooperative, both parties are in all likelihood holding onto the conflict and it may well arise again. If the leader or the group establishes a norm that it isn’t acceptable to have conflict in this group, then the process may go underground. In which case, even if there is discontent, the issue may not be touched on for the rest of the trip. This may be useful if a higher premium is placed on maintaining good relationships in the group and the conflict can safely be ignored. However, there is no airing of the issues or resolution of the problem. In club groups, where people participate together on activities regularly, suppression of issues will very likely result in them resurfacing in other club settings or on future trips.

Approach: ‘We don’t argue in this group’. ‘We run a happy ship here’.

Denial or withdrawal
Finally there is the option of denial or withdrawal, characterised by ‘Perhaps if I ignore it, it will go away’. This is another lose/lose process in which the issue is not dealt with, and there is no expression of feeling. Effectively, all parties pretend the issue doesn’t exist. For minor issues this can be the best policy, and certainly for personal issues between group members where the leader is not really involved, this can be a suitable response.

Approach: ‘It will sort itself out’. ‘Don’t worry, there probably isn’t a real problem anyway’.