There is more than one way to handle conflict
Written for Farm Futures and originally published in their May/June 2022 print issue.
The Father and son sat across from each other, building tension. The topic was compensation within their family farm as part of their transition plan. This meeting occurred almost a decade ago, so the exact details around the disagreement are foggy.
Back to the story. Father leaned forward in his chair and declared that the issue of compensation during his retirement needed to be resolved, and it was "time to get it all out on the table and hash it out."
His son avoided eye contact, slowly pushed himself away from the table, and checked his phone. He completely ignored Father's declaration.
The silence hung heavy in the air until the son muttered something about needing to make an urgent phone call and walked out. He never came back to the meeting.
Over the next week, I could privately visit with both of them and get their thoughts. Interestingly enough, both of them wanted the same thing. They both desired to resolve the issue. They both cared about each other and didn't want this one topic to come between their strong relationship.
What happened? Was it the topic or something else that made this situation so hard for everyone? What happened was each of them was using only one tool in the conflict toolbox. Unfortunately, it was the wrong tool for this particular situation.
Like everyone has patterns of speech or even how we walk, we also have well-worn modes of dealing with uncomfortable situations or conflict. Let's look at each of the five primary modes of dealing with conflict.
Each mode has a time and a place when it is the best tool. In the example above, the best mode was probably collaboration. I base this on how important the topic was, the complexity, and the relationship's importance. But collaboration isn't always the best tool to use.
Let's look at all the tools.
A V O I D I N G
When avoiding, a person does not actively address the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing a problem until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.
When its best to use the 'AVOIDING' mode:
- When an issue is trivial or when other more important issues are pressing.
- When you believe this is no chance of getting what you want, e.g., when you have low power or are frustrated by something that would be very difficult to change (national policies, someone's personality, etc.)
- The potential damage of confronting a conflict outweighs the benefits of its resolution.
- To let people cool down.
- When gathering more information outweighs the advantages of an immediate decision.
A C C O M M O D A T I N G
When accommodating, individuals give up their concerns to satisfy the other person's concerns; there is self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person's order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another's point of view.
When its best to use the 'ACCOMMODATING' mode:
- When you realize that you are wrong, allow a better position to be heard, learn from others, and show that you are reasonable.
- When the issue is much more critical to the other person than to yourself – to satisfy the needs of others, and as a goodwill gesture to help maintain a cooperative relationship.
- To build up goodwill for later issues which are important to you.
- When continued competition only damages your cause, when you are outmatched and losing.
- When preserving harmony and avoiding disruption is especially important.
C O M P R O M I S I N G
When compromising, a solution only partially satisfies both parties. Compromising might mean splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground position.
When its best to use the 'COMPROMISING' mode
- When goals are moderately important but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes
- When two parties with equal power are strongly committed to mutually exclusive goals, an example is labor-management bargaining.
- To achieve temporary settlements to complex issues.
- To arrive at suitable solutions under time pressure.
- As a backup mode, when collaboration or competition fails to be successful.
C O M P E T I N G
When competing, a person will often pursue their concerns at the other person's expense, using whatever power seems appropriate to win. Competing might mean standing up for your rights, defending a position you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.
When its best to use the 'COMPETING' mode
- When quick, decisive action is vital, e.g., emergencies.
- On essential issues where unpopular courses of action need implementing, e.g., cost-cutting, enforcing unpopular rules, discipline.
- On issues vital to company welfare, when you know, you're right.
- When deeply held values or morals are at stake
C O L L A B O R A T I N G
When collaborating, a person attempts to work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both. It involves digging into an issue to identify the underlying problems of the parties find an alternative that meets both sets of concerns. Collaborating between two persons often tries to find creative solutions or out-of-the-box thinking.
When its best to use the 'COLLABORATING' mode:
- Where both concerns are significant and not to be compromised
- To merge ideas from different perspectives
- To gain commitment by incorporating other's views into a consensus
- To work through complicated feelings that interfere with interpersonal relationships.
- When relationships and others cooperation is vital to move forward
- When trust between parties is relatively high
- When there is enough time to work through the process
There are many crucial conversations in a family business where these tools are helpful. The most common areas are family dynamics, employees, transition planning, and business negotiations.
Conflict can be a good thing because it solves important topics or issues. Moreover, the tools we use to resolve conflict are as essential as the issue itself.
Just like a toolbox in a shop has many tools for different problems, so does a conflict toolbox. Before delving into a crucial issue, choose your tool wisely and then be prepared to resolve the problems that befuddled farms for generations.
The stakes are often very high on a family farm. If you are still stuck, reach out to a competent professional to coach you along. There is nothing wrong with asking for help when the stakes are high.