Run Away! Run Away! (And Other Conflict Styles)

by Elizabeth Trotter on September 28, 2014

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I don’t like conflict. I’m scared of it. I don’t want people to be upset with me; I don’t want people to think I’m upset with them. Conflict is stressful and instills in me a strong desire to RUN AWAY. I shut down both physically and emotionally, and I fail to deal with the issue at hand.

I want everyone to be happy. I want this to happen without actually having to talk about the things that make me, and other people, unhappy. But I can’t avoid unhappy situations indefinitely. With 7 billion people on this planet, and no two of us alike, conflict is unavoidable.  I can’t hide away forever from my emotions and the emotions of others.

In mission training I learned that my approach to conflict has a name: I am an Avoider, or Turtle. Turtles believe that any conflict, regardless of what it is or how it is handled, will inevitably harm relationships. We thus avoid conflict at all costs. We hide in our turtle shells and refuse to come out to talk. However, when cornered or forced into conflict we aren’t ready to deal with, some Turtles (like me) might lash out in anger. The typically conflict-avoidant Turtle has now morphed into a Snapping Turtle. Ouch!

Perhaps you also dislike conflict, but instead of running away from it, you simply give in to everyone else’s wishes, never voicing your own. If you want everyone to be happy and are willing to give up your own wants and desires in order to maintain harmonious relationships, then you might be an Accommodator, or Teddy Bear. Teddy Bears, like Turtles, wish to preserve relationships. Instead of outright escapism, though, Teddy Bears ensure that in any given situation, everybody except themselves is satisfied. They try to make everyone happy, but they are in danger of never feeling “heard” by others.

Or maybe you’re not afraid of conflict at all. Maybe you’re so confident that your solution is correct that you won’t even consider other people’s ideas. If so, you might be a Shark, or Competitor. (And you might be interested to know that Turtles and Teddy Bears are petrified of you.) When a decision must be made quickly, you have the ability to lead a group and make that decision both quickly and confidently. However, in slower situations, people may feel you do not value them or their contributions. People want you to listen to them and take their perspective into account when making a decision, something that is not easy for you to do.

There are a couple other conflict styles. A Compromiser, or Fox, wants everyone in a given situation to give up something they want, with the assurance that they will receive something else they want. Everyone wins a little, and everyone loses a little. Ideally, everyone receives something they want, but each person is also missing something they want.  That’s because Compromisers are looking for a “good enough” solution in the quickest time possible — and this is especially helpful in a time crunch.  However, Compromisers can sometimes be seen as acting too quickly to reach a solution, making people feel “unheard.”

The last style is the Collaborator, or Owl. A Collaborator is similar to a Compromiser, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. But where a Compromiser wants everyone to win a little and lose a little, a Collaborator wants everyone to feel 100% satisfied with the outcome, and they are willing to work as long as it takes to find that perfect solution. Although they care about everyone’s happiness level, coworkers can be frustrated by the slowness of the Collaboration process. The Collaborator, likewise, can become frustrated when people aren’t willing to work on a problem as long as he or she is willing. Incidentally, in mission training, we learned that Collaborators are often the most frustrated people on the mission field. They want a perfect solution every time, and that’s just not possible.

So what happens when all these conflict styles try to interact?

  • Turtles run away from important discussions. The Turtle is scared, and hiding meets the Turtle’s need to avoid conflict. Other styles want to discuss the problem at hand, but they become frustrated by the Turtle’s refusal.
  • Teddy Bears make everyone happy, right? But nobody can help them, because nobody knows what they want. Compromisers and Collaborators often want to know how Teddy Bears (and Turtles) feel. They value every person’s input and want to make a decision that incorporates everyone’s needs. When they can’t coax the Turtles and Teddy Bears to share their needs, Collaborators and Compromisers become frustrated.
  • Competitive Sharks may get things done quickly, but they risk alienating people while doing it. And they don’t just alienate Turtles and Teddy Bears – they can also alienate Compromisers and Collaborators, who want everyone’s input to be valued, including theirs.
  • What about when a Shark meets another Shark? Sounds scary to my Turtle self. Let’s not even go there.
  • A Compromiser may try to get to a solution too fast and fail to listen closely enough to people. Compromisers might convince people to give up too much too soon when making a decision, and they might not realize that’s hurting people.
  • Collaborators want to find a perfect solution, and they don’t care how long it takes to get there. If you’re a Collaborator and people don’t want to talk to you, it might be because they know the discussion will be L-O-N-G. A solution that makes 100% of the people 100% happy may not be feasible. So you might need to settle for less-than-perfect and learn a few things from the Compromiser.

Knowing I’m a Turtle has helped me understand why I react to certain people’s conflict styles. It explains past relationship patterns, and it illuminates current relational issues.

As a Turtle, I’ve often felt a sense of pride in the fact that I preserve relationships by avoiding conflict. But pride is bad news, and the supposed relationship preservation is only partly true, anyway. Sometimes relationships are preserved by actually talking about sensitive subjects, instead of avoiding them.

I’m learning that if I avoid all difficult conversations, I risk growing bitter about an issue. I’m learning that I can’t just think about myself and my own personal need to avoid conflict. I’m learning that sometimes I need to love someone enough to broach difficult subjects.

I’m learning that I can have calm, rational conversations about sticky subjects. I’m learning that these conversations can be gracious and kind instead of the violent explosions I expect them to be. And I’m finding that these kinds of conversations can lead to solutions I had never even thought of.

In short, I’m learning that I can and must grow in conflict resolution — and that it’s not as scary as I had always thought.

 

What about you? Which conflict style do you favor most? Do you tend to Avoid, Accommodate, Compromise, Collaborate, or Compete?

Is there a conflict style that’s particularly difficult for you to interact with?

How has God used your conflict style to benefit relationships?

How do you think God wants to stretch you in your approach to conflict?

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Anna Wegner

    About 2 1/2 years ago, I was in a talk about different conflict styles. I had a “lightbulb moment” where I realized I had been accommodating, but it was leaving me feeling resentful. It wasn’t the other people’s fault that I was always giving in. I thought I was being nice, but partly it was just an excuse to avoid conflict. Now that I’ve realized that, I don’t do it as much. I’m fairly laid back, so I don’t mind going along most of the time. I’m trying to work on being more of a compromiser/collaborator.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I so relate to this! No one can read my mind, so they can’t know unless I say anything, right? Wish I could have understood that earlier. . . Like you, I’m also pretty laid back and don’t mind most things, but when I mind, I guess I mind a LOT, lol. Crucial conversations are still very difficult for me to do, though. I usually need a recovery time after the conversation before I can look back and think, “well now, that was a good, productive conversation.” May God help us both in learning to compromise and collaborate. Blessings!

  • Richelle Wright

    In my natural, “unredeemed” state, which pokes its head more than I care to admit, I’m a shark… for sure. When I’m Spirit controlled – I still have that “shark” side, but tend to function with a lot of “owl” tendencies. Funny thing, though? As a shark, I’m also terrified of other sharks… One way God has gifted me is that I often can make a rather quick and accurate assessment of situations… and quickly formulate a plan of action. Where He is stretching me is learning how to incorporate into that plan the strengths of others – and it isn’t always the quickest way to get things done, but I’m slowly learning that quick isn’t necessarily better… or worse.

    We’ve got each type reflected in our family/house as well… And as the mama, I find I spend a lot of time teaching “conflict resolution” so that all the siblings learn to get along and don’t think that the right solution has to be the one that is best for them, as an individual.

    Great post, Elizabeth… some really thought provoking questions.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Hmmm, yeah, in the children’s conflict resolution department, I’m pretty much failing! I hate the fighting so much that I just want to say, “hey, you both did something wrong, neither of you is right, and you should apologize and forgive each other.” I try to explain how each person’s actions hurt the other person and ask them if they can see how that happened. But that whole teaching them how to work it out themselves, I’m not so good at!
      But this part: “so that siblings learn to get along and don’t think that the right solution has to be the one that is best for them, as an individual.” I think that’s probably key to all of life, not just sibling relationships — church problems too.
      But I laughed when you said sharks are afraid of other sharks. Thanks for clearing that up for me; I had always wondered! 🙂

  • Casey

    Well, I guess you know what we are!!! =) We all have room to grow in the area of conflict resolution, don’t we,
    and it is so helpful to think about unique conflict styles. Thanks for
    sharing your insights!

    I am reminded of the chapter in the Poisonwood Bible where Kingsolver tries to demonstrate the superiority of the African chiefs who collaborate together until everyone is 100% happy with the solution. It sounds idyllic until you consider how LONG and FRUSTRATING that can be. However, I do disagree that one conflict style or the other is going to lead to one type being the most frustrated on mission field. Imagine the joy of a 100% solution! That joy can sustain through conflicts with 50/50% or 20/80% compromises. The truth is, as a Collaborator, I enjoy the long process of working hard toward a perfect solution. Maybe the Owl CAUSES the most frustration rather than is the most frustrated.

    Also, I saw the comment about kids and wanted to recommend an awesome resource we have been using for a few years: Young Peacemakers. It is such a great tool!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Yep, conflict is hard for most of us (all of us?). 🙂 Even my husband, who is a collaborator, doesn’t actually *like* conflict; he just sees it as the process we use to get to resolution.
      I’ve never read the Poisonwood Bible, though I’ve heard it’s good. And I really admire groups who solve problems by consensus. I think the Quakers and the Brethren churches do that?? Anyways, thanks for the peacemaker recommendation. I’ll keep it in mind 🙂

  • Taking Route

    I loved this article! So insightful. I am an Shark and my husband is an Owl. So sometimes when conflict arises we get so frustrated (okay…always when conflict arises). I want the solution quick…and he has to talk it through and through and through and through. Again, so insightful. I am sharing this on Taking Route’s Facebook page. ~Denise

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Denise!

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