Executive Careers Blog

Conflict: Your 5 Options

Are you in conflict with someone at work or home (who isn't)? Consider your options. To illustrate, imagine you're at the airport.

The gate agent announces:

1)"Your flight to Chicago will be boarding in two minutes, and if you don't get on right away, we'll leave without you. We could care less.

"Once boarded," the gate agent continues, "we'll probably sit on the tarmac for a while. Maybe we'll eventually take off, maybe we won't. It depends how we feel.

"Sometimes, we take off and then decide to land somewhere unexpected—maybe a different city, or a cornfield. And if you don't like it—tough."

Sound harsh? Well, that's one option. There are five, according to the classic work on conflict, the Thomas-Kilmann model.

Here's the key: to what extent do you 1) assert your own needs, and/or 2) cooperate with the other's needs? You can be both assertive and cooperative, neither, or mixed.

Option #1, for example (the gate agent above) is high assertion, low cooperation: My Way or the Highway.

2) Let's try a different approach.

Gate agent to passenger: "When would YOU like to leave? Right now? Fine. Why didn't you just say so?

"We'll notify the captain, and the crew and the control tower. I'm sure they had no idea they were inconveniencing you. Once they find out, they should have a plane ready at your disposal."

Option #2—high cooperation, low assertion—is the exact opposite of #1: Give the other person whatever he/she wants.

3) "Some of you passengers have asked when your flight is leaving. Others want to change their seat assignments. One person wondered, 'will there be snacks?'

"Look, we'd rather not talk about your flight. It makes us uncomfortable. Please leave us alone."

Option #3: Let's not talk about it. Low assertion, low cooperation.

4) "We know it's late, and you want to leave right away. We'd prefer to cancel the flight and go home to bed. Why don't we split the difference? We'll leave at midnight, but until then, we'll be taking a nap."

Option #4: Compromise. Moderate assertion, moderate cooperation.

5) "The last flight from Boston to Chicago just left without you. You say you need to go to Chicago tonight. Let's explore that. Do you really "need" to go to O'Hare airport?

"We've got a nonstop flight to LA.—suppose we get you on that?

"The LA flight passes right over Chicago, where the weather calls for clear skies and moderate winds. Once we get close, you could simply grab your bags, move to the rear of the plane, and parachute out."

Option #5: Let's find a creative solution. High assertion, high cooperation.

Tip: How assertive are you? How cooperative? The next time you're in a conflict, consider your options.

Is one option always best? No. Like travel, it depends where you're trying to go, and how you want to get there.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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