Helping youth navigate appropriate approaches to conflict

Conflict is unavoidable in life, but skills can be developed in youth to help them manage conflict in more productive ways.

Today’s world is engrossed in conflict. Wars overseas, terrorist attacks and stalemates in Congress dominate the daily news and offer the worst examples of ways of managing conflict. While it’s natural for parents to shield their children from the worries of the world, children and youth often observe and absorb far more than we realize. Our actions and responses during times of conflict can serve as important learning opportunities for youth. The next time a polarizing political debate is raised at your dinner table, consider how you can emphasize more positive conflict resolution methods. Sometimes a simple conversation asking, “What other ways could that concern have been addressed?” is enough to start an important conversation.

The following summarizes five different approaches to dealing with conflict based on the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). The original intent of the TKI is to identify an individual’s preference for handling conflict. The same approaches can also serve as a guide to identify more appropriate conflict responses.

Not-so-helpful styles

Competing. Far too often news media and movies portray this very news-worthy, but not so helpful conflict resolution method. When competing to resolve conflict, both parties stick to their viewpoints and the loudest or most powerful voice wins. This conflict style can result in fights, never-ending debates and even wars, where eventually one party wins and the other party loses.

Avoiding. Nearly the opposite of the competing style, the avoiding style is less violent and confrontational, but is often also not productive. Avoiding conflict can result in long-lasting grudges or misunderstandings if the conflicting parties do not engage in an authentic conversation about their differing perspectives. While every minor conflict may not be worth the risk involved in addressing concerns, avoiding important issues that matter to individuals can also be detrimental to a relationship.

Accommodating. In this approach, one person in conflict gives way to the views of another at the expense of their own opinion or idea. Taken as a single instance, this approach can be seen as a compromise or a way to quickly resolve the conflict at hand. However, over a long-term relationship, this can brew a great deal of animosity as it can silence one person’s perspective. While it often does result in the conflict coming to an immediate end, the issue is typically unresolved and one person’s perspective has taken precedence while disregarding the other.

More-helpful styles

Compromising. This style of addressing conflict takes both parties’ viewpoints into consideration and typically involves both parties making equal sacrifices. Because this approach takes aspects of both ideas, the results often come more quickly and easily, but don’t often result in the best long-term outcome. Compromises do allow the ability to move forward and puts the conflicting parties on equal ground.

Collaborating. This is the most helpful style, but can also be the most difficult to achieve. Collaboration as a way of resolving conflict requires listening, trust, time and creativity. When collaborating to resolve conflict, both parties work together, listen to each others’ viewpoints and identify a solution that appeases the needs of everyone. It’s this intentional approach that can result in the best ideas, the most long-lasting resolutions and a better outcome for everyone involved. It also doesn’t often draw the attention of the media or Hollywood because it is not dramatic. It is, however, a process and a conversation that takes work and a commitment to discussion.

While every conflict we encounter may not be resolved in a manner that fits easily into one of these descriptions, it’s important to think about conflict on a continuum and ask youth how they can move not-so-helpful conflicts to more-helpful responses. Taking a moment to reflect with youth about ways to address and deal with conflict and demonstrating helpful responses to conflict is important before youth responses are shaped primarily by unrealistic or highly competitive conflict situations that they may see around them in the media. 

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