Avoiding and Accommodating: Now the Instrument Shows a Truth

October 10, 2004

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610).

According to the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire (Bluffton University, n.d.), my primary conflict mode is “avoiding” and my secondary mode is accommodating. No surprise here, as these results jive with my earlier self-assessment. Frankly, however, it is not a happy picture. In my role as a performance excellence consultant for the Coast Guard, I am expected to help people collaborate to attain increased levels of performance. In my collateral duty role as a counselor in the Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights programs, I am also expected to help people collaborate, or, if we can’t get there, to compromise. And, I’m fairly successful. It seems this professional need is not matched by my personal preferences.

Last year, while developing a four-hour block of instruction for the Coast Guard Auxiliary on managing conflict, I took the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire. I was unable recently to find those results, but I remember them not being as bleak as this go-round. What I mean by this is I remember collaboration placing either as my secondary or primary preferred mode, a result which is more in keeping with my self image. But then, perhaps true reflection is necessary at times. For the sake of introspection and growth, I will take the results from this latest completion of the instrument as valid: avoiding and accommodating come out head and shoulders above the other three modes.

According to Lulofs and Cahn (2000, p. 101), “Avoidance is a preference for not addressing a conflict at all. People who avoid conflict may understand intuitively that confronting others might bring about better results, but they are not sufficiently concerned about getting those results to risk doing the conflict.” They also state that this mode’s objective is lose-lose. When using this mode, the person demonstrates a low concern for self and a low concern for the other party. (p. 101-103)

A neighbor to avoidance, “accommodation is a preference for smoothing over conflicts, obliging others, and not making waves because one has a high concern for others and a low concern for results. Those using this approach prefer to maintain the illusion of harmony.” (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 101). This style has a paradigm of lose-win (as in “I lose, you win”).

For me, to hear my preferred methods of dealing with conflict stated in this way, I shudder. I shudder for a couple of reasons. First, I like to think that I have more concern for my own self than none at all. Second, I really like the idea of collaboration, or as Stephen Covey puts it, finding the third alternative. Third, I see myself (or at least I want to be) a straight shooter; avoidance and accommodation don’t fit the model of a straight shooter. Having stated these three reasons, I do acknowledge that with many things, I don’t live up to my ideal. This evening, my fiancé reminded me of a few.

When I found out I was to be a father for a third time, I was stunned, to say the least. I knew it to be true, but I went into denial for months. Until now, I’ve looked at this time as denial; Jenny reframed it as avoidance. I only told three people during the first trimester: my priest, my attorney, and one dear friend from college. In the second trimester, I told a few other people, including my two older sons and my parents. It wasn’t until Elliot arrived that most people at work even knew I was a father-to-be. Avoidance. Certainly, beginning to confront the issue and work through things would have brought about better results in my own life situation. I know this now, and I knew it then. But still, I didn’t do it.

Do I compromise? Compromise allows for the workable rather than the optimal solutions; it is a style of give and take where no party gets everything they want. (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 102). I find myself compromising in certain situations, giving up something in order to gain something else. This weekend, Jenny wanted to go out to dinner; I didn’t think I had the time or the money for something fancy. We compromised: we didn’t go to dinner last night, but rather went tonight. And, we went to a fancy restaurant at the local Renaissance Hotel, and we used a gift card my colleagues had given me a couple weeks ago for hosting our annual conference. I spent time I didn’t think I had, but I didn’t have to spend money I didn’t think I had. And, most importantly – since I’m putting my concern for her on a high level – Jenny got to go out to a candlelight dinner. With a compromise on her part: Elliot came along, as we couldn’t find a sitter.

I suggested in my first paper that I was avoiding conflict by getting married. As I’ve thought about this over the last couple of weeks, I’d like to change my tune. Perhaps saying “yes” is avoiding some issues, but it is also an opportunity for collaboration, for creating something that is better than either Jenny or I can imagine at present. This is my new hope and my new vision. But the fact remains, as outlined in examples from the first paper, I do, indeed, avoid conflict.

I least prefer competing as a conflict mode. On the Thomas-Killman instrument, I answered only question with a preference to competing. I’m reminded of a time years ago when I took a job as a car salesman. I’d been at the dealership for three days, learning the product lines and watching other sales people work, when I was called into the sales’ manager’s office. “Peter,” said Barry, “we’re going to have to let you go.” I was stunned; I had a family to feed and house; I asked why. “Well,” he said, “we’re afraid you’re going to be too honest with the customers.” Clearly, here was a business that was into the competing paradigm, and the management saw I wasn’t going to fit in. “Aggression. Win-Lose. Selfish and argumentative.” (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 101). These are not generally words which describe me, my view on life, or my behavior.

As I noted earlier, win-win is an ideal I strive for. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is an ideal I would like to strive for. I teach “think win-win” in my work. And, I’d like to think that I do get the win-win, often. As I look at my actions, however, the win-win comes only after a huge delay. My first tactic is to avoid. Once I’m finished avoiding, I can move to win-win. For some reason, I’m more apt to avoid in my personal life than in my work life. At work, I seem to focus on the outcomes. This isn’t to say that relationships are not important – I’d argue that relationships in my work is the most important thing – but that I don’t avoid or acquiesce as much as I do in my personal life.

Relationships are important to me. This does, I believe, drive my behavior in conflict situations. This is perhaps why I often put other’s needs before my own: I’m trying – even in an unhealthy way – to maximize the relationship. The more important the relationship is to me, the more apt I am to avoid or accommodate. Through avoiding or accommodating, I am “saving” the relationship. Or, perhaps more likely, by avoiding, I am putting off dealing with the difficult questions or issues. When I put off preparing for a new child or getting married or even paying the bills, I am putting off possible bad or difficult or troubling times. I create the illusion of status quo, of an even-keeled life.

In my earlier paper, I noted that “getting along” is one of my key desires. This stems, in part, from roles I learned early in childhood. I’d marry this desire with the desire of a calm and even-keeled life. Some people thrive on discord and confusion; my brother, a recent organizer of a “peace rally,” is one such person. (Stinson, n.d.) A former attorney and unwilling to let anything go, he thrives on conflict and chaos. While he creates a life of confusion and stress, I seek a life of quietness, sameness, and routine. This desire for an even-keel helps drive how I approach conflict. If I avoid or accommodate, then the perception of an even-keel exists. If I don’t deal with the conflict, then in a perverted way, that conflict doesn’t exist. The same is true with getting along: by avoiding, I am encouraging the perception of “getting along.”

For more than six months, my first wife and I lived in the same house, but didn’t really live as wife and husband. In March, she’d asked me to move out. I would not until we had a signed agreement. At the time, I thought I was trying to create a win-win for both of us; looking at the situation now, I can see there were elements of avoidance at play. By not moving, by having weeks go by where we didn’t talk about the agreement, by maintaining the appearance of a family, we were both avoiding. We maintained an illusion of harmony which was punctuated by flare-ups which demonstrated the truth.

As I look at the Thomas-Killman results and review my analysis, I’m struck by what I want to do over the next several months. If I am to focus on dispute resolution and conflict management, then I want to refocus my efforts to not only understand where I am, but to move my preferences. I’m not sure if these preferences are “hard wired,” but I would guess that like personality type preferences, non-preferred modes can be used. As an INFP, I can certainly “sense,” it’s just not my first and preferred way of taking in information. Perhaps this conflict modes are similar. I can learn to move to collaboration, and perhaps compromise, in appropriate situations. I can stop and make a conscious decision on my behavior based on choice: I can choose the mode I’m going to respond to a given conflict.

Bluffton University. (n.d.). Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire. Retrieved October 4, 2004, from http://www.bluffton.edu/courses/bcomp/301sup/thomas.htm.

Covey, S. R. (1997). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. New York: Golden Books.

Lulofs, R. S., & Cahn, D. D. (2000). Conflict: From Theory to Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stinson, P. M., Sr. (n.d.). Valley Forge Rally for Social Justice. Retrieved October 9, 2004, from http://www.stinsongroup.com.