Conflict Management and Avoidance: Natural Relatives in my Life

October 3, 2004

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610) .
In my life, I’ve had a few incidents of conflict which have been “defining” moments. These bits of conflict shed light on my own style of conflict management. They span more than twenty years, from my days in high school to the last several months. These examples show some consistency in behavior; I’m not sure they show personal growth. In short, these examples show that in my personal life I generally avoid conflict; in my professional life, I generally take on conflict, particularly when some important value is at stake.

I went away to boarding school for high school. My father, a minister, strongly felt I should attend a church-related school. I chose to head off to the farmland of western Maryland and attend a school headed by a friend of my father’s. Senior year I was a prefect; unlike most of my fellow prefects who led dormitory halls of underclassman, I landed the only senior floor on campus. The chaplain and a first-year teacher were the dorm masters. Sometime in mid-winter, I heard that the chaplain was drinking with one of my hall mates. I went to Father D. and told him what I’d heard; he told me he’d been having a rough year (his mother was dying of cancer) and it wouldn’t happen again. Late one night on the last week of school, I happened to his apartment and discovered him inebriated, along with each of my hall mates, my friends.

Four years later I was a resident coordinator at college. Responsible for two dormitories and a dozen resident advisors, I also had my own floor, which I advised. One chilly winter during fraternity rush season, the brothers of one of the rowdier fraternities barged on the floor, yelling and screaming, to hoist away two new pledges. When I told them their antics were inappropriate for the residence halls, and that they had to leave the dormitory, voices were raised. Security, summoned by one of my peers, soon got the situation under control, but all was not well. The next night, at an all-campus get-together, one of the fraternity brothers assaulted me and spit in my face.

Much more recently, following 9/11 I was serving on active duty with the Coast Guard as a duty officer in the Atlantic Area Command Center. At one point, we had a long and drawn out search and rescue case; our role was to plan the searches and serve in a command capacity. The case drew substantial media attention, and in my role I briefed members of the press. I was asked questions in which the truthful answer did not show the Service in the best light; my seniors were attempting to bury the issue and stonewall. While I wasn’t ordered to say or not say anything specific, I knew which way my superiors wanted me to go.

And, even more recently, last year I found myself, a divorced father with two near-teenage sons, dating a woman who was pregnant with my child. We had been on the verge of ending our relationship when she found out she was pregnant. For her, adoption and abortion were not an option, and I couldn’t see myself starting the fatherhood journey all over again.

Each of these incidents presented conflict in various degrees. In the first case with the drinking hall master, my conflict was with the teacher and with my hall mates. He, of course, didn’t want word of his transgression to go any further; my classmates didn’t either as they liked their drinking buddy. The incident with the fraternity brothers also involved various aspects of community: my fraternity hall mates, the other folks on the residence hall, the outside brothers, and the student affairs administration. The incident involving the press and the search & rescue case put my own desires for transparency in government against the wishes and views of my superiors. And, in the final example, the my pregnant girl friend and I were in conflict: what sort of a life did we want to create?

The conclusion of the tales shed some light on my style of conflict management. With the drinking faculty member, I went to the headmaster the next morning and told him what I’d seen. The upshot was the chaplain was asked to resign, and my peers wrecked my room, destroying my belongings and covering everything in curry powder. The fraternity brother who assaulted me was brought before the dean of students and given a sentence that was primarily constructive in nature; the entire fraternity was also given a “community service” task as a teaching point. With the Coast Guard media issue, I ended up telling all to the press, even though some thought it showed the Coast Guard in a poor light. I was reprimanded for “speaking out of bounds” and received a performance evaluation that will likely end my twenty-four year career as a reservist. And, with the unexpected baby, Elliot was born in late April, his mother moved in with me (at my suggestion) and we are to be married at the end of the month. In some respects, the impending marriage is avoidance on my part: conflicting sets of values within my own heart continue to battle out the details. I have clearly decided, however, this is my life, the life I have chosen to live.

How do I deal with conflict? As the examples show, I sometimes take conflict head on, particularly when there is an issue of “right” and community involved. If I think I’m in right in one of these types of situations, I’m apt to plow forward, consequences be damned. With other, more personal conflicts, I am apt to move to avoidance. While my impending marriage is good, avoidance plays a part however: Jenny asked me; Jenny set the date; I’m along for the ride. This isn’t to say that we’re not friends, that we don’t have much in common, that we aren’t loving; but, in large measure, I’ve avoided all conflict with her by accepting the proposal.

I do compromise on solutions, but I’ll not compromise on firm values. Years ago I took Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits” course. Two things with regard to conflict stood out for me in that learning: first, that I should create a hierarchy of my values. For instance, for me community based on shared values is more important than allegiance to an individual; another might be that transparency in decision-making is more important (when not related to issues which are classified) and trumps orders from a superior. The second concept that stood out for me was the notion of the “third alternative.” Covey suggests that compromise is not the highest possible solution for people in conflict for in compromise each party must give up something. The highest possible solution is finding a “third alternative,” something which neither party thought of before which is better than any proposed solution or any compromised solution. The third alternative breaks new ground. I try to find the third alternative. When I can’t, I’ll compromise, so long as I don’t violate a firm value.

By nature, I’m not a competitive person. When I coached high school varsity coach, I wasn’t one of those all-for-the-win coaches. We’d play teams where the coach would encourage the players to run up the score; if we were on top in a lopsided win, I’d tell my players not to score. I would demand, however, that they play the best they could, get every ground ball, make every pass, and put every shot on target. I demanded they be competitive with themselves. And this is what I demand of myself. I am competitive against my own self, but not with other people. I don’t have to ensure the other person loses in order to win; I don’t even need to always get my own way. I believe in the “abundance mentality;” there’s enough to go around, and we’ll each get our own. This belief limits, I believe, my competitive nature, even in conflict.

I’d like to think I’m pretty much the same person with different people. Actually, this is one of the things that “miffs” senior members of the Coast Guard; I don’t sugar coat what I say, and I always “speak truth to power.” I’m just as civil to the admiral as I am to the janitor. Having said that, there are certain times when my ire gets raised to the point when I do become short, curt, and loud. As I think about this, usually these situations involve some sort of service faux pas I’m experiencing. Perhaps this is because I can’t walk away.

In my personal life, and with my professional colleagues, it is important to me that we all “get along.” I was reminded of this recently when my former spouse, the mother of my two eldest sons, came by to pick up one son. While here, she told us she and her husband would, as invited, be coming to the wedding. It’s important to me that she and Jenny get along; it’s important that I get along with her husband; it’s important that my eldest sons get along with Jenny. And the list goes on. This notion of “getting along” plays a huge role in my relationships when it comes to conflict. I am willing to subordinate my own desires for the goal of everyone “getting along.”

As a broad overview, there we are. I take conflict head on or avoid conflict. And, I’m not sure I deal with conflict all that differently today than I did many years ago. This is food for thought for me as I continue to learn more about conflict resolution; I don’t want to be stuck in the same place forever.