Conflict Styles and Bargaining Styles

Our conflict styles and bargaining styles have a significant impact on how we manage conflict and negotiate. Two different models can help identify our tendencies and those of our counterparts.

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What type of bargainer are you? Many negotiation strategies are “one size fits all,” but our unique personalities and life experiences will shape how we carry out and react to such strategies. Familiarity with popular models of conflict styles and bargaining styles can help us better understand and work with our own proclivities and those of our counterparts.

Conflict Styles: The Thomas-Kilmann Model

1.     Competing. People with a competing conflict style view interpersonal conflict resolution as win-lose games. Rather than recognizing the value of ensuring that each party walks away satisfied, disputants focus narrowly on claiming as much as they can for themselves.

2.     Avoiding. People with an avoidant conflict style prefer to skirt around conflict because it can be so uncomfortable. Although this can be an effective short-term coping strategy, it can allow problems to grow worse.

3.     Accommodating. Negotiators who adopt an accommodating conflict style tend to put others’ needs and demands first. This can make those with an accommodating conflict style seem agreeable and easygoing, but ignoring their own needs can make these negotiators resentful over time.

4.   Compromising. People with a compromising conflict style often try to resolve conflict by proposing seemingly equal compromises, such as meeting in the middle between two extreme positions or making a significant compromise just to move forward. Although a compromising conflict style can move a conversation forward, the solution may not address root issues, making this style unstable over time.

5.     Collaborating. Those with a collaborating conflict style aim to understand the deeper needs behind their counterparts’ demands and to express their own needs. They see value in working through strong emotions and propose tradeoffs across issues that will give each side more of what they want.

Although collaborative negotiation style can be highly effective at managing conflict and fostering productive long-term relationships, different conflict-management styles can be effectively applied to different phases and types of conflict in management. In addition, we may adopt different conflict styles depending on the situation.

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Negotiating Styles: G. Richard Shell’s Model

In his book Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People, Wharton School of Business professor G. Richard Shell offers a Bargaining Styles Assessment Tool, which is also available online. Like the Thomas-Kilmann model, the tool maps negotiators into five different bargaining styles: accommodating, compromising, avoiding, collaborating, and competing. Shell says that people may exhibit “strong or weak preferences for several strategies, and the interaction of these preferences will, of course, affect the way they experience and manage their bargaining behavior in any given situation.”

According to Shell, there is no ideal set of negotiating styles or conflict styles for negotiation effectiveness. Instead, strengths and weaknesses are associated with each style. For instance, accommodators “often have good relationship-building skills and are relatively sensitive to others’ emotional states, body language, and verbal signals”—all useful negotiation skills. On the flip side, accommodators risk placing “more weight on the relationship aspect of the negotiations than the situation may warrant,” Shell writes, leaving them vulnerable to those with a more competitive style.

Interestingly, we tend to believe that others have the same negotiation and conflict styles as us, according to Shell. “Thus, when a competitive person meets a cooperative person at the bargaining table, each is likely to assume the other is someone other than he or she actually is—leading to significant confusion,” he writes. If the cooperative negotiator shares information openly, their competitive counterpart might think they are being tricked and take advantage of the situation. The cooperative person is likely to react angrily, feeling betrayed.

Shell advises us to try to get a sense of counterparts’ bargaining and conflict styles by negotiating smaller issues early in the process to see how they react. If they reciprocate concessions, that’s a sign of cooperativeness. If they hold back information and try to get the better of you, they may be more competitive. “Either way,” Shell advises, “don’t waste time trying to convert the person to your preferred style. Just accept them as they are and work to achieve your goals.”

Our natural negotiating style doesn’t tend to change very much, according to Shell, but that doesn’t mean we can’t become better, more adaptable negotiators. He highlights four key habits that all of us, regardless of our negotiating and conflict styles, can adopt to improve our results: 1) a willingness to prepare thoroughly for negotiation, 2) high expectations of what we can achieve in our talks, 3) the patience to listen closely to the other side and gain key information, and 4) a commitment to personal integrity that helps maintain a strong reputation.

What value have you gained from diagnosing your own and others’ conflict styles and bargaining styles?

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