No one really enjoys it, but conflict is a fact of life. By understanding the relationship between personality types and conflict management styles we can achieve more productive dispute resolution discussions and increase the potential for mutually satisfactory resolutions.
Most of us are very familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. Whether an individual has taken the full indicator test or a shorter web-based version, most of us have a good idea of our own personality type. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® offers a deeper understanding of, among other things, an individual’s strengths, preferences, and decision-making processes through an evaluation of the extraversion-introversion, sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving dichotomies. In short, extroverts are energized by the outer world, while introverts are energized by facing inward, and reflecting on thoughts and ideas. People with a sensing preference look mainly at verifiable facts, while the intuition preference looks more at the big picture and possibilities. People with a thinking preference tend to use logic to evaluate a situation, while people with a feeling preference tend to focus more on relationships. A perceiving personality indicates a preference for an ongoing investigation, pulling together as much information as possible to generate as many options as possible. A judging personality indicates a preference for closure, and an appreciation for organization and planning. There are many books about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. I have found David Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II to be particularly insightful. See generally Keirsey, D., Please Understand Me II, 3rd. Ed. (May 1, 1998).
Conflict Management Styles
Knowing one’s personality type is the first step in developing a strategy for more productive conflict resolution. The second step is understanding one’s conflict management style. The Thomas-Kilmann Model is one of the most well-known and successful models for identifying conflict management styles. According to this model, conflict management styles fall into five categories, based on the individual’s level of assertiveness and cooperativeness:
- Competing (high assertiveness and low cooperativeness) seeks to achieve one’s own goals at the expense of someone else’s;
- Avoiding (low assertiveness and low cooperativeness) walks away from or ignores the conflict so that no one’s interests are met;
- Accommodating (low assertiveness and high cooperativeness) gives in to the other person’s interests at the expense of one’s own;
- Compromising (average levels of both assertiveness and cooperativeness) gives up some of one’s own interests while simultaneously accepting sacrifices from the other individual, too; and,
- Collaborating (high assertiveness and high cooperativeness) works toward finding a win-win solution through a genuine exploration of all parties’ interests, empathic listening to all points of view, and creative option generating so all parties’ interests are met.
See VanSant, S., Wired For Conflict:The Role of Personality in Resolving Conflict, at 53-55 (2003).
The research suggests that specific combinations of the extroversion-introversion, sensing-thinking, and perceiving-judging preferences tend to prefer specific conflict management styles. For example, according to the research male Extroverted-Thinking-Judging (ETJ) types tend toward competing. Introverted-Thinking-Judging (ITJ), Introverted-Feeling-Perceiving (IFP), and Introverted-Feeling-Judging (IFJ) types tend toward avoiding. Extroverted-Feeling-Perceiving (EFP) types tend toward accommodating. Female Extraverted-Thinking-Judging (ETJ), Introverted-Thinking-Perceiving (ITP), and Extroverted-Thinking-Perceiving (ETP) are mostly compromising types. Extroverted-Feeling-Judging (EFJ) tend toward collaborating. Of course, not everyone will fit into these boxes. There are people, male and female, of all personality types whose conflict management style bucks the trend. Still, understanding these tendencies can lead to better dispute resolution strategies and more effective and satisfying outcomes. See VanSant, S., at 55.
Dispute Resolution Strategies
Once you know your own personality type, you can take conscious steps to work toward engaging conflict in a more collaborative manner. The first step is understanding what it is about the Extroversion-Feeling-Judging (EFJ) combination that leads more easily toward collaboration. The goal of collaboration is to create opportunities for a win-win outcome. The collaborative process must be interactive, which plays to the strengths of extroverted individuals. There must be an open give and take, exploring what underlying values are driving all individuals, making the negotiations very person-centered, a strength of the feeling type. The collaborative process also requires clear boundaries, calm and logical discussion, and a common goal of reaching closure, which are all tendencies of the judging type. See id.
Second, one needs to be very self-aware, recognizing one’s own collaborative strengths. This may be easiest for people who identify with at least one of the elements of extroversion, feeling or judging, but it is possible for everyone. The key is to be open and honest with oneself about strengths and weaknesses during conflict. For example, I am an INFJ. I tend toward avoiding direct conflict, but fairness, equity, comfort, inclusion and clear boundaries are extremely important to me. I can focus on these interests, which grow from the feeling and judging parts of my personality, to create an atmosphere in which everyone is more inclined to engage in active dialogue. This might include, among other possibilities, setting clear boundaries and expectations for the conversation at the outset and scheduling the conversation to take place at a time when everyone will be well-rested and fed.
Third, create opportunities to educate the other parties to the conflict about your conflict style to help open the door to a more collaborative process. For example, as an introvert, I might tell people I need more time to process information before responding during a discussion. A sensing person who tends to get very focused on facts might ask other parties to help them see the big picture. A judging person who tends to jump quickly to problem-solving could make it a point to ask the others if they are ready to discuss solutions before starting to offer options for resolution.
Fourth, be curious. Take time to ask questions. For example, if one person does not seem particularly engaged in the process ask what they are thinking about, if they have questions or if they need to take a break (to process) before continuing the conversation. A thinking type may distance themselves and their emotions from the issue. If you see this happening, ask them to describe their perspective of the issue based on the facts or what they think about what they’re heard so far. If someone offers many solutions but cannot choose one, acknowledge their desire for flexibility and then present to them two or three viable options for them to choose from. The idea is that the more we know about and understand one another the more comfortable each person will be, and the more comfortable we are, the better the likelihood for open and honest dialogue leading to a win-win resolution.
Personality Type, Conflict Management Styles and Mediation
The goal of a facilitative mediation is to move the parties’ discussion from positions (what the parties want) to interests (what they need and why) by creating a safe environment that allows for a genuinely open, honest and inquisitive exploration of the respective interests, commonality and options that will best honor and support those underlying interests. The parties do the work. The mediator is a conduit.
A mediator with a strong understanding and appreciation of varying personality types and conflict management styles can facilitate an environment that encourages people to be vulnerable about what they need for a successful conflict resolution process. Invite people to leave defensiveness at home and come to the process genuinely seeking to learn from one another. Offer people a chance to exercise their empathy muscle and put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Focus on why people want what they want. Facilitate an option generation discussion and encourage the parties to evaluate the options they’ve brainstormed in a logical and objective way. Help the parties identify potential gaps in their solutions and tie up loose ends.
Differences in interests, needs, values and goals are inevitably going to arise. This is where the mediator’s understanding of the personality types and conflict management styles, even if the parties do not understand their own types themselves, can help guide the parties in a more collaborative type discussion.
Personality type and conflict management style often play a big role in how dispute resolution and mediation play out. When we understand our own style and others’ we begin to transform conflict discussions into more cooperative and satisfying experiences. This can be particularly beneficial in ongoing business negotiations, employment relationships, and family and neighbor disputes. Creating win-win, collaborative solutions can generate a higher level of trust, allow everyone to feel they were part of the solution, and encourage a higher rate of compliance with the negotiated agreement, minimizing future conflict. It’s a lofty goal, and worth the effort.