Wait, what?

In my latest book on 60 ways to build trust, collaboration is highlighted as the best way to deal with conflict. By finding common ground and working together to get mutual needs met, two people can bond to overcome all sorts of other challenges. When both people need to buy into the outcome, hard-fought cooperation is critical. So yeah, at Building Trust and our clients, collaboration r us.

And yet there are situations when it’s appropriate not to collaborate, too. In 1974, Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann published an insightful tool that indicates how a person uses five forms, or “modes,” of handling conflict: avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating.

When it comes to trust-building, I usually work with clients to find the way forward that allows mutual safety, transparency, and assertiveness, which requires some amount of time and risk-taking from both parties. Given this ideal context, let’s look at when to employ the alternatives to collaboration.

I’m not a big fan of avoiding conflict because the issue is not likely to disappear on its own. Still, I recommend avoiding a battle when you expect emotional reactions, when very little can be gained (it’s a molehill, not a mountain) or when the timing is inappropriate (say, in front of others, causing embarrassment). When choosing to avoid a conflict, practice detachment or acceptance as a way of maintaining your equilibrium. Then – you guessed it – when things are calmer (assuming it’s not a molehill), get back to it before the issue grows.

Sometimes yielding your position builds trust! It’s the opposite of competing to win. Or when the costs to you are low, but the benefits of harmony are high, it can be caring and smart to show that you value the other person and the relationship by letting the issue go. Accommodation is a choice, and, like anything else, it can be overdone, and that’s usually when the doormat feeling takes hold. Note how this approach differs from avoiding in that here, the other person realizes that you’ve aligned your position to theirs.

When building trust, yes, it’s okay to compete – if it’s over the right things and done well. For the team’s good, when you know that you’re right about something important, especially if you are the lone voice of reason, you must compete to win. You may lose, and that’s life, but there are times when shying away from “the good fight” is irresponsible. Competing is also a viable strategy when quick action is needed, when consensus fails, or when people are politing all over each other.

We don’t want to come off as a malcontent or a bully, so the best way to compete and build trust is to fight fair, be persuasive (use facts, not emotion), warn of the potential outcomes (not threaten), and do it with tough love (“because I care enough to level with you, here’s what I see…”).

This approach is suitable for non-vital issues (Mexican vs. Chinese for dinner) or when both sides are exhausted from competing or collaborating on a complicated issue and need a temporary solution. Nobody’s happy, but we both understand that it’s the best we can do for now. Compromise builds trust only when it genuinely meets in the middle, though. Take care that the final bargain favors no one – all should feel like equal losers!

Many repeatedly favor one or two of the above strategies when the others are probably more appropriate. The more trust we have with one another, the freer we feel about employing all of these methods at crunch time. Call me at (330) 465-3322 if I can help you or your organization. Or pick up a copy of The Building Trust 60-Day Workout.

Bruce Hendrick
Founder & President, Building Trust