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I channeled my inner Jane Fonda this week as my classmates and I were instructed to "method act" for a conflict exercise in my management course. The details of this role-play simulation were loosely based on an actual PR controversy regarding a memo which outlined oddly specific sponsorship guidelines for Olympic-themed events hosted by Vancouver Public Libraries during the 2010 Winter Olympics:

An internal memo obtained by The Tyee [a Canadian newspaper] advises Vancouver Public Library branches to protect Olympic sponsors.

"Do not have Pepsi or Dairy Queen sponsor your event," read guidelines sent to VPL branch heads and supervisory staff last fall. "Coke and McDonald's are the Olympic sponsors. If you are planning a kids' event and approaching sponsors, approach McDonald's and not another well-known fast-food outlet."

For my in-class exercise, I was cast as a fictional disgruntled Dairy Queen franchise owner who was furious that my small business was losing money in sales as a result of this obviously biased memo. My character was invited to a meeting with the marketing manager (who authored the memo) and the library director to resolve the issue. The library union rep was also present as well as a small business association rep who was there to discuss his grievances about how the library's directive to exclude all companies except official Olympic sponsors hurt small businesses. My character's description sheet said to make a fuss and that my only goal in this meeting is to get the marketing manager fired. Ready, and...action!

Reflections on an Olympic-sized Conflict
Let's just say that things did not go well for the poor student cast as Jan, the marketing manager. The library director, Pat, began the meeting by asking Jan to explain the memo. The student playing Jan tried to express her intentions behind the memo, but before she could get two sentences out the complainers at the meeting began playing offense. I interrupted Jan and accused her of being biased and incompetent. Her memo turned the community against my brand (Dairy Queen) and cost my small business money! "She should be fired," I complained to the student playing Jan's boss, Pat. The small business rep jumped in on the attack, arguing that the corporations must have paid the library staff off to exclude local businesses. He insinuated back door deals and illegal bribery. "Both of you should be fired," he said to Jan and Pat. "I agree!" I piped in. "I have no confidence in Jan's ability to disseminate objective policies and not give preferential treatment to certain brands and businesses. She never even apologized for her mistake! Jan needs to go." The student playing Pat came to Jan's defense, saying that her job was not up for discussion. Jan then attempted to apologize while Pat tried to direct the conversation back towards discussing a resolution, but we again interrupted and relentlessly tag-team attacked the library staff with repeated accusations of biases and bribery before threatening to escalate our grievances to the mayor's office if Jan was not fired immediately.

I distinctly remember the look of frustration settling on my classmates' faces as they resigned themselves to defeated silence. Jan and Pat had clearly given up. I don't blame them. I would have done the same thing if the roles were reversed and I were the one being forced to deal with the intentionally uncooperative, stubborn person that I was pretending to be. I admit that I was also surprised by how, in the heat of the conversation, I felt energized by the aggression of my fellow classmate and validated in my complaint. He was the only one in the meeting to acknowledge my character's feelings and frustrations, and his sympathy made him an instant ally. Perhaps if the library staff had done the same early on then the conversation could have moved towards some sort of resolution. Instead, they became defensive and evaded any discussion of past events. "What can we so to resolve this?" they kept asking, but my answer was always, "Fire Jan." Of course they repeatedly dismissed what I wanted, and as a result I found myself unconsciously matching the vigor of my classmate's argumentative complaining, even though I am typically a quiet and reserved person. It's no wonder how our incessant criticisms overwhelmed my classmates playing Jan and Pat into basically shutting down communication. In hindsight, I expect that I would not have been so obnoxiously belligerent if my group had been composed of a different mix of personalities or even if our characters had been cast differently. This exercise was certainly another reminder of the importance of learning the best ways to interact with different personalities as well as the need to develop my ability to command a meeting with my own form of quiet strength.

Conflict Management Styles Assessment
I've confessed in a previous post that when confronted with an interpersonal conflict, my fight-or-flight response usually defaults to a reaction of the hummingbird variety. So I was initially surprised at my results for a conflict management style assessment we took in class. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument organizes five conflict management styles along two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. I learned that my two dominant styles reside in the mid- to high-assertiveness ranges of the model. I scored equally high on competing and compromise while my lowest scored style was accommodating. The more I pondered my results, the more they seemed to align with my MBTI personality type.

INTJs are analytical types who will consider all sides of a conflict before forming a conclusion. We tend to be very logical and impersonal, weighing both the pros and cons, and assessing the cause and effect before selecting the best resolution (in our eyes). I think this is why I scored so high on competing. Once I'm convinced I've chosen the most fair course of action, I tend to be quite stubborn and unwilling to give in to the other party, especially when they try to appeal to me on an emotional level rather than with rationality. However, because I value fairness, I can be persuaded to compromise if details that I may have overlooked or disregarded—but are important for the other party's argument—are brought to my attention. My third highest ranked conflict management style is collaborating, for which I scored an average rating. I was reminded of how the book Difficult Conversations instructs readers to handle challenging interpersonal situations while reading Kenneth W. Thomas' and Ralph H. Kilmann's description of the collaborating style:

Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other's insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

This sounds very similar to Difficult Conversations, which outlines how every difficult conversation involves: 1) understanding what happened from all sides of the conflict, 2) acknowledging how everyone feels, and 3) reconciling what the outcome means for all involved. While none of the five conflict management styles above are "the best"—they are all useful in different situations—I think it's valuable to know more about where my personal strengths lie so that I can leverage those strengths to produce positive conflict resolutions.

#1 - Individual Differences: Understanding Myself and Others (MBTI Types + Keirsey Temperaments)
#2 - Communicating Verbally with Others
#3 - Hiring and Firing: Difficult Conversations
#4 - Group Dynamics: Negotiating and Establishing Expectations
#5 - Conflict Resolution and Management Styles