Rachana Sippy

In my experience in dealing with teens, I have observed that most teens who are under stress tend to feel alone and alienated and are unable to connect with an adult. They crave for friendships but feel dejected and fearful to reach out to peers or respond to their friendly overtures. And in the event of a teen deciding to share their stress or pressures or consult with adults about certain behaviours of their peers, they are labeled as “snitchers”. In my course of conversations with them, I have observed how teens react to conflicts. Most said they would rather avoid the situation, fearing that if they faced the situation head-on, it may get out of control with the conflict escalating, the fallout of which could be a loss of a friend or several friends.

A particular episode remains clear in my memory. A teenage girl, after a dispute with her peers, tells her friend, “Did you not see what just happened? Why want to stretch it all over again by discussing it? She was such a pain, I cannot forgive her. Enough is enough, let’s just stop discussing her as it will ruin our day. Let’s plan our next weekend instead.”

This is a very telling example of the Avoiding conflict approach. The main objective of adopting this attitude is to maintain a harmonious environment at all costs. What the ten does not realise however is that by papering over the cracks and pretending that all will be okay, she is allowing the conflict to fester and manifest in a more ferocious way later.

In another example, two groups of boys are in conflict with heated arguments rending the air. Each group is threatening the other with dire consequences. “We will see you after school on the football ground to continue this fight and settle or score,” says one group. The other group responds with equal aggressiveness. This is an example of Confrontation style of addressing conflicts. When teens decide to face heated situation head-on, it may in many cases lead to an escalation in aggression and even result in physical violence.

There are few teens, not involved in an ongoing conflict, who would venture to be the calm mediators and resolve the conflict. Sitting down with peers and objectively talking them through the problem is an ability that few teens possess.

American behavioural scientists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument which identifies the five styles of responding to conflicts such as; Competition, Collaboration, Compromise, Avoidance, and Accommodation. There is no right or wrong response to a conflict but for a given situation a particular style could be inappropriate resulting in either escalating the conflict, leaving it unresolved or actually resolving it.

Let’s look at the styles of conflicts on the two scales of Assertiveness and Cooperativeness.

1) The Competition style of conflict resolution: It’s the most Assertive and least Cooperative style.

2) The Collaborative Style: It’s the most Assertive and most Cooperative style.

3) The Competitive style: This is a moderately Assertive mode of approach.

4) The Compromising style: It’s the Cooperative style in disguise.

5) The Avoiding Style: This is the least Assertive and least Cooperative style.

6) The Accommodation style: This is the least Assertive and most Cooperative style.

Here is a brief explanation of each conflicting style as devised by Thomas-Kilmann.

• Competing Conflicting style: Person attacks verbally, uses formal authority or other power that you possess to satisfy your concerns without regard to the concerns of the party that you are in conflict with.

• Accommodating: allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting your own.

• Avoiding: not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it.

• Compromising: attempting to resolve a conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactory to both parties, but completely satisfactory to neither.

• Collaborating: cooperating with the other party to understand their concerns and expressing your own concerns in an effort to find a mutually and completely satisfactory solution (win-win).

In my first column on conflict resolution, I had offered the example of Jessica as an example of internal conflict: Jessica is invited to a party in which all her friends have decided to stay on late. They are aware that Jessica cannot do the same because her parents are strict and have given her a curfew time of 11pm. Her friends try to lure Jessica to stay on late and enjoy the party. Jessica is in a dilemma: should she stay back and enjoy the party and face the consequences back home or stick to her family values and leave half way through the party and miss out on the fun?

Let’s see how Jessica will react to her situation in all the styles of conflict resolution described above.

Response 1: The Competition Style of Conflict Resolution

Jessica leaves the party as per her parent’s instructions. She reaches home and stares angrily at her parents, blaming them for being mean and selfish. She launches into a loud tirade against them, continuously harping on she missed the fun, thanks to their lack of understanding and how she hates their attitude. Having done with her tirade, she stomps out of the room, and bangs shut her own room’s door with almost a violent strength. She secretly wishes her parents could be like her friend Mithali’s parents who are very understanding and allow Mithali to attend all parties without time restrictions. Jessica complains bitterly to her siblings, blaming her parents for not being understanding and declares that the next time round, she will not come back on time come what may.

Response 2: The Collaborative Style of Conflict Resolution

Jessica understands that her parents will not compromise on the consequences set for everyone in the family, so she sits down with her parents to find a solution so that no one is hurt in the bargain. She negotiates on how many times will she be allowed to attend late-night parties and if she can come make an exception to the curfew for her best friend’s parties. She says it would be good if they decided on such things in advance so there is no last-minute friction and misunderstandings between her and her parents.

Response 3: The Compromising Style of Conflict Resolution

Jessica has stayed back to enjoy the party and is now willing to face the consequences. When she talks to her paraents post-partym she tells them she is upset because the rules of the house are too stringent. She makes a deal with her parents who suggest that if her homework and all her assignments are complete, and no complaints from school are sent to remind her to submit her work on time, that if she completes her household chores, she can, in that case, stay an hour late for one out of three parties she is invited to. Her parents leave it to her to pick the parties for which she wishes to stay late. Jessica being smart, negotiates with her siblings and makes a deal to help and make up for each other in their household chores so that both can attend the party.

Response 4: The Accomodating Style of Conflict Resolution

Jessica prefers peace at home and tries her best to avoid any disharmony that could clead to a conflict at home. This is important enough for her to want to adhere to her parents’ wishes and return from parties on time. There are times when Jessica prefers to turn down invitations to parties so she can avoid potential issues of late coming.

Response 5: The Avoiding Style of Conflict Resolution

Jessica comes home late from the party and her parents ask for an explanation. She avoids a conversation by changing the topic or tells her parents that she prefers to talk about it some other time. She deflects all attempts by her parents to draw her into a onversation and when pushed, resorts to a studious silence.

Jessica’s other responsibilities, apart from picking a style of conflict resolution, are to also respond to the conflicts emotionally, cognitively and physically. These three aspects are important in letting us know how we feel during a conflict; gut feelings, thoughts, self-talk and physical responses such as stress, body tension and stance, increased perspiration, tunnel vision, shallow or accelerated breathing, loud tone of voice, and rapid heartbeat. All these need to be taken into consideration to know how we are responding to a conflict - positively or negatively.

Next week: Solutions to conflicts.