By Dr. Amy Alfred
The final article in this series will focus on conflict resolution. It is truly a whole topic in and of itself, but it is worthwhile to look specifically at how different conflict styles will help you (or not!) with setting appropriate boundaries. Although many people are scared of fighting, resolving conflict successfully can actually bring people closer together. In addition, it is important to examine how different work cultures also impact various choices on how to set and maintain boundaries. What is standard or tolerated in one synagogue may not be accepted in another (for example, an executive director who chooses to turn off her/his cell phone on days off).
We will start by discussing different styles of conflict resolution, followed by how each style can help or hinder effective boundary maintenance. In order to clarify, we will then look at these issues through the lens of our synagogue professional Sharon, who was introduced in part one and part two of this series.
Competing is a style in which one’s own needs are advocated over the needs of others. It relies on an aggressive style of communication, low regard for future relationships, and the exercise of coercive power. Those using a competitive style tend to seek control over a discussion, in both substance and ground rules. They fear that loss of such control will result in solutions that fail to meet their needs. Competing tends to result in responses that increase the level of threat.
Accommodating, also known as smoothing, is the opposite of competing. Persons using this style yield their needs to those of others, trying to be diplomatic. They tend to allow the needs of the group to overwhelm their own, which may not ever be stated, as preserving the relationship is seen as most important.
Avoiding is a common response to the negative perception of conflict. “Perhaps if we don’t bring it up, it will blow over,” we say to ourselves. But, generally, all that happens is that feelings get pent up, views go unexpressed, and the conflict festers until it becomes too big to ignore. The conflict grows and spreads until it kills the relationship. Because needs and concerns go unexpressed, people are often confused, wondering what went wrong in a relationship.
Compromising is an approach to conflict in which people gain and give in a series of tradeoffs. While satisfactory, compromise is generally not satisfying. We each remain shaped by our individual perceptions of our needs and don’t necessarily understand the other side very well. We often retain a lack of trust and avoid risk – taking involved in more collaborative behaviors.
Collaborating is the pooling of individual needs and goals toward a common goal. Often called “win-win problem-solving,” collaboration requires assertive communication and cooperation in order to achieve a better solution than either individual could have achieved alone. It offers the chance for consensus, the integration of needs, and the potential to exceed the “budget of possibilities” that previously limited our views of the conflict. It brings new time, energy, and ideas to resolve the dispute meaningfully.
Conflict styles can affect boundaries in a variety of ways. A competing style may force others to accept our solution, and may be accompanied by fear and resentment. An accommodating style is one where the relationship may proceed smoothly, but frustration can build up when our needs are not being met. In an avoidant conflict style, the parties can seem clueless about underlying issues and concerns, and problems are pushed off to a future time. Those who have a compromising style may feel okay about the outcome, but can still harbor resentments in the future. Those who take a collaborative approach may not gain a better solution than compromising, but are more likely to feel better about their chances for future understanding.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Sharon’s predominant conflict style is one of compromising. As seen in part one that focused on boundaries, one area where there is conflict at work is when Sharon is asked to stay at work for meetings on her one night with her family. She does not let people at work know that she considers this time to be sacrosanct, so she has, in effect, taught them how to treat her, so that they do not think twice about scheduling meetings whenever it is convenient for the majority. While Sharon may decide to compromise, and go to meetings one time per month on a night when she is typically off duty, she can still feel resentful when she stays at work, when she would really like to be home with her family. It is possible that this resentment spills over into the middle of the meeting, and people may scratch their heads wondering why Sharon seemed to be prickly that evening. One growth area for Sharon would involve examining what it might take for her to risk being really honest with the board members about how she feels, and see how they could collaborate on a different schedule that could work for everyone.
In part two of the article, we looked at the importance of self-care, and the areas that Sharon already focused on, and which ones she wanted to add to her repertoire. She would compromise on a scheduled call with her friend when family and/or colleagues needed her, and this left her feeling frustrated. When she wanted to add a manicure to her weekly routine, she ended up compromising with her husband about taking something else out of their budget to pay for this, when inside she was seething because he spent $100 per week on greens fees when he golfed with his friends. The point is not that the compromising style of conflict resolution is wrong in and of itself, but that it is useful to see what is gained and what might be lost during the negotiations.
After reading the explanations about conflict styles and how one synagogue professional became aware of how her methods sometimes helped her and sometimes stood in her way, I hope you will take some time to examine your own ways of dealing with conflict, both in and out of the synagogue, to see where your rough edges are, and where your growth spots can be. It bears repeating that it is not always WHAT one says, but HOW the message is delivered. A good training exercise for both professional and lay leaders alike might be to engage in some soul searching around how their various synagogue groups are functioning, and whether there are certain conflict styles that can effect more change than others. There could be specific time set aside to talk about the process of how things are going, instead of merely the content. This is another area where we can actively choose to allocate some of our resources to help develop the very people who are the cornerstones of our synagogues, who keep it running day in and day out, and who could benefit from training around setting boundaries, learning how to maintain them, and then being able to resolve conflict in ways that are more healthy and productive.
Dr. Amy Alfred is a licensed psychologist who maintains a private practice in Narberth, PA where she sees many individuals and couples struggling to maintain appropriate boundaries. She consults with synagogues around conflict resolution and good boundary-setting for optimal functioning. For questions or comments, feel free to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.