Helen Conway

Helen Conway

The challenges lawyers face fall into common categories. Work overload, financial pressures, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, midlife crises, racism, sexism, stress-related illness, career decisions and retirement planning all crop up. My clients, however, are all individuals and the way they respond to these issues varies. One reason is the different conflict styles they habitually adopt.

We tend to think of conflict as a disagreement between people, about litigation and office quarrels and divorce. Sexism and racism clearly fall into that category. But the more internal challenges we face at work are also a form of conflict.

Stressful workloads are a conflict between imposed demands and inherent capacity. Financial pressures stem from a mismatch between needs and income. Imposter syndrome and perfectionism are a standoff between incorrect beliefs about ourselves and what we must achieve, and the kinder reality. Career crossroads are about the competing pros and cons of different options, while retirement fears often throw up conflict between aspirations for our lifestyle in later years and current financial priorities.

There are five main conflict styles which crop up no matter the type of conflict. We tend to have one as a default comfort position – our first unthinking ‘go to’ response. Often, that is linked to our exposure to conflict as a child in our family and what we were trained – overtly or by implication – to use as the safest or most effective style.

However, what we learned as a child may not serve us well as adults. It can be useful to consider why we choose one style as our default and to learn that we can consciously choose from all five options to get the best result in any given conflict.

There are five conflict styles. Let’s look at them all using the issue of work overload as a common example.

1. Accommodating

Accommodating is where you totally give up your needs for the sake of the other person. It might be seen as ‘rolling over’ or ‘giving in’. It can be appropriate where the other person’s needs are more important than yours or if you have no power in the conflict. If you face a one-off need to work over a weekend to get a merger completed and there will be a financial pay-off, accommodating may be a sensible choice. However, accommodating as a default position can result in your needs never being met and your welfare being trampled underfoot. Working with this style might involve looking at issues of self-worth and assertiveness.

2. Avoiding

Avoidant behaviour is walking away from the argument, changing the subject or postponing having to deal with conflict. It can be effective as a tactic to buy time to give thought to creating a long-term resolution, or if there is another pressing demand and the conflict can wait a little while. Used as a default without purpose, it can result in the conflict festering and growing. If you are struggling with work-based stress and never pay any attention to it, preferring to pretend it is not happening or that it will go away, this can lead to long-term physical and mental ill-health. Not dealing with the negative consequences of stress is actually a choice to accept them in your life.

3. Compromising

This is often seen as a middle-ground response – splitting the difference, going half and half. If both people have equally valid demands and a partial gain is sufficient this can be a quick, fair response. However, it can also be a way to simply equal out the disadvantages rather than creating a solution or fully meeting each other’s needs. When used with work overload it can lead us to fool ourselves. Compromises, like getting half a night’s sleep to do a rush job on a case file late into the evening, can allow us to con ourselves that we are having and doing it all. In reality we are cheating ourselves out of quality on both counts. Clients who default to this style may benefit from working with opening up new options, boundary-drawing, decision-making and delegating.

4. Competing

There are no holds barred with the competing style. We tussle head on and the strongest one wins. If the stakes are high, the power dynamics equal, and the other person is not responsive to other ways of working then this might be a good option. However, it is high-stakes and highly demanding in terms of energy. I see clients adopting this as a default, performing a desperate flip-flop between work and life. At one time they carve out some time for themselves and then work steals it away and they are back to justifying that the job is ‘just like that’ and that they actually like the adrenaline. It is basically two strong mindsets competing in their head. It is exhausting and unproductive. It can help to take a close look at the origin and appropriateness of those mindsets, and where the rewards and payoffs for the competing behaviours lie.

5. Collaborating

Collaboration is when two people working together create a new joint position that meets both of their needs in an unexpected way. In terms of work overload it might be less about cutting back on work to gain more life and more about working differently. Achieving a collaborating approach to wellbeing often involves  considering how clients define and value ‘work’ and ‘success’, and how they might open up new options. It can be the most productive and beneficial style (although challenging), but occasionally people who default to it may get bogged down in trying to find a solution to a one-off conflict that is best avoided or accommodated.

These styles are not fixed characteristics but a pallet of responses which we can draw upon as we choose. Next time you are in a conflicted position, try taking a moment to see if you can identify your default style and consider if choosing to use one of the others would be more beneficial.


Helen Conway, a former district judge, is now coaching and training lawyers at www.helenconway.com