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[Repost] 3 C’s of Conflict Management: Capitulation, Compromise, Collaboration

[I’m offline on Tuesday, my usual writing date, so I’m reposting this September 2011 piece, since it’s a topic that comes up frequently in my work.]

The 3 C’s of Conflict Management is something I began to noodle on years ago in personal blog posts. It also came up in my grad school classes from time to time in different formats, including a “5Cs” version that IMO is really just the 3Cs with a couple of expansion packs. Having the concept  arise in the class context totally validated what I’ve been apparently thinking about the 3Cs for years. In conflict management, or any kind of mediation exercise, there are three principle decision models: Capitulation, Compromise, and Collaboration (the 5C version also lists Consensus and Co-existence, but in my experience, both can be achieved through any of the first three). One class wit suggested Conflagration as a potential model of conflict, and while that’s technically a possibility, it’s more often the signal of immediate termination for the relationship in question, rather than any state in which the relationship might feasibly continue for an indeterminate period of time.

In my own personal relationship lexicon, Capitulation is “The act of surrendering or yielding; in relationship terms, capitulation often means simply giving in or giving up in a negotiation or confrontational situation for the sake of ending the conflict as quickly as possible, whether you have achieved the desired results or not (and generally the party who capitulates is the party who “gives up” the most, in exchange for early termination of a tense situation). In Capitulation, one party gets what is desired, and the other party generally does not.” Individuals with a history of low self-esteem or a low threshold for conflict are more likely to capitulate on a position than defend a line; this could be for any number of reasons, most commonly out of one form of fear or another: fear of abandonment is a big one, in which non-capitulation will cost someone the relationship s/he wants to maintain, even if it largely toxic. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to this, but it’s a pattern that manifests in both men and women, often learned very early in the family of origin as a need to please one’s parents or caregivers.

Compromise is “consent reached by mutual concessions; everyone gives up something in order to achieve a tolerable closure to a negotiation or confrontation. Unlike Capitulation, compromise often means that neither party gets exactly what is desired, but both sides can usually accept the sacrifices made on the personal level to gain some degree of acceptable overall closure or balance.” Compromise represents a common-ground approach to relational conflict management in particular, as the nature of the power struggle generally involves someone driving for either a clear “victory” (such as might be achieved if one partner forces another’s capitulation) or a sense of “parity”, in which each partner must give up something in order for one or both partners to feel a sense of equality or “balance of fairness”. A previous lover used to describe this state as “No-one gets what s/he wants, but at least everybody gets something they can live with.” It’s often the less-tactful way of establishing peace, but often as a zero-sum game in which both parties have to *lose* something in order to gain something else.

Unfortunately, in both capitulation and compromise, when there is *any* sense that someone has to sacrifice a want or a need in order to achieve balance and the impression of peace, that state of calm is inevitably temporary at best. When core needs in particular are being sacrificed, there is often a subtle biofeedback loop that gets set in motion, because we all constantly move to get our needs and wants met, whether we realize it or not. I have been documenting for many years my battles with my own inner weasels, which are the anthropomorphic versions of those internal motivations, the little voices that urge me to do things I rationally know I should not do, but find myself acting on anyway. In following my weasels, I would compromise myself, giving up a moral high ground for a short term immoral or amoral itch-scratching. I would often find myself in this kind of situation, as so many of us do, because I have compromised myself elsewhere in a relationship, giving up something I wanted (for better or for worse) because my wanting that thing somehow upset my partner and introduced conflict and tension. So I would have either capitulation or compromised in order to end the conflict, without necessarily finding out whether those decision models were the most effective choice for my situation within the relationship.

Which brings me to Collaboration, or (as it has often been termed here) “collaborative solutions”: “A joint process shared by two or more people to examine all the known or discoverable needs in any given situation, the known or discoverable options available for addressing those needs, and discussing how each of those outcomes addresses or affects the needs in question. In theory (and with practice) the discussions will yield increased understanding and trust that make mutual Agreement and Buy-in to any jointly-designed proposal not only possible, but likely. Both (all) parties must be equally involved in the process of examining and proposing solutions, must stay Present while discussing needs, and be honest about their buy-in, for any solution to be truly collaborative. Unlike Capitulation or Compromise, the result of collaborative solutions is all parties feeling like they have achieved what they wanted, that their individual Needs have been met, and the results support and sustain the relationship.”

For collaboration to work effectively in relationships, it requires a lot of things from the participants:

  • self-awareness (you can’t collaborate effectively unless you know your own wants and needs, and understand what you have to offer),
  • vulnerability (a willingness to engage the process in good faith and to put your own needs on the table without subterfuge or manipulation),
  • compassion and empathy (the willing engagement of your partner’s needs and wants as they are presented to you in good faith),
  • an authentic desire to find collaborative solutions (this isn’t about forcing someone to capitulate to your fears just because their needs may provoke your internal fears; “sacrifice” is NOT the initial intent in collaboration),
  • and full presence in the engagement (being willing to stay focused on the process work, and not go haring off into fearful blame-storming or aggression; this isn’t about you, this isn’t about me, this is about the “us” of the relationship).

Collaboration is most likely the best means of achieving “together decisions”, because by their very nature, collaborations require partners to work together to achieve something that brings value to them and to the relationship, not decreases the perceived sense of value, nor diminishes individual position(s) within the relationship. True collaboration requires authentic buy-in from both parties to the belief that all needs are being respected, not lip-service to an agreement that actually disregards or fails to meet identified needs from the outset.


The reason I don’t include Consensus and Co-existence is because I consider them to be corollary to the three models above. The idea of consensus in a dyadic (2-partner) system is a little silly; as soon as both parties agree on something, you have consensus, regardless of which of the three principle decision models generates the agreement. Consensus works better in larger structures; it’s a better decision model for certain types of decisions within poly structures, for example, in which more than two potentially diverging viewpoints are required to be in agreement before a decision is enacted. Co-existence, on the other hand, is more likely to be the result of a failed decision model than a decision model itself. When partners fail to make “together choices”, they will increasingly make “apart choices”, and the slow continental drift that results from those “apart choices” can eventually result in partners living more like room-mates than like romantic intimates; vulnerability suffers, engagement erodes, collective buy-in becomes something that happens to other people. One can choose co-existence; one term for it in relational therapy is “parallel lives”. It’s not a relationship style that attracts proponents of authentic and intimate relationships; however it can become what those proponents find themselves in should they fail to make effective collaborations a lifelong habit in their authentic and intimate relationships.

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