People react to conflicts in different ways. The way a person tends to react to conflict is referred to as that person’s conflict management style.
The five basic conflict management styles are generally described with the following terms: competing, avoiding, collaborating, accommodating and compromising. What is your conflict management style?
You may not even think about what your conflict management style is until suddenly you find yourself in a tense situation where your emotions are quickly spiraling out of control. In the heat of the moment, do you tend to compete by standing up for your rights, or do you avoid the issues altogether? Do you collaborate and accommodate by listening to others and yielding to their points of view? Or do you tend to compromise by seeking middle ground?
Any one of these conflict management styles can be detrimental to the individuals or businesses involved if taken to the extreme. For example, avoiding the issue can sometimes be an effective way to prevent a conflict from escalating or to allow a situation to resolve itself. However, if avoiding the issue is taken to the extreme, it can end up being an uncooperative approach that only delays the solution—or it can prevent a solution from ever being reached at all.
This style of conflict management taken to the extreme is known as stonewalling. Stonewalling can also be characterized as an extreme conflict management style of a competitive nature. Stonewalling is also referred to as withdrawing or shutting down. When this happens, the parties involved find themselves stuck in a conflict that they cannot resolve, resulting in much emotional pain and frustration.
A person who stonewalls refuses to interact, engage or communicate, completely withdrawing from the situation either physically or through body language. As the word “stonewalling” implies, trying to talk with a stonewaller is much like what you would expect if you were trying to talk to a stone wall.
John Gottman, a prominent psychologist and relationship expert, was famously able to predict whether a couple would divorce with over 90 percent accuracy just by observing a five-minute conflict discussion between them. After carefully observing the interactions between hundreds of couples in numerous studies, he concluded that certain forms of negative communication styles, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that he called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of these negative communication styles is stonewalling.
What makes stonewalling so lethal to any relationship is that it signals disapproval, separation, distance, and lack of respect. If your tendency is to stonewall when conflicts arise, you are pulling yourself out of the relationship instead of attempting to repair it. You are basically saying to your partner that you do not consider your relationship important enough to continue to talk anymore. This type of behavior leads to a point of no return in any kind of relationship.
If you recognize that you have been guilty of stonewalling in your relationships, don’t be discouraged. As the philosopher Aristotle once said: "Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power of awareness and is not easy."
Avoiding stonewalling may not be easy, but we can start now to build mutual respect and goodwill in our relationships and learn how to prevent stonewalling from ever taking hold in the first place. When conflicts arise, don’t turn into a stone wall by withdrawing from the situation and refusing to communicate. Turn stonewalling into responsiveness, withdrawal into engagement. Instead of building a wall, build a bridge!