Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conflict Management, the Prophetic Way Part 1

Imagine an orange on the kitchen table, that you believe to be yours, and have a desire to eat. Before making your way towards the orange, however, your sister lays her hand on it. Upset, you stop her in her tracks and shout, “Hey, I put that orange there. It’s mine.”

“No, It’s my orange. I bought it,” she retorts. At this point, there is a conflict. Who gets the orange?

According to the Thomas-Kilmann model, there are essentially five modes of managing conflict. The first mode is avoidance. In avoidance, you wouldn’t stop your sister from taking the orange. You would just let it go.

The second mode is accommodation, that is, to accept or surrender to the other party’s argument, even though the argument may be weak. In accommodation, you would respond by saying, “Oh, I didn’t know you bought it. Go ahead, it’s yours.”

The third mode is compromise. An example of compromise would be agreeing to split the orange half-half for you and your sister to share.

The fourth mode is competition. In this mode, you would stand your ground to claim the orange.

The fifth mode is collaboration. Collaboration involves finding a solution where both parties end up being winners. Through discussion, the two of you might realize that you want to eat the orange core whereas your sister only wants the peel to make marmalade. In the end, each party gets what they want (note how this is different from compromise).

A question worth asking at this point is, which mode of conflict management is the most appropriate? What is the Prophetic mode of approaching conflict?


The Prophet passed by a woman who was crying over a grave, and said to her, “Fear Allah and be patient.” She said, “Away from me! My calamity has not befallen you and you are not aware of it.” The Prophet then walked away from the scene of conflict, i.e., the mode of conflict management he chose was avoidance. The woman was later told that it was the Prophet who had advised her. She came to his door where she found no doorkeeper. She said, “I apologize, I did not know it was you.” The Messenger of Allah said, “Patience is at the first stroke”. [Bukhari and Muslim]

The Prophet exhibited the mode of accommodation when Zaid ibn San’ah, a Jewish rabbi tested the Prophet’s forbearance . He had lent the Prophet some money, and a few days before the debt was due, he violently approached the Prophet , yanking the Prophet’s cloak and speaking in a harsh tone, saying, “O Muhammad! Will you not pay back my loan? I have known the family of Abd-ul-Muttalib to delay in repaying debts!” Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was present at the scene, threatened to behead Zaid, but the Prophet interrupted and said to Umar, “Both Zaid and I needed something else from you. You should have reminded me to pay my loans promptly, and you should have told him to be more polite.” Then, rather than rightfully arguing that there was still time to pay back the debt, the Prophet accommodated Zaid’s position and repaid the debt, and had Umar pay extra for his harsh treatment.

During the treaty of Hudaybiyah, the Prophet exercised compromise. In the written treaty, he rubbed out his title, ‘Messenger of Allah’ at the insistence of the Quraysh. He also agreed not to perform the pilgrimage that year, despite the Muslims’ anticipation to perform the pilgrimage. He agreed to the one-sided condition that any Makkan who entered Madinah could return to Makkah if he so choosed to, but the reverse would not be permitted. In return, the Muslims were allowed to perform the pilgrimage from the following year onwards, and a ten year truce of peace was established.

One instance of when the Prophet demonstrated control was when the people of Ta’if stipulated conditions for entering the fold of Islam. Those conditions included the preservation of their idol al-Lat for three years, and not to pray salah. The Prophet , while offering them protection under the Islamic state, rejected all of their conditions (save one - that the people of Ta’if not be the ones responsible for destroying the city’s idols, since this request did not impinge on any objective of Islam - he simply had other Muslims destroy the idols) and remained firm on the requirements to becoming Muslim.

After the Quraysh had rebuilt the ka’bah, a dispute broke out over which clan would put the black stone in the ka’bah. When they entrusted the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) to resolve the conflict, the Prophet put the stone on a cloth spread and told one member from each clan to hold up the cloth. In this way, each clan laid claim to putting the black stone in the wall. Here, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) demonstrated collaboration.


These incidents illustrate the following principle: different situations call for different modes of conflict management. No one mode is universally appropriate to all sorts of conflict. Each mode has its merits and pitfalls that have to be taken into consideration when choosing the most appropriate mode to manage conflict.

Two factors that affect the choice of conflict management mode is the importance of the issue and the importance of the relationship. Collaboration would be appropriate when the issue and the relationship are important. Control would be suitable when the issue is important, but the relationship isn't. Accommodation would be appropriate when the relationship is important but the issue isn't. Avoidance would be wise when neither the issue nor the relationship are important. Compromise applies when the relative importance of both the issue and relationship is uncertain. The graph below illustrates this dynamic.

Most people who are not familiar with conflict management do not evaluate this decision matrix when choosing a conflict management mode. Instead, they respond to conflict using the mode that they are most habituated to, which can trigger undesirable results.

For example, a person who habitually exercises control may overlook better solutions or act unjustly. A collaborator may waste time looking for a win-win situation, when a win-win situation isn't necessary or possible. A compromiser may feel resentful for not getting a fair deal. An accommodator may be seen as a pushover. And an avoider may never expand his/her comfort zone, thereby inhibiting his/her personal growth.

Often, people justify their habitual mode of conflict management as an inherent personality trait that they cannot change. This false belief can lead to disastrous relationships, limited growth, loss of respect, and an inability to effectively influence others. Often, applying an inappropriate mode of conflict management further aggravates the conflict even if one’s position is correct. Getting out of a habit often requires effort and creates discomfort, but it is possible, if one chooses to take responsibility for his/her life.

In summary, mastering conflict management involves having 1) the insight to see which of the five conflict management modes is most appropriate, and 2) the flexibility to apply any one of five conflict management modes. The Prophet demonstrated his mastery of conflict management in the examples mentioned above through fulfilling these two criteria, and ultimately generating the outcome that he/she sought:

By avoiding conflict with the woman wailing over a grave, he didn't offer the woman an excuse to harbour resentment towards himself – rather, he gave her the space to reconsider her behaviour, which she did.

By accommodating Zaid ibn San'ah's demand for repayment of a debt that was not yet due, Zaid became Muslim.

During the treaty of Hudaybiyah, he was able to negotiate a ten-year peace treaty that allowed his message to spread and his ummah to strengthen and establish itself, which ultimately lead to the conquest of Makkah.

With the people of Taif, the Prophet refused to make concessions that would compromise the faith and its teachings, thus preserving the religion, while ensuring that the people of Taif became Muslim.

Through allowing each tribe to lift up the black stone simultaneously, he created unity and preserved each clan's honour.


InshaAllah, in my next post, I will continue the discussion on conflict management.

P.S. If you found value in this post or any of my other posts, please share it with others, submit comments, and subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed. My goal is to empower Muslims in the field of personal development, and you can help me make this goal a reality.

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