Conflict Management for Musicians Part I: Take Charge by Using the Right Conflict Management Strategy

This week, I had the privilege and the pleasure of leading Professional Development training on conflict management with alumni of The Academy—one of the country’s leading teaching artist program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

The 9 nine outstanding musicians who participated in the training are serving as Advisors to the current 20 Fellows of the Academy and the training was designed to provide them with skills and processes to help the Fellows manage conflict in the course of their work.

It is not surprising that conflict arises between musicians. Indeed, musician-leaders—the music entrepreneurs of the 21st Century– are passionate about their work and their ideas, have high standards of excellence, and are deeply committed to your cause.  And when they meet up with others who have the same depth and level of commitment to their ideas, it is going to cause friction. 

In essence, that is what conflict is:  a discomforting difference with someone where the two of you have incompatible issues, principles, behaviors or goals.

Conflict management is an essential leadership skill for the music entrepreneur of the 21st Century since it can help you to face challenges and look for opportunities in your conflict situations and our training provided these talented musician leaders with some great skills for handling the inevitable conflicts that arise in the music world.

Conflict in the music world arises in many different settings including:

•    rehearsing and performing with ensembles where individuals differ over rehearsal policies and matters of interpretation;
•    teaching with a partner where there are different levels of experience and different approaches to teaching;
•    collaborating on creative projects where individuals have strong ideas over what is the “right” way to present the project;
•    leading an arts festival or organization and having differences with board and staff over matters of policy, mission and priorities;
•    dealings with arts administrators and management of arts organizations.

While conflict is an inevitable part of life, addressing a conflict can lead to better results, depending on how it is handled.  Yes, conflict calls up powerful emotions and can be very stressful.  Yet conflict also presents the opportunity:

•    to solve problems and engage in open communication in order to arrive at better solutions;
•    to express emotions which can ultimately clear the air and reduce stress on you and the others; and
•    to build better relationships by encouraging close listening and creative problem solving.

This is the essence of conflict management:  how to manage yourself and influence others to communicate effectively around the issues underlying the conflict and then come up with the optimal solutions for the problem and for the relationship. 

The good news is that there are skills you can learn and processes that you can follow. The Academy Advisors found it very empowering to know that conflict management was not an intuitive talent but rather a skill that could be learned, practiced and developed.

Here are my top tips for managing conflict effectively:

1.    Know the different conflict management strategies and which ones to apply in any given situation.
2.    Separate the people from the problem.
3.    Think in terms of underlying interests instead of taking a firm stand.
4.    Think through your conflict situation before deciding to meet with the other party.
5.    Follow the process for having safe and productive conversations around conflict.

Will these guarantee a resolution to every conflict?


What these suggestions will do is to give you options that you can use when you find yourself in a conflict. 

Indeed, this was another big takeaway of our session: that the goal of conflict management is to come up with the optimal solution that takes into account the interests of all parties involved but that if you cannot achieve this result, there are still many things you can do to help yourself and your colleagues through the situation.  And if you end up not being able to resolve the conflict, you know you will have done everything in your power and you can choose to accept the situation.

In other words, you are taking charge and are not a victim to the situation.

Let’s start with the Conflict Management Styles and Strategies.

Conflict Management Styles and Strategies

Researchers have identified 5 different styles for managing conflict:

1.    Avoid: avoid the issue and withdraw from the threatening situation
2.    Accommodate:  yield to another’s person point of view
3.    Compromise: split the difference
4.    Collaborate: work together to frame the optimal solution
5.    Compete: impose your solution

For a more detailed discussion of the styles and strategies, please read my article on Conflict Styles:  The Start of Effective Conflict Management.

The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong style to have.  Rather, the goal is to know when it is appropriate to use your style and when another style might be better suited to the situation. The 5 styles translate into 5 strategies.  The goal is to figure out which is the most appropriate strategy to any given situation.

At the training, we first took a look at the 5 different styles for managing conflict and each Advisor identified his or her preferred method for handling conflict.  We learned that by knowing your preferred way of dealing with conflict, you can begin to see when it works and when another style might be more appropriate.  We also learned that by understanding the different styles, you can spot the styles of the people with whom you have a conflict and figure out the best way of dealing with that person.

Suppose an ensemble is having a conflict over a matter of interpretation.  There are two factions and they cannot come to an agreement.  It is causing tension in the group and resentments are starting to crop up.
Let’s take a look at how the different styles and strategies would come into play:

Avoid the Conflict:

Avoiding is appropriate where there is a clear advantage to waiting to resolve the conflict:
•    The conflict is too small or not important enough to address.
•    Your relationship with the other party is not that important. 
•    You lack the power to address the issue.
•    You need to cool off.

However, the downsides are that:
•    Interpersonal conflicts persist and even worsen if there is no attempt to resolve them.
•    Decisions are made by default resulting in a poor outcome.

In the example of the conflict within the ensemble over matters of interpretation, avoiding the conflict would not work.  The relationships matter as does the outcome since the members of the group need to decide on the best way to interpret a piece.  Since resentments are cropping up, it is clear that this issue needs to be resolved in some way.


Accommodate is a good strategy when you want to build good will and you can be seen as reasonable:
•    when an issue is not as important to you as it is to the other person
because  it is a quick way to resolve the conflict without straining your relationship with the other party
•    when you realize you are wrong
•    when it is not the right time to resolve the issue and you would prefer to build credit for the future

However, if you regularly accommodating the other party, your ideas get lost and you will start to feel resentful.  Moreover, you lose influence and credibility if it becomes a pattern.
Here, accommodation might work if one of the factions decides that the relationship is more important than the outcome.  However, if that faction has a history of accommodating, it may lost ifluence and credibility in the long run.  Moreover, if both sides are equally attached to their interpretation, this strategy would not work.


Compromise is a good strategy for arriving at solutions and overcoming impasses. 
It works best
•    when people of equal status are equally committed to goals
•    when time can be saved by reaching intermediate settlements on individual parts of complex issues
•    when the outcome is moderately important.

However, compromise does not completely satisfy either party and it does not foster innovative solutions.

In our situation, if time is short, the parties might compromise by agreeing to go with one interpretation this time and then using the other faction’s interpretation the next time. The danger is that this might not be the best long-term solution.


Collaboration works best when
•    the parties trust each other
•    it is important for all parties to have “ownership” of solutions
•    the people involved are willing to change their thinking as more information is exchanged and new options are suggested
•    when the parties need to work through animosity and hard feelings.

However, if you do not have time to work through the issues and if you have enough power to impose your solution, compete may work better.  Moreover, the parties have to be willing to explore each other’s interests and if one side is adamant about its position, collaboration will not work.

For our chamber ensemble, if the parties take the time to explore each other’s underlying interests, they may well be able to come to an understanding over which is the best solution.  However if time is short or people are too attached to their position, collaboration would not work.


Compete is an effective strategy f you are sure that you are right and the others respect your authority.  Compete can be used
•    when you know you are right
•    when time is short and a quick decision is needed
•    when you need to stand up for your rights

However, compete can threaten the relationship and can also escalate the conflict.  Moreover, the losing side may feel such resentment that it will look for ways to retaliate.

In the chamber ensemble’s conflict over interpretation, compete might be the right strategy if time is short (for example, if the concert is a few hours away) and a decision needs to be made.  The problem is that if one person continually badgers the others and insists on his way, this can damage the relationship and make it very stressful for the group to work together.

How to Use Your Knowledge of Conflict Management Strategies

First, figure out your preferred way of dealing with conflict?  Where has it worked for you?  Where did it let you down?  What were the consequences? 
Once you know about the other styles and strategies, you can begin to apply them in the appropriate situation.  The more you practice, the better you will become.
In addition, once you know the different styles, you can identify them in the people with whom you are in conflict.  This can help you to understand their perspective and frame the appropriate response.
In my next post, we will take a look at two concepts that can help you to master challenging conflict situations so stay tuned!