Conflict Management And The Artistic Temperament

By Liam Abramson

As musicians, we deal with conflict every day. Whether it is negotiating over contracts, booking musicians or simply sitting in a quartet rehearsal. How one manages this conflict is key to the building of relationships and development of further work opportunities. Some people regard conflict as negative. Others regard it as simple bickering or arguing. However, whatever you want to call it, if conducted properly, conflict is developmental: it allows you to learn about the other side while putting your own points across and, in the process, solve problems. Norbert Brainin, the great leader of the Amadeus String Quartet said, “If you cannot argue, you are lost. You have to learn to put over your point of view, because without this you are absolutely useless in a string quartet.” And this philosophy holds true for whatever situation of conflict that you may find yourself in.

Dealing with musicians is always hard. All musicians have a very clearly defined awareness of their own artistic integrity and often have an unmistakable sense of what they desire to achieve. Therefore, when a difference of opinion is raised, very often this can be taken as a personal attack since, if the conflict is over a musical point, it frequently turns into a debate about very individual and heartfelt ideals. In the world of music business, conflict that deals with the commercial concerns of the industry can be perceived as an assault that is no less personal than a disagreement over musical principles. This conflict may be over fees, working practices or simply viewpoints relating to why a job is being done in a certain way.

People who work together have plenty to disagree about. Conflict can arise over lack of information, time, money, people, space, talent or creativity. In addition, there are different ways of looking at things due to differences in cultures, needs and aspirations. Therefore, simply put, conflict is about differences and because people have different preferences, habits, and opinions, they are bound to clash at some point. Change also creates conflict (i.e. in the makeup of an orchestral section or management of a musical organisation) and during times of change we experience high degrees of stress, unclear lines of responsibility and lack of communication. All of these realities create an ideal environment for conflict.

In managing conflict, your job is to find ways that everyone’s cultures, needs and aspirations can become compatible so that both sides can achieve part, most, or all of what they want. It’s a challenge and it definitely requires a partnership, not a war. Carefully analysing the conflict situation will help you begin to build that partnership: analysing the emotions behind the conflict and allowing those emotions to be expressed are important first steps in conflict management. Therefore, taking all of the above into account, a definition of conflict management may be, “The strategy which individuals employ to identify and manage differences thereby reducing the human and financial costs of unmanaged conflict while harnessing conflict as a source of innovation and improvement.”

There are two types of conflict: confrontational and constructive. Confrontational is destructive i.e. the objective is to win and beat the other person at any cost. The only gain is the fact that you have won and a continuation of that particular relationship is unlikely. Constructive conflict, on the other hand, leads to a mutually agreed solution, often one that has a certain synergy in relation to your own individual solutions. As an illustration, in a study on orchestral musicians conducted by the Department of Management at Drexel University, Philadelphia it was found that “lack of artistic integrity, task difficulty and social tension were found to be the three most potent elements that evoked two types of stress reactions: distress reflecting role overload and boredom stress reflecting role “underload”. In addition, lack of artistic integrity and social tension contributed to heightened distress”. All of this served to create a situation that potentially acted as an incubator for confrontational conflict (if unmanaged) but could have lead to growth through constructive conflict (if dealt with properly).

One further element is to understand that conflict predominantly is based on behaviour. However, in order to assess conflict, behaviour must be an action that you can observe both in yourself and the other side. In addition you must be able to measure and quantify it. This means that you must be able to see, hear or otherwise prove the existence of this particular behaviour that leads you to the conclusion that conflict is evident. This is a very important factor to understand fully for often people just letting off steam and this does not necessarily mean that one is in conflict. This may simply be a grievance or a gripe; a simple moaning about something or the person could just be in a bad mood. How you observe and react to this behaviour will lead you to do one of three things: get drawn into a spiral of conflict, divert yourself away from it or allow yourself to use this conflict in order to develop the working relationship further. In potential conflict situations, it is therefore important to focus first on yourself and your own behaviour, i.e. analyzing what your response may be before jumping in and having a go!

Behaviour is linked to our fight or flight response, our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to fight or run from a potential attack, harm or threat to our survival. Originally discovered by the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, this response is part of our genetic makeup and is designed to protect us from bodily harm. This response actually corresponds to an area of our brain called the hypothalamus, which-when stimulated-initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release that prepares our body for running or fighting. However, the threats we face sitting in a string quartet or orchestra are not to our physical survival.

Nonetheless, these threats trigger the activation of our fight or flight system as if our physical survival was threatened. In most cases today, once our fight or flight response is activated, we cannot flee. We cannot fight. We cannot physically run from our perceived threats. When we are faced with a musical colleague who just won’t follow your tempo, we have to sit where we are and control ourselves. We can’t just hit him! Many of the major stresses today trigger the full activation of our fight or flight response, causing us to become aggressive and over-reactive. This aggressiveness and over-reactivity causes us to act or respond in ways that are actually counter-productive to our survival. It is counterproductive to punch the viola player in your quartet (the fight response) when he activates when he threatens us (even though it might bring temporary relief to our tension!) It is counterproductive to run away from the conductor of an orchestra (the flight response) when s/he tells us we are not playing well. This all leads to a difficult situation in which our automatic, predictable and unconscious fight or flight response causes behaviour that can actually be self-defeating and non-developmental.

Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet states that in rehearsals, “I found it hard to give in to an opposing idea and not just because I was used to having my own way. If my convictions were worth anything, why shouldn’t I fight for them?” He continues that, “It might be construed as a sign of weakness if I rolled over at the first sign of a disagreement.” So when faced with any form of conflict, it is important to know how to deal with it and not merely to tap into out natural fight or flight responses.

To describe the variety of approaches people have in dealing with conflict, the Thomas-Kilman Conflict model is a very useful tool. This model describes the diversity of approaches that people demonstrate when faced with conflict. There are five main ways in which you can deal with any conflict situation, specifically those related to very personal expressions of musical needs and desires that may not match your own thoughts. Based around how assertive you are and/or how co-operative you are willing to be, this model offers suggestion on when to use different conflict handling modes. If both sides involved in the conflict situation are highly assertive with regard to their own needs, and uncooperative in terms of the needs of the other, then the style adopted is that of the battling competitor (e.g. two musicians who will not give way on a question of tempo). If however, people are unassertive in pursuit of their own needs, but still uncooperative, they will tend to avoid conflict altogether and try to pretend it does not exist i.e. rolling over at the first sign of disagreement.

The competing style is assertive but uncooperative – an individual pursues his/her own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode, in which one uses whatever power seems appropriate to win one’s own position Competing might mean “standing up for your rights”, defending a position, which you believe to be correct or, simply, trying to win. It is useful to use the competing style when quick, decisive action is vital, on important issues where unpopular courses of action are needed or to protect you against people who take advantage of non-competitive behaviour.

The accommodating style is unassertive and co-operative – the opposite of competing. An individual neglects their own needs to satisfy the needs of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this style. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another’s needs when one would prefer not to. It is useful to use the accommodating style when you realise that you are wrong and allow a better proposition to be heard, when the issue is far more important to the other person than to yourself, when continued conflict would only damage your cause or when harmony and avoiding disruption are especially important

The avoiding style is unassertive and uncooperative. The individual delays pursuing their own needs or those of the other person. They do not address the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of sidestepping the issue, postponing until a better time, or withdrawing from a threatening situation. It is useful to use the avoiding style when an issue is trivial compared to other more pressing concerns, to let people let off steam and then cool down or when you need time to obtain more information about the conflict issues.

The compromising style is both assertiveness and co-operation. The objective is to find mutually acceptable solutions, which partially satisfy each person. Compromising might mean splitting the difference, exchanging concessions or seeking a middle-ground position. It is useful to use the compromising style to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues or to arrive at expedient solutions under time pressure.

The collaborating style is both assertive and co-operative – the opposite of avoiding. Attempts are made to find solutions, which satisfy the concerns of both parties. This might take the form of exploring each other’s insights, identifying underlying causes or seeking creative solutions. It is useful to use the collaborating style to incorporate insights from people with different perspectives on a problem or to work through hard feelings, which have been interfering with interpersonal relationships.

It is impossible in this very short article to articulate all the psychological complexities of dealing with conflict. However, always remember that conflict is based on behaviour and how you behave will have a direct influence on the outcome of the conflict situation. If you treat conflict as a learning process i.e. something positive rather than a destructive process, then relationships can be enhanced through conflict rather than destroyed.

Liam Abramson, CEO HighgateGlobal Ltd
If you are involved in a non-profit arts organization and require help or advice developing a strategy, creating a marketing plan or just figuring out how to raise more money, HighgateGlobal provides expert and experienced help.
Strategy, Marketing and Fundraising – Helping your arts organization develop for the future: Website:

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1 Comment

  1. First of all I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick question which
    I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I’ve had trouble clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
    I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15
    minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or tips? Thank you!

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