Everyone has a default response to conflict. Maybe you get angry and want to "win" every argument. Perhaps you try to avoid uncomfortable conversations that could provoke conflict with someone. Maybe you try to make everyone happy. Or perhaps you present the facts as you see them and try for the "middle ground" in reaching a solution.
You may be surprised to learn that there are five (5) conflict styles: avoid, collaborate, compromise, accommodate, compete. Knowing your conflict style helps you identify your typical reaction to conflict and understand how others may react to conflict.
Avoid: You do not want to engage in conflict. You want to sidestep uncomfortable conversations that could provoke a future conflict or solve an existing one.
Collaborate: You want to shift from an “opponents in conflict mindset” to a “team problem-solving mindset.” You seek opportunities for parties in conflict to win and do it together.
Compromise: You seek the middle ground. You want everyone to give up something in order to get to an agreement. You’re looking to figure out what people might be willing to give up (including yourself).
Accommodate: You want to make others happy. You will sacrifice our own needs and interests to make sure the other person ‘wins’ and gets what the want.
Compete: You want to win. You want to satisfy your needs and interests, regardless of how that might impact others. You may view conflict as win-lose and there is no way you’re going to be the loser!
Okay, some of these might naturally sound good to you. You might read collaborate and say “yeah, that’s great! We should work together!” But think about this. Say that you’re a collaborator, eager to dive into a conflict and work together to problem-solve towards a solution. Now say the other party is an avoider. How domineering will you look to them when you insist that “we have to talk about this right now so we can fix it”? Not too great, right?
This five styles approach to examining conflict reaction comes from the Thomas-Kilmann Modes of Conflict (Thomas and Kilmann 1974).
Image: Visual rendering of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes.
According to this approach, competing in conflict is highly assertive, but is not cooperative. While competition may lead to “wins” for a company in a negotiation, for example, it will undercut potential relationships in business or in your personal life. And although avoidance ranks low on the assertiveness scale, it’s also not cooperative. When you avoid, you put your own feelings (and, potentially, fears or discomfort) before others, potentially missing opportunities to right wrongs and build relationships.
All of these conflict styles have their strengths and their weaknesses. I lean heavily towards collaboration and compromise and score low on accommodating and avoiding. This makes some intuitive sense as the majority of my job is teaching (a highly collaborative endeavor) and conflict management practice (a lot of collaboration and compromise). However, this also makes me prone to want to “fix” problems. I see a conflict and think “Oh! An opportunity to learn about this person! An opportunity to fix our mutual problem and build our relationship. Hooray!” And then I dive right in with enthusiasm. This can be overwhelming for an avoider and irritating at best to an accommodator or competitor.
Knowing my conflict style and understanding the five modes of conflict makes me better equipped to identify other people’s conflict style and respond effectively. This thought process allows me to move from a reaction to conflict to a response. While your conflict style is your default reaction to conflict, consider how you can use that knowledge to respond thoughtfully to others in conflict.
My partner is an avoider. He comes from a family of avoiders. (Incidentally so do I, but it was a different kind of avoidance.) It can be frustrating for me to have discussions about potential problems or conflicts – I can see him shrink away wanting to avoid the problem. Instead of pushing harder (“You might not like this, but it has to get done right now. We need to solve this!”), I can respond more thoughtfully and effectively. For example, “I know this is uncomfortable and it’s okay to take time to think about it. Why don’t we set a time in the next two days to sit down and talk about it?” This strategy gives the avoider time to mull over the problem, gather their thoughts and their courage to talk about something that makes them uncomfortable. It’s also clear. It’s not a general “we need to talk about this soon” statement, which leaves a timeline up to interpretation; this is a clear statement that invites collaboration on the timeline, not the problem itself. It’s like a little warm-up before the main event.
If you’re a collaborator, compromiser, or accommodator dealing with a competitor, one of the most effective strategies is just to call them out in a kind but firm way. For example, “It seems like you’re viewing this conflict as a win-lose situation; I think there are opportunities for us to both leave this discussion happy, but we have to work together to get there.” Or, in an interpersonal dispute, “It seems like you’re taking a win-lose perspective on this issue. I’m concerned that we’re starting to lose sight of the core purpose of this discussion, which is to strengthen our relationship. How could we work on building our relationship from this conflict?” You might get some push back here. Hold strong. Use calm and clear language. Don’t get sucked into the win-lose perspective. Maintain your perspective.
If you’re an accommodator, you will naturally want to bend and give in to others. If you’re dealing with an avoider, you may never resolve a conflict – to make them happy, you let them avoid the issue indefinitely! When this happens, feelings, tension, stress, and poor communication will continue to build over time. If you’re an accommodator managing a relationship with a competitor you may find yourself giving in to their demands and following their goals all the time. Once you identify a conflict, take time to sit down on your own and map out your ideal outcomes from that conflict. Identify what your best alternatives are if that conflict is not resolved. I mean actually sit down and write it out! You can take it with you into your discussion. You could even give it to the avoider and ask them to do the same. Regardless, giving yourself time to sit and contemplate the issue and what you want beforehand will be key to getting a conflict resolved in ways that provide some measure of satisfaction for you.
If you’re a competitor dealing with others be mindful that your assertiveness will make an avoider extremely uncomfortable or upset, and an accommodator will become more frustrated over time as they never get what they need from conflict. Try using active and reflective listening techniques to really hear the other party’s concerns, needs, and interests. You can ask that you both sit down and write out these together to try and find some middle ground. Be honest with the other party: “I tend to look at arguments as win-lose. I’d like to avoid that, because our relationship means more to me. If I start to frame things in a win-lose, please tell me. Keep me accountable.” This works best in interpersonal relationships and can be a form of building trust. This only works if the other party is (a) willing to agree to keeping you accountability and (b) willing to do this with integrity (i.e., not use it as an opportunity to undercut the discussion or avoid uncomfortable topics).
Regardless of your default response to conflict, you can learn other ways to respond and you can learn from others who have a different response than you.
Want to learn more about your conflict style and how to improve your response to conflict? Take the test from the U.S. Institute of Peace to find out your primary conflict styles and join MCM for “Discover Your Conflict Style” an interactive webinar on September 17, 2020 at 2:00 PM EST.
Thomas, K. W. and R. H. Kilmann. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Sterling, NY: Xicom, Inc., 1974.