Conflict Management Styles

Conflict Management Styles

Conflict Management Definition

Conflict management is the process of limiting the negative aspects of conflict while increasing the positive aspects of conflict (Wikipedia). Often, conflict is viewed as negative interactions that are destructive to relationships (read about Why do we stay in destructive relationships?). However, if conflict is managed effectively, it can have a positive impact on people, relationships and conflict can even be good for business.

Conflict Management Styles Blog - Introduction

I'm dealing with a conflict. What should I do?

This is the essential question of any person who is seeking to resolve a conflict in their life.
Most conflicts have numerous possible outcomes.  For most of us, however, it may seem like there is only one choice, or maybe a handful of choices.  Sometimes none of them are very appealing.  For the purposes of this post, I assume mainly that we are talking about interpersonal conflicts, perhaps with friends, co-workers (see also Workplace Conflict), or family members (see also Family Fights), and particularly ones that are non-violent or personally threatening in nature. Please always remember to contact the appropriate authorities if you are in any personal danger. See also, what to do if you are in a destructive relationship.

This blog post is based around the Thomas-Kilmann theory of conflict resolution.  You can read more about it here. Also, check out our blog on Songs about Conflict Management Styles and Songs about Conflict.

Conflict Management Styles - The TKI Model

The conflict management styles are divided into 5 groups that represent different ways of addressing or failing to address conflict. To determine your conflict management style, you need to complete the TKI instrument.

The context can help determine the right strategy to approach, manage and resolve the conflict. However, across situations, you may consider the style of conflict management, such as the styles outlined by the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument. These styles are “Competing (assertive, uncooperative), Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative), Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative), Collaborating (assertive, cooperative), and Compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness)” (Wikipedia).

Even if you do not complete the assessment, the styles provide a great deal of insights into the ways people manage conflict. If you do complete the instrument, it is designed to improve your self-awareness in conflict situations.

Over time, people may see their conflict management style change over time or even situation. You might be highly effective at managing conflict with your partner, but have difficulty managing conflict in the workplace. The different styles are not necessarily good or bad, unless you need to balance your styles more appropriately. If you consider yourself a ‘yes man’, then you might be sacrificing your needs over others.

If you don’t change your conflict management style, then your style might lead you feel resentful, or it might even negatively impact your self esteem. Each style has advantages and disadvantages based on the circumstances and the levels of conflict. Some advantages might appear to be negative, but they might be necessary. For example, the competing style might appear to be negative, but might be necessary in cases when you cannot accommodate others in any way, like in matters of personal safety.

Conflict Management Style - Avoidance

A first step in any conflict can just be to confront the binary of action versus inaction.  Avoidance is one method of conflict management.  There may be times when avoidance is the most appropriate solution.  This may apply in “pick your battles”- type situations, such as where another person is posturing or being antagonistic for reasons or results that ultimately will not affect you. If we assume, however, that the other parties have a meaningful relationship with you, avoiding a problem between you is not typically a great idea.  Sometimes it leads to the problem festering, or blaming each other, especially if no one takes responsibility (see also Self-Leadership in Conflict Resolution). The results can be harmful and damaging (see also Conflict Escalation).

Considering that avoidance typically requires the least physical or mental effort, it is easy to allow avoidance to set in unconsciously.  If there is a particular issue that needs to be addressed, ask yourself how long it has gone unaddressed.  Is there anything in particular you are waiting on? Is it possible to take control of the situation, or do you require additional input? Do you need the help of a conflict coach to try to better understand the situation? Is it a matter of not wanting to move forward (see also How to Move On), or a matter of truly not being able to? If the latter, could it ever get to the point of being addressable or resolvable?

Finally, even if the proper solution to a conflict is avoidance, it may be helpful to reconcile with yourself why this is the case.  Perhaps you need to tell yourself once-and-for-all that it isn’t worth worrying about, and thus the problem can be left in the past. In other words, you need to set some interpersonal and personal boundaries to resolve conflict. Perhaps this may mean signaling this to others: “I’m sorry, but really don’t feel this is my responsibility.”; “I am not willing to move ahead with this.”  Acknowledging to yourself that this is an appropriate solution may also help you move past the conflict.

Conflict Management Style - Accommodating

When you accommodate someone else, you give in and allow the other party to have their way. By definition, it involves some sort of forfeiture of your position (see also Negotiation Defined). This is not necessarily a bad thing, and, like avoiding, accommodation can be of practical use. Think carefully about whether this matter is a battle worth fighting.  One upside may be that you can maintain a relationship with someone who cares far more about the conflict than you do, or who may perceive the matter to be more important than you do.

Downsides can include feelings of resentment or dislike towards the other party.  Also, if accommodation is your go-to tactic, you run the risk of being taken advantage of over a longer period or for a series of conflicts with the same person.  If the stakes in the conflict are very high from your perspective, accommodating and admitting defeat is likely not a good idea.

Conflict Management Style - Competing

A competitive stance is the opposite of accommodation, where you refuse to give in. This is a good style to use when the issue is very important to you and when the outcome is significant.  A good example might be enforcing your legal rights if someone has harmed you or rather obviously broken an agreement (See Contract Negotiation Tips).

Being overly competitive has its risks as well. It could earn you or your organization a reputation for being uncooperative or petty.  Insisting on a competitive stance can also lead to Pyrrhic victories, where the cost of “winning” is so great that no real benefit is obtained for anyone.

Conflict Management Style - Compromising

A compromise necessarily entails the parties’ failing to fulfill what they each truly want, and instead forego some aspects of their intended result to appease the other.  This can be viewed as a partial loss from the perspective of both sides.  It can be appropriate when more time or information is needed to reach a final resolution, when there is no reasonable prospect of collaboration, or when the two parties cannot agree and yet must work together.

The problem with compromising is that it can become a crutch, an easy-way to (perhaps begrudgingly) move forward without considering better options. Parties that find themselves continuously compromising should beware of developing this habit. It can also lead to the parties repeatedly misleading others (or even themselves) about their true expectations or needs, because they count on being let down.

Conflict Management Style - Collaboration

Collaboration is in many cases a desirable outcome.  It results in “win-win” scenarios and can help all parties move forward content. It can also potentially lead to creative solutions that neither side had considered before.  Sometimes, the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

Dangers with collaboration include the fact that the parties typically must trust each other enough to reach out and share the burden of the conflict (see How to Build Trust).  This may not even be possible if, for example, there is a duty of confidentiality owed to someone involved.  There also may not be enough time or resources available for this method to be practical.

Conflict Management Style - Conclusion

These are the five general styles of the Thomas-Killmann model.  Note that any of these styles can shift into the other modes depending on circumstances. 

If you find yourself in the midst of a conflict and you feel unequipped to handle it, you may wish to consider a mediator, conflict coach, lawyer, or other professional should be able to help.

Dan Lawlor - Mediate2go Editor and Blogger

Dan Lawlor is a Mediate to Go Blogger focused on estates and commercial dispute resolution. Dan is a graduate of McGill University's Faculty of Law with interests in conflict resolution, business law and writing. He played an important role as a director with Mediation at McGill, building connections with the community to improve outreach. Currently he is an Associate Lawyer with Campbell Mihailovich Uggenti LLP in Hamilton, Ontario. Dan loves team sports, reading, and traveling.

Mediate2go: Conflict Management Styles

Popular posts from this blog

Top 10 Songs about Conflict - 2014

Levels of Conflict

Alternative Careers for Lawyers