Two people facing the same conflict will often respond in entirely different ways. A response that feels easy, practical, and effective for one person may prove to be quite challenging for another. Thomas, K.W., and R.H. Kilmann, creators of the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, identified five primary conflict styles that people tend to use. Although we may vary the style we use depending on nature the conflict situation, most of us tend to fall back on one style that feels most comfortable – even if it’s not particularly helpful. No one style is perfect. They are all helpful in some situations and unhelpful in others. Understanding the various conflict styles, your personal preference, and the pros and cons of each one can help you become more adaptive and effective at managing conflicts. Read on to learn about each conflict style!
What it is: This is an aggressive approach to conflict where your focus is primarily on achieving the outcomes you desire. The needs, feelings, or desires of the other party are not of much concern, and you “winning” may come at the expense of the other losing.
What it sounds like: “My way or the highway”. “This is how it is going to happen.” “My way is best.”
When it’s helpful: In situations where quick action is needed, such as emergencies or instances of harassment, bullying, or other threatening behavior that is endangering other’s safety and well-being.
When it’s not helpful: This style is not helpful in most conflict situations. In cases where important relationships are at stake, it is important to take other’s ideas and feeling into account. And when complex problems arise, you’ll need the creativity, innovation, and open communication that comes from collaboration and compromise.
What it is: This is a passive approach to conflict where you tend to put aside your own thoughts, feelings, and desires in order to honor those of others. You may do this because you want to maintain harmonious relationships, or because you trust high a high degree of trust in another and believe their course of action is most likely best.
What it sounds like: “Sure, whatever you say.” “You probably know best.”
When it’s helpful: When you are lacking understanding or experience and others whom you trust have a higher level of expertise. Or, when an issue simply isn’t critical or important to you.
When it’s not helpful: When you have an important/valid concerns, opinions, or contributions that are important to share for your own well-being and/or that of others.
What it is: Unsurprisingly, this response to conflict involves an almost total lack of engagement. You attempt to simply “check out” or not deal with a conflict situation. Your not working to achieve your goals, but your also not actively trying to prevent the other party from achieving their own.
What it sounds like: “I’m not going to stick my neck out.” “I can’t deal with this.” “It’s not worth it.”
When it’s helpful: When you’re dealing with a conflict over an issue that is trivial and you don’t want to waste time or energy dealing with it. It may also be useful in situations where you know that you have little hope of changing the outcome regardless of your actions. Additionally, this style can prevent you from being sucked into a conflict situation between others that doesn’t need your involvement.
When it’s not helpful: When your primary motivator for not engaging in the conflict is fear or discomfort and your well-being and/or that of others is significantly suffering because of unresolved issues. Most important issues won’t go away by simply ignoring them, so by not acting you are simply pro-longing the problem.
What it is: In this approach to conflict the primary focus is fairness. You are willing to give up or concede certain things with the expectation that the other party will do the same. In this way, neither party get’s exactly what they want, but they hopefully both get what they need. Compromising can be an effective way to overcome gridlock and find resolution. However, it can also lead to unsatisfying outcomes for both parties.
What it sounds like: “I’d be willing to______, if you’d be willing to_____.” “Let’s make a deal.”
When it’s helpful: When there are multiple options/solutions available to help parties meet their respective needs, and both individuals are willing to be flexible about the strategies they use to get their needs met.
When it’s not helpful: The issues parties bring to a conflict may not always have equal importance or validity. Additionally, sometimes individuals’ feelings are not the greatest issues at stake. In such cases, trying to reach a resolution where both parties are equally satisfied may be impossible or even destructive in the long-term.
What it is: This approach involves framing conflicts as a situational or system problem rather than a clash between individuals’ personalities. It’s not about winning or losing but working together to find innovative solutions that work well for everyone. It can lead to enhanced problem-solving, unity, and creative thinking.
What it sounds like: “Let’s see if we can figure this out.” “Two heads are better than one.”
When it’s helpful: Collaboration works well in environments where individuals retain respect and trust for another, despite the conflicts at hand, and are willing to work together to explore new approaches.
When it’s not helpful: This approach is complex and time-consuming so it doesn’t always work well in situations where there are major time constraints. Additionally, collaboration is nearly impossible in situations where there are high levels of hostility, blame, and contempt and parties are less concerned with finding solutions and more concerned with making the other party lose.
I’d love to hear from you! What do you think of these styles? which one do you think you use most often? Which one would be most helpful to use more and what do you need to be able to do that?
About Me: I help individuals mindfully navigate personal and professional conflicts and enhance their quality of life. I’m a certified coach, a trained mediator, and have an M.A. in Peace Education. I offer Conflict Coaching and Mindful Life and Leadership Coaching (in-person or via phone/Skype), as well as conflict resolution workshops and trainings. Contact me to learn more.