Within the science of conflict management it is commonly accepted that there are five different styles (listed below) that people tend to use when dealing with conflict. Generally people will have one or two preferred ways of dealing with conflict and may default to these styles, however, the idea is to become familiar with all styles and use the style that is best for the situation.
Did you know...
The concept of conflict styles was first conceived back in the 1960s and many different models have been created over the years to explain the concept - the most well-known being the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Inventory, which is the basis for this module. The main models are all largely the same and the names for the styles can be used interchangeably.
The 5 conflict styles
In conflict situations, an individual's behaviour can be described along two dimensions:
- Assertiveness - The extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy their own needs.
- Cooperativeness - The extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy the needs of others.
These two dimensions define the five different conflict styles, detailed below.
Assertive / Uncooperative
Competing (also known as dominating) is where you try to satisfy your own needs without any concern for the other person. This is a power-oriented style where you use whatever power you have at your disposal - e.g. your ability to argue, your seniority/authority, your influence - to win. Competing means standing up for your rights, defending a position that you think is correct, or simply trying to win. Competing is appropriate when:
- The issue is of high importance
- You know that you are right / you need to stand up for yourself
- A quick decision is needed
Just make sure you use this style sparingly and only when appropriate. Research has shown that use of the competing style creates an environment with more conflict.
Unassertive / Cooperative
Accommodating (also known as obliging) is the complete opposite of competing. This is where you put aside your own needs to satisfy the needs of others. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying an order even though you don't want to, or giving in and letting the other person have their way. Accommodating is appropriate when:
- The issue isn't important to you
- The relationship is more important that the issue
- You have no power in the situation
- You are short on time and just need to move on
Unassertive / Uncooperative
Avoiding is where you make no attempt to satisfy your own needs or the needs of others - you just avoid the conflict. The avoiding style might take the form of postponing an issue until a better time, passing the buck to someone else, or withdrawing from a threatening situation. Avoiding is appropriate when:
- The issue is not a priority
- The relationship is not important and you don't need to resolve it
- You or the other person(s) need time to cool off
Assertive / Cooperative
Collaborating (also known as integrating) is the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating means attempting to work with others to explore the problem, uncovering underlying needs and finding mutually acceptable solutions that satisfy the needs of all parties. Collaborating might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other's insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.
Although all styles can be effective if used in the right situations, studies have shown that collaborating is the most effective conflict management style, and is the only style significantly related to leadership effectiveness
Collaborating is appropriate when:
- The issue and relationship are important enough to dedicate time to the process
Moderate assertiveness / Moderate cooperativeness
Compromising is where you try to find a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies your needs and the needs of others. Unlike collaboration which seeks to find solutions that fully satisfy the needs of all parties, compromising is just finding a middle ground or "splitting the difference" - so each party will still have to give up something to reach an agreement.
Compromising is appropriate when:
- People are happy to meet in the middle
- You need a quick, satisfactory solution
Tips for choosing the optimum style
When choosing which style to use, consider...
- Issue - How important is the issue to you? Does it involve important work priorities, values, ethics?
- Relationship - How important is it for you to maintain a close relationship with the other parties?
- Power - How much power do you have in the situation vs. the other parties?
- Time - How much time do you have available to resolve the issue?
Using the collaborating style
- Listen - In a conflict situation it is better to understand before being understood. Use active listening (see next topic) to understand the facts and feelings.
- Remain calm - Try to remain calm, regardless of what you are hearing. If you feel you're getting angry, remind yourself to keep calm, take a few deep breaths or take a break. You don’t want to say anything you might regret.
- Focus on interests not positions - Often people come into situations of conflict with a fixed idea of what they want; this is a fixed position, and it is very difficult to find solutions from fixed positions. But there is always an underlying need that is driving the want; these are interests. By understanding the underlying interests, it is much easier to develop a range of mutually satisfactory solutions. To uncover the underlying interests, when faced with a want or need, ask “why”. Asking why will help to uncover true interests.
- Assert your own needs/interests - The collaborative approach is a two-way street when it comes to needs/interests. As well as identifying what the other parties need, make sure you clearly assert your own needs.
- Brainstorm possible solutions - Work together to think of possible solutions that address the identified needs of all parties. Focus on the positive things instead of saying things like, "can't", "don't" or "no". The negative words will only make the conflict harder to resolve.
- Agree on next steps - Once you have brainstormed the possible solutions, agree on what you both will do next to move forward.