Expanding Your Conflict Style to Manage Conflict Better (& Reduce Stress)
February 1, 2021

How do you react when you feel yourself to be in a conflict?  Do you find your competitive nature is triggered?  Or do you want to avoid the whole thing until it blows over? We all react differently to conflicts – and sometimes our reactions differ depending on the conflict.  Often, however, we have a natural style that we revert to.

Why does this matter?  Because it’s a stress driver that we can reduce.

Conflict is everywhere.  For lots of us, our relationships are feeling the strain of a year of the pandemic.  There are conflicts within families, with work colleagues, with neighbours, with bosses etc etc.  

Many people find conflicts stressful and upsetting. Understanding our inherent conflict style can help us manage conflicts better and reduce our stress levels.  

The Styles

It’s me or you…

Thomas and Kilman describe five major conflict styles, categorised and explained below:

Competing: I want to win (at all costs?) – assertive and uncooperative

This style can be useful when decisions need to be made fast (eg in an emergency), or when you need to take a firm stance against someone trying to take an unfair advantage.  The danger is that it can be perceived as aggressive and focused on individual benefit.

Accommodating:  OK, we’ll do it your way…. (I’m not really bothered) – unassertive and cooperative

Could be a useful approach for an issue that you don’t really care about, perhaps to ‘bank’ the favour for something else that matters more to you.  The risk is that you might not get that favour returned.

Avoiding: Can the whole thing just go away now please? – unassertive and uncooperative

Perhaps this has its moment when winning the argument is genuinely impossible, or it just doesn’t matter to you.  But it’s generally seen as a weak approach that is unlikely to serve your best interests.

Working together

Collaborating: Surely, we could work together and get this sorted out? – assertive and cooperative

This style is really useful when you need people with different perspectives to work together on a solution, especially with multiple parties involved in a conflict.  It can also be useful when there have been other conflicts, are likely to be more areas of conflict and you need to work together in the future.

Compromising: let’s find a way through that we can both live with – moderately assertive and cooperative

Can be useful when the cost of the conflict is high, either tangibly (legal fees?) or as an intangible cost to the parties (eg the relationship impact).  This one can sound like a great idea, but there’s a risk that everyone ends up dissatisfied.

Which is better?

Well, that depends.  You may want to use different styles at different times.  In a negotiation, you may need to prioritise certain issues, and yield on others, in order to reach an overall agreement.  You may also have a few styles that you tend to use.  But maybe there are others you never employ.

It can also be hard to unlearn the conflict style that you have naturally developed.  If your immediate reaction is to avoid the conflict at all costs, doing something different goes against your instincts – and it’s a challenge.  

OK, I’m an avoider. Where do I go from here?

What now?

Recognising your instinctive style is a good starting point. There are lots of online assessments that can help, some for free.

Learning how and when to use the other conflict styles to get better results when you’re in a conflict can also help.  You can do this on your own, or with the support of a conflict coach.  Either way, it can be reassuring to know that you have a few options in your conflict repertoire to use when responding to conflict.  You’re not stuck in the same patterns for ever.

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Philippa Brown

A CEDR-accredited mediator, Pip founded Conflict Insights and now uses the experience and skills she developed working in international conflict environments to reduce the negative effects of conflicts closer to home.