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What’s Your Style? Insights on Conflict Styles

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

In my last post I emphasized the effect that structural and normative context can have on conflict. Context is absolutely paramount, but even in similar scenarios, individuals involved in a conflict scenario will have differing responses and behavioral tendencies. Think about your family, friends, or co-workers: who leaps into conflict with force and passion? Who takes on a mediative role? Who avoids conflict altogether?  Now think about your own tendencies in conflict.

This post is about different conflict styles, and how awareness of them can help you better understand yourself and others in conflict.

Conflict Styles

While conflict styles have been widely studied, the most commonly used classification schema was developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. In Thomas and Kilmann’s configuration, there are five styles: competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. They map the styles on a two dimensional graph, with “Assertiveness (concern for self)” running along the y-axis, and “Cooperation (concern for others)” running along the x-axis.  Each style embodies different strengths and weaknesses in conflict.

Competitive style is characterized by a high concern for self, sitting high on that y-axis. Individuals who embody this style tend to seek control, and use forceful communicative behaviors to accomplish what they want. They often derive security from being in control of a situation, sometimes implicitly equating their control as a solution to a problem. The competitive approach to conflict is to “win,” often at the other’s expense. Elements of this style can be useful in some situations, and in low doses. Think of an emergency or some other highly volatile situation, where taking control and giving orders is suddenly needed. However, too much of a competitive lens is not likely to get you very far in collaboration, understanding, or communication. Often the competitor finds himself or herself caught in perpetually revolving power struggles, constantly asserting at the expense of their relationships and those around them.

Avoiding. This style is, on one level, self-explanatory. Avoiders often prefer to deny or suppress any differences or disputes that arise. They tend to be highly affected by negative interactions, and thus simply try to limit the occurrence of any confrontation. This style can be very useful if it allows an individual to control escalation by letting go of emotional reactivity in a situation of intractable or destructive conflict, or if the issue is really trivial. However, it can also foster repression and spur resentment. It’s important to have the ability to acknowledge and express concerns that need to be addressed, even if it might initially cause some reproach from another person or group. At the worst, an avoider might use a quiet form of manipulation to achieve his or her needs – needs that may be very legitimate, but can have a negative affect if dealt with coercively.  On the graph, this style sits low on both axis – by avoiding all confrontation, an individual also fails to invest in understanding their own concerns and the concerns of others.

Accommodating is closely related to avoiding, also sitting way down on that y-axis of self-care, but sliding up on the measure of care for others. It’s characterized by constant self-subordination to the needs of others. This style can have a harmful psychological effect on its user, who may never find a way to express their own needs while continuing to take on the needs of the others. It can also foster resentment and manipulation, similar to avoidance. However, it can be a very a useful style to temporarily engage with when your counterpart possesses expert knowledge on a subject that you do not, or when the other is dealing with a lot of pain and struggle. It can function as a form of preservation for relationships that are vulnerable or on the line after intense conflict.

Compromising is an approach that expects everyone involved to be both partially satisfied and also to give something up. Unlike the styles above, it doesn’t take on an extreme of assertiveness or cooperation, instead balancing the two.  A compromising styles is often perceived as a positive practice, especially if a more aggressive pursuit of satisfying everyone’s interests could incur a high cost of conflict.  However, on the graph it sits in the center, both investing in but also mitigating the level of care for self and others, as it relies on a level of sacrifice.

Collaboration is generally considered the most invested conflict style, at the peak of both concern for self and concern for others. This is often framed as an ideal response to conflict, characterized by considering all the individual needs involved to create new, inclusive solutions. It does require a participant to be highly assertive, but also to simultaneously cooperate effectively. A collaborative approach is an excellent way of bringing together a diversity of persuasions, especially if the needs involved are of high stakes and could create conflict if they aren’t adequately met.  However, given the amount of personal investment required, this approach may not always work if there is a tight deadline in place, or if all participants are not willing to collaborate.

A Tool, Not an Answer

It’s vitally important to remember that classification systems like this do not actually represent people. It can be a form of coercion to assert that someone (even yourself) is defined by a label like the ones above. When I use a pronoun like “they” or a noun like “avoider,” I mean whoever might be engaging that style at any given time – not necessarily a class of people. In reality, though people often have strong tendencies that lean heavily into one or two, most people fluctuate between different styles.  The setting or type of conflict might dictate which style an individual will employ: some people respond very different to conflicts in intimate or personal settings, verses a professional setting.  Going back to last week’s post on conflict climates, an individual’s choice of style may also be influenced by the power relations at play in any given scenario.

Instead, we would suggest that you use these categories as a tool for understanding different approaches to conflict. Notice how you see yourself engaging different styles at different times. Do you tend to employ more assertive styles (competing, compromising) or less assertive styles (avoiding, accommodating)?  Which situations in your life might benefit from a mindful choice to be more or less assertive or yielding? By familiarizing yourself with different approaches, you may be able to recognize when you or others are employing them, and make intentional decisions to engage a style that will more appropriately address the situation at hand.  As a resource, you may want to try using conflict styles assessment tool developed by the United States Institute of Peace.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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