Consider your family, friends and co-workers. Who jumps right into conflict with force and passion? Who is the mediator? And who tries to avoid conflict altogether? How about you – how do you handle conflict?
The most commonly used classification schema for conflict was developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. In their configuration, there are five styles: competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. Thomas and Kilmann map out 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 of the styles has different strengths and weaknesses in conflict.
Competitive style involves a high concern for the self and sits high on the y-axis. People with this style tend to seek control and use forceful communicative behaviors to accomplish their goals. They gain security from being in control of a situation, sometimes implicitly equating their control as a solution to a problem. Some characteristics of the competitive style can be useful in some situations, but in low doses. For example, an emergency would require someone taking control and giving orders. However, 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: You can probably guess how this style works. Avoiders typically prefer to deny or suppress any differences or disputes that arise. They are highly affected by negative interactions, and will often try to limit confrontation. Avoiding can be 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 create repression and resentment. Being able to acknowledge and express concerns that need to be addressed is important. This conflict style sits low on both the x and y axis – if someone avoids all confrontation, he or she also fails to invest in understanding their own concerns and the concerns of others.
Accommodating is similar to avoiding in that it sits way down on the y-axis of self-care. However, it slides up on the measure of care for others. This style is characterized by constant self-subordination to the needs of others. In fact, it can have a harmful psychological effect because the user may never be able to express their own needs while taking on the needs of others. Similar to avoidance, accommodating people can also harbor resentment. It can be useful, however, to temporarily engage with when your counterpart has expert knowledge on a subject that you do not, or when the other person is experiencing pain and struggle.
Compromising involves expecting everyone to be both partially satisfied and also to give something up. This style doesn’t take on an extreme of assertiveness or cooperation; instead, it balances the two. The compromising style is often viewed as a positive, especially when a more aggressive option could incur a high cost of conflict. It sits on the center of the graph, both investing in but also mitigating the level of care for self and others because it depends on a level of sacrifice.
Collaboration is at the peak of both concern for self and concern for others and is generally considered the most invested conflict style. It is also perceived as the ideal response to conflict since it involves considering all the individual needs involved to create new, inclusive solutions. Collaboration requires participants to be assertive, but also to cooperate effectively. This approach is an effective way to bring together diverse persuasions, especially if the needs involved are of high stakes and could create conflict if they aren’t adequately met. However, this approach may not work if there is a tight deadline in place due to the amount of personal investment required.
Do you see yourself, or people you know, in any of these styles? Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your style can help you better understand yourself and others in conflict.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.