Conflict is an inevitable reality in our personal and professional lives. It is commonly caused by a difference in opinions, values, understanding and thought processes. When it happens, emotions tend to run high.
Learning how to shift one’s attitude towards conflict, identify the various conflict management styles, and understand which approach you instinctively respond to, can help you reframe and defuse conflict, creating productive results and maintaining amicable relationships.
Fire as a Metaphor for Conflict
The way we frame a conflict can influence how we think, act, and resolve it. The conflict term has a default negative connotation, with dominant associations with destruction, aggression, interrogation, and communication breakdown.
John Ford, author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy, suggests using fire as a metaphor for conflict. While fire has the potential for destruction, it also provides warmth, light, and cooked food. By understanding the dynamics of fire, we can pick the most appropriate way to sustain it or put it out.
Conflict, in its positive light, can be a creative motivator encouraging the ideation of aspiring innovations at the bargaining table. It also offers opportunities to build relationships, where rivals gain a mutual understanding, and in a beautiful twist of events – become friends. So, if we can assume a different attitude towards conflict, we can potentially dispel the underlying tensions and the attached negative emotions, discovering fitting ways to engage in it.
Five Conflict Management Styles
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), an assessment used by human resource (HR) professionals around the world to identify one’s preferred way of handling conflict, there are five major styles of conflict management – collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. Each style describes an individual’s behaviour along two dimensions: assertiveness (motivation of an individual to achieve his or her own goals) and cooperativeness (the willingness to allow the other party to achieve its goals or outcomes).
- The Competing Style is assertive and uncooperative, where the individual forgoes the relationship and adopts a power-oriented approach to manage the problem, often seen arguing to defend one’s position and doing all it takes to win.
- The Accommodating Style is the extreme opposite of competing, where the individual is unassertive and cooperative, prioritising the relationship over one’s needs, yielding to another’s point of view.
- In the Avoiding Style, whilst the individual is unassertive, unlike the self-sacrificing accommodating one, he or she is also uncooperative, choosing not to deal with the problem and simply withdrawing from it.
- The Collaborating Style is both assertive and cooperative, sitting at the other end of the ‘avoiding’ spectrum. The individual values both the outcome and the relationship and actively takes steps to work with the other party to find a win-win solution.
- In the Compromising Style, the individual sits in the centre of all styles in moderate assertiveness and cooperativeness and seeks a quick middle-ground solution. The emphasis is on ‘quick’ as there is less depth to exploring a win-win solution, which can be viewed as a lose-lose solution, as each party will lose some in the concession.
There Is No Right or Wrong Conflict Management Style
We may be quick to jump to conclusions that:
- Competing style is aggressive, authoritative, and unreasonable.
- Accommodating style demonstrates weakness.
- Avoiding style highlights one’s incompetence in handling conflict.
- Collaborating style is the best style to adopt.
- Compromising style produces substandard results.
Conflict pioneers, Thomas and Kilmann, argue that while each of us may lean towards a single style more than the others, we are capable of using all five conflict management styles. There is no right or wrong to the dominant conflict management style we adopt, only strategic ones according to varied circumstances.
- The competing style works best when there is limited time and decisive action is required, or when you prioritise the outcome over the relationship, such as competing with another company to win a client bid.
- The accommodating style can be practised when you value the relationship, the outcome is not significant to you, and prolonging the disagreement is not worth your time. For example, a discussion with colleagues as to where to grab lunch.
- The avoiding style is used for issues that are not of top urgency, and when you feel that everyone can benefit from having time and space to deliberate on it. This style, however, should be used sparingly. For example, to avoid a conflict with a colleague when you know that you are resigning soon.
- The collaborating style works best in complex situations when both the outcome and the relationship are equally important, and there is time to brainstorm, source ideas, and work through the differences, i.e., working with various business units to launch a year-long multifaceted project.
- The compromising style is adopted when there is limited time, the issue at hand is not overly complex, and you want to maintain the relationship. For example, to promptly facilitate a barter agreement between two aggressive parties.
In reality, our personal interests and egos often get in the way, we do not always have the luxury of time to resolve a conflict, and not everyone will leave the room happy. However, by understanding your default conflict management style, and being aware of the other approaches, you have more options on how to engage in a conflict to yield meaningful results. You can also recognise the styles that others have deployed and understand how to better deal with them. There is much to learn in the areas of conflict management. Do not be afraid to face conflicts, your attitude towards conflict sets the stage, and you can always pick a strategic way to engage in one.
Ford, John. “Fire As A Metaphor For Conflict”. Feb. 2005. https://www.mediate.com/articles/ford13.cfm. Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.
Thomas, Kenneth, and Ralph Kilmann. An Overview of The TKI Assessment Tool. Kilmann Diagnostics. https://kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki/. 15 Feb. 2021.