What Is Conflict?
Conflict is quite a provocative word and can easily bring to mind physical violence, which unfortunately is rare in most conflict situations that we might face. For our purposes conflict refers to situations where you might have a difference of opinion with someone in terms of what is in your interests, and how it impacts on your values or goals. Being able to successfully manage conflict is important in supporting your resilience and avoiding some of the stress, negativity, rumination and wasted emotional energy that tends to come with it.
What Are The 5 Main Conflict Styles?
According to Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann (1978) individuals prefer one of five main styles of dealing with conflict:
- Accommodate – Those with an accommodate conflict style will generally give way to the demands of others and agree with them.
- Avoid – People who prefer an avoidance style will tend to avoid mentioning their dissatisfaction and prefers to tolerate what is against their interests in order to avoid conflict altogether.
- Compete – People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. Often in a position of power based on their position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability.
- Compromise – People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. They expect all involved to give up something to reach a solution.
- Collaborate – People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive and cooperate effectively acknowledging that everyone is important.
Each style varies in their relationship with both cooperativeness and assertiveness, as illustrated in this image. Below we explore them in more detail.
If your preferred style is to accommodate the wishes of others, your resilience is likely to be severely impacted. This is the least assertive conflict style and you are likely to agree to anything, even if it means you taking on more than your fair share of whatever is to be done. More and more tasks are likely to come your way and you are likely to experience a threat response and stress more than is necessary. This style may be useful if you are genuinely not concerned about the outcome. There is normally a lose:win outcome with you on the losing side.
Avoid as a way of handling conflict is also unlikely to result in you having things the way that you want them in the workplace. The bubbling away of a situation that isn’t being addressed is, again likely to result in your resilience being depleted as you continue to revisit the tension of the situation in your own head but never quite have the conversation that could resolve it. Avoid may be useful to adopt as a style if the matter is trivial, or someone else is better placed to resolve the issue. There is generally a lose:win outcome with this approach with you losing.
If you like to compete and handle conflict by fighting your corner, you may well get what you want but often at the expense of others. Approaching a situation with a competing style is likely to generate some stress for you and those around you, as it does’t leave room for manoeuvring. This approach may be necessary and worthwhile if you, or someone else is being treated unfairly and you need to defend your position. Using this style can lead to resentment and ill-feeling on the part of whoever loses the argument. If that’s you, you may feel aggrieved that you’ve lost, which can lead to further complications if you carry that with you. If you win, this may cause resentment in those who have lost, which may come back to bite you later. This is typically a win:lose approach with you as the perceived winner, at least in the short term.
Finding a better approach
The three approaches that we have already discussed are, in some ways, the ones that require the least conscious thought. They are often a result of negative story telling, where you approach a situation, appraise it, form an opinion with a particular story being told in your head. From there, you avoid or accommodate the perceived potential for conflict, give in to what you think the other person wants or just go in with all guns blazing. Although these approaches tend to involve little consideration and dedicated thinking, they tend to result in a lot of rumination and churning of your thinking, which is generally going to lead to you feeling stressed. The solution is normally to have a good conversation with someone else.
The next two conflict styles are where the good conversations take place and more generally lead to win:win outcomes for all concerned.
If you have a preferred conflict style of compromising you will try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and you would expect to enter the conversation being prepared to move in your position to relinquish something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing some ground, when the weight of the argument is equal, when things are at an impasse or when there is a deadline looming. Everyone is likely to leave the discussion feeling as though there has been a win:win outcome but there is inevitably some lost ground on both sides.
When it comes to collaboration, if this is your preferred style, you will try to meet the needs of all involved. You will be assertive but also cooperative when facing differences of opinion, acknowledging that everyone’s view is important. In using this style you bring together, and listen to, a variety of viewpoints to find the best solution. You enter the conversation with curiosity and interest in what the outcome will be, and have empathy for the position of others. You problem solve with others to overcome previous disagreements, and work together to find the right solution. This approach really is likely to result in a win:win outcome, with everyone working together to find the best outcome for all.