Conflict Management Styles: Which One Is Yours?

CoachHub · 12 October 2022 · 5 min read

From the moment we’re born, we’re negotiating ways to get what we want. Sometimes everyone agrees, and things go smoothly. Often, though, differences must be addressed to reduce conflict between parties. That push and pull gets tested and refined until we develop a conflict management style that (hopefully) helps us attain our goals without too many negative consequences. Conflict management is the art of resolving disagreements constructively.

Why it’s crucial to learn constructive conflict management skills

People tend to think of conflict in its most dramatic sense. But workplace conflict comes in all shapes and sizes, from routine matters that are easily resolved to high-stakes disagreements over business strategy. It’s normal within any organization.

The Mediation Training Institute (MTI) estimates that managers spend 20% to 40% of their time dealing with conflict. That time is productive when it’s used to resolve conflicts by clarifying issues and coming up with solutions. But it can also be wasted fretting about difficult situations or avoiding them altogether. Left to fester, even the smallest disagreements can balloon into big headaches. In the age of the Great Resignation, this statistic sticks out: 485,800 people resign each year because of conflict in the U.K. alone.

There is also the matter of “presenteeism,” when physical or mental health issues keep people from performing at their best. That’s estimated to cost companies an average of 57.5 workdays per year. If you’re curious about what conflict is costing your organization, check out MTI’s Conflict Calculator. It ties conflict to productivity, turnover, employee sabotage, decision making and other business-critical metrics.

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The 5 conflict management styles

Psychologists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five conflict management styles that rest in people’s tendencies toward assertiveness and cooperativeness. Most of us rely on one or two problem solving styles in conflict situations, which they define as “when the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible.” But Thomas and Kilmann believe that everyone is capable of learning and toggling between all five conflict management techniques.

1. Competing = assertive + uncooperative

People who deploy a competing conflict management style are out to win at someone else’s expense. They may be standing up for something they believe in. They may be defending themselves. They may simply enjoy the fight. Whatever the purpose, they’ll pursue their position using all the tools at their disposal, whether that’s charm and persuasion or status and intimidation. The competing style isn’t a great way to build relationships, but it can be extremely effective when it comes to winning business.

2. Accommodating = unassertive + cooperative

This is the opposite of competing. People who are accommodating put others’ needs and desires first. They may not be comfortable with conflict and use this style to diffuse situations with the least discord. They may simply not care and want the situation to end as soon as possible. Conversely, they may care deeply but prefer to support someone else’s idea or position. It’s a good choice when the conflict at hand is benign or when it’s paramount to keep the peace with the parties involved.

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3. Avoiding = unassertive + uncooperative

Under no circumstances do people deploying the avoidant style want to wade into the conflict. They may “exit, stage left” as soon as the opportunity arises. If they can’t remove themselves physically, they may go silent and stop participating in what’s going on around them. They may put off conflict resolution until… never. Avoiding a conflict may be necessary when one doesn’t feel safe.

4. Collaborating = assertive + cooperative

The collaborative style is the opposite of avoiding. People who prefer collaborating to solve conflicts like to dig deep. Why do you believe that? Why do you want that? Why do you need that? They’re like a dog with a bone. They take a lot of satisfaction in investigating alternative points of view and learning what makes the other person tick. When everyone involved is satisfied with the solution, their job is done. Collaboration is useful when the focus is on building long-term relationships.

5. Compromising = assertive + cooperative in moderation

People who use a compromising style in times of conflict like to find solutions everyone can live with. They’re not overly competitive or self-serving. They’re not overly accommodating or self-negating. It’s the middle ground. Finding a practical solution that’s a win-win for both parties is the goal. When time is short, compromise may be the best way forward.

Today, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is used by coaching, mediation and human resources professionals around the world to help people understand how they instinctively deal with conflict.  Once they are aware of their conflict style, they can choose to deploy or moderate it as the situation warrants. They can also begin to explore other conflict resolution techniques that may serve them better in certain situations. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses. As they become more aware of each style, they’ll begin to recognize it in others and can moderate their own response for better outcomes.

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Explore conflict management techniques through coaching

Poorly resolved conflict is stressful and distracting. Given that so many people cite conflict as the reason they leave an employer, investing in employee wellbeing is a must for companies that want to retain top talent. Investing in one’s personal wellbeing is also a must for anyone who wants to move through their workdays calmly and productively. Professional coaching is one way to learn how to handle conflicts. It improves self-awareness, enhances solutions-focused thinking and makes people more resilient—all which play into the ability to resolve conflict gracefully.

Professional coaches help people discover their go-to conflict management style and learn how to deploy it respectfully. Coaches also give them a safe space to practice new styles that solve different types of issues. And they enable people to recognize the styles others use so they can resolve disagreements effectively. It also helps people build and maintain positive work relationships, which can motivate them to resolve conflicts equitably.

The ability to recognize and deploy different conflict management styles is one of the soft skills companies look for in leaders. It enables them to be empathetic yet effective in times of stress. Managers well-versed in conflict management techniques can defuse emotionally charged situations and focus people’s attention on resolving issues in a positive way.

Explore our site to learn more about how digital coaching can help people at all levels of your organization become better at conflict management.

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