Not many people enjoy dealing with conflict, but the reality is, in any job that you take, there are bound to be disagreements and you’ll have to find a solution to a given dilemma. Handling conflict differs greatly on the situation, the people involved and the relationships that you have with your team. In a recent article by Harvard Law School on conflict management, they share: 

“[Conflict management] requires shared appreciation of the dynamic quality of relationships: how “what I say affects what you think, which affects what you say and then what I think next, and so on.” Without that kind of insight, each teammate will feel blameless for the problems that plague the group.” 

There are several different ways to approach the resolution of disputes, including different conflict resolution styles. Because handling conflicts isn’t always easy, Fellow has put together an all-encompassing guide to different conflict resolution styles, so that you can manage conflicts with more confidence and think about which styles of conflict management are best suited for you and for your team. If you’re usually the type to avoid conflict, prepare to be sent out of your comfort zone, while you get to know some of these conflict resolution approaches. 

What is conflict resolution?

Conflict resolution in simple terms is the way in which you choose to resolve a disagreement between two or more people. It is the way that you find a solution to a given problem. Resolving conflict often isn’t straight forward and there’s no such thing as the “best” approach because this resolution style needs to be catered to your management style as well as the team dynamic. The objective in conflict resolution is to come to a mutual agreement and in the best-case scenario, with a mutually beneficial result. Conflict management is all about encouraging each party (or parties) to reconcile their differences and find common grounds. 

Types of conflict resolution styles

There are several different conflict resolution styles, and it’s important for you as a leader to familiarize yourself with different styles of conflict management to find what works best for you. In an interesting article by the Harvard Business Review, they highlight why understanding your own, and your team members’ styles of conflict resolution is important to manage conflicts: 

“Knowing how the other person typically reacts in a tense situation is useful information. So assess your coworker’s style, if you’re not already familiar with it. Consider whom you’re dealing with. How does he typically communicate and how does he prefer to be communicated with? Is she more of a straight shooter who tells it like it is, or does she tend to beat around the bush? If you frequently work with the person you’re having the conflict with, you may already be familiar with their style.”  

These different conflict resolution styles are important as an evaluation of what works for other people, as well as what is going to work best for yourself if differing situations with different audiences. One prominent conflict resolution approach in business management is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument, which suggests five key styles for managing conflict. Before we get into these five styles, it’s important to understand that in dealing with conflict, a person’s behavior can be described by two different elements (Kenneth & Ralph, 2008): 

  1. Assertiveness: The extent to which people try to satisfy their own concerns; and 
  2. Cooperativeness: The extent to which people try to satisfy other people’s concerns

The extent to which someone is assertive or cooperative can be used to decide which of the five methods of dealing with conflict will be the most effective. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument can be deciphered clearly in the diagram below:

* This model of conflict management is adapted from “Conflict and Conflict Management” by Kenneth Thomas in The Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and directly cited from Thomas, Kenneth & Kilmann, Ralph (2008). Thomas-Kilmann conflict MODE instrument. 

1 Competing Style

Style: Assertive and uncooperative

Description: Individuals who use this style tend to use their power or authority to pursue their own concerns at other peoples expense. This style does not tend to regard the other person’s opinion on the matter and can manifest out of selfishness or out of simply trying to “win” the argument out of stubbornness. Be careful, cautious and thoughtful if this is the style you are choosing to engage with, as it is only fit for very few scenarios. 

When to use it: The competing style can be used when you need to stand up for yourself, when you need to defend a position you believe in, or when time is an issue and a quick decision simply needs to be made. 

2 Collaborating Style

Style: Assertive and cooperative

Description: This style is all about working with the other person to find a mutually beneficial solution. The collaborating style means that you want to take the time to understand the other person’s concerns and truly hear them out as an equal. Collaborating means you’re going to dig a little deeper into the issue to flag the underlying concern of each person and find an alternative that addresses these underlying concerns. 

When to use it: It’s a good rule of thumb to use this style when you’re dealing with important issues, when you want to explore a disagreement to learn from one anothers insights or confronting another person or group to identify a creative solution to an interpersonal issue. 

3 Compromising Style

Style: Assertive and cooperative 

Description: The compromising style finds itself at an intermediate level of assertiveness and cooperation. This style attempts to resolve the issue by finding a resolution that is partially satisfactory or accepted by both parties but also isn’t completely satisfactory or fully accepted by either. This style is said to fall on middle ground between competing and accommodating, offering more than competing but less than the accommodating style. Compromising means that you might come to a quick resolution but be weary, since it doesn’t satisfy either side and leaves no room for collaboration. When you can, try the collaborating style over this one. 

When to use it: You can use this conflict resolution style for intermediately important issues, when you need to split the difference, exchange concessions or when you’re looking to find a quick solution and a middle-ground position. 

4 Avoiding Style

Style: Unassertive and uncooperative 

Description: This conflict resolution style means that you’re not paying attention or you’re ignoring the situation and consciously choosing not to take action to remedy the situation. Basically, the individual who selects this style of conflict resolution doesn’t address the issue at all. 

When to use it: Although the avoiding style can seem like quite a negative approach to a dispute, it can be used in situations where you need to withdraw from a threatening situation, diplomatically side- step an issue or when you need to postpone an issue until a later or better time.

5 Accommodating Style

Style: Unassertive and cooperative 

Description: This is the opposite of the competing style. Using the accommodating style to resolve an issue means that you allow the other party to satisfy their concerns, at the expense of your own. There’s an element of self-sacrifice if you choose to accommodate the other party because you put the needs of another before your own. 

When to use it: The accommodating style is best- suited for unimportant problems because it creates a quick decision and won’t strain your relationship. This often takes the form of generosity or maybe even charity, when you don’t agree with someone’s position but decide to go with their side to protect your own peace and keep some harmony in the office. 

Which conflict resolution is the best?

The truth is, there is no such thing as the “best” conflict resolution style or method. The style that you choose will depend largely on your personality, your company culture and the relationships that you have with your team members. Moreover, conflicts don’t always need to be seen in a negative light. Another article from the Harvard Business Review shares: 

“… lest we forget, conflict does have a positive side: it can promote collaboration, improve performance, foster creativity and innovation and build deeper relationships.” 

Just like when you think about your audience when facilitating a presentation, and evaluate what kind of delivery might work, and what might not, you need to think about your audience in situations of conflict. Moreover, if you’re not sure how your team members are going to react when bringing up an issue with them, take this as a sign to get to know the people you work with a little better. Resolving conflicts is far less daunting when you’re familiar with different ways to address disputes. We hope that the five different conflict resolution styles that we’ve proposed from the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument are helpful in highlighting different avenues to come to an agreement. As always, it’s a pleasure seeing you on the Fellow blog. If you found this post interesting, be sure to send it to a friend or a colleague. Until next time! 

References: 

Corkindale, G. (2007). How to Manage Conflict [Business]. How to Manage Conflict. https://hbr.org/2007/11/how-to-manage-conflict

Gallo, A. (2017). How People with Different Conflict Styles Can Work Together [Business]. How People with Different Conflict Styles Can Work Together. https://hbr.org/2017/07/how-people-with-different-conflict-styles-can-work-together

Harvard Law School. (2020). New Conflict Management Skills: Understand How to Resolve “Hot Conflicts” [Education]. Three Specific Conflict Resolution Skills You Can Use in Conflict Management. https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/business-negotiations/new-conflict-management-skills/

Thomas, K. W., & Kilmann, R. H. (2008). Thomas-Kilmann conflict MODE instrument (pp. 1–11) [Conflict (Psychology)]. TKI. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265565339_Thomas-Kilmann_conflict_MODE_instrument