When you think of conflict, what comes to mind? Is it something that you try to avoid? Something you dread? More importantly, how do you manage conflict?

Read on to learn about the five conflict management styles, the pros and cons of each style, and when to use each of the styles. And be sure to check out our comprehensive communication guide and how you can develop your own communication style.

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What are the five types of conflict management styles?

According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), there are five types of conflict reactions: accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising.

Accommodating

If you have an accommodating conflict management style, you put aside your own priorities and focus on others. When you do this, small disagreements can be handled quickly with minimal effort. Your team will know that they can speak their mind without fear.

Conflicts can be opportunities for positive growth.

— Robin Funsten, mediator and conflict resolution educator

However, accommodating too often can have its detriments. Accommodation should especially be avoided when making major decisions. Utilizing this conflict management style as a way to address team decisions will not yield lasting solutions. Depending on your personality, it can be very easy or hard to accommodate. Consider taking an accommodating approach...

  • When you're wrong
  • When you can tell your peer cares a lot more about the conflict than you
  • When it's important to keep the peace at work
  • When there's no other solution

Avoiding

An avoidant conflict management style is dodging the issue until it resolves itself, pushing the problem off into the future, or all-together ignoring the issue.

Avoiding conflict is sometimes the right path to pursue for individuals that need time to calm down, seek clarity, and collect their thoughts. When you use this conflict management style sparingly, it shows your team that you're able to solve issues with a clear mind.

We cannot know whether conflict is bad unless we know who is fighting, why they are fighting, and how they are fighting.

— Jonathan Marks, director of the Bioethics Program at Penn State University

If used in the wrong situations, this technique can make conflicts worse. You can seem incompetent because your team will feel that you are incapable of or unwilling to handle disagreements. Consider taking an avoidant approach to conflict management...

  • When you don’t have the time to manage the conflict in the moment
  • When you aren’t sure how you feel about the issue yet
  • When it makes others feel uncomfortable
  • When there's high tension

Collaboration

Collaborating is a combination of being assertive and cooperative. Embracing this style means you love a "win-win" situation. You will work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies everyone and minimize negative feelings.

With this style, all parties will contribute to a solution. Collaboration often leads to long-term solutions because there's group buy-in. Take a listen to TED speaker Dorothy Walker as she discusses rational ways to approach and resolve conflict in a collaborative way.

Dorothy Walker on conflict management styles: Asking neutral questions like, "What do you think?" will help people feel like they are validated. (Video from Youtube)

However, this style of conflict management is time-consuming. That deadlines and deliverables are impacted as round-table discussions seek to find solutions. Consider taking a collaborative approach to conflict management...

  • When the relationship is important
  • When the final solution will have a significant impact
  • When the interests, needs, and beliefs of all involved people need to be considered
  • When the issue impacts many team members

Competing

A competitive conflict management style best fits the opinionated individuals. When you choose to use this conflict management style, you take a firm stance with a mindset of negotiating what you want. This approach focuses more on logical negotiation and less on empathy with others.

While this conflict management style solves disputes quickly, be cautious when using this approach. This style may come off as authoritarian and make your team feel hesitant to bring up ideas, concerns, and feedback. Handling conflicts by crushing dissent will not lead to self-sufficient and happy employees.

Be careful of excessively using your power and competitive style when it comes to conflict management. (Illustration by Anton Fritsler)

A competitive conflict management style sounds intimidating and unappealing, but there are times that it may be handy or necessary to keep your team going. Consider taking a competitive approach to conflict management...

  • When you have to stand up for yourself, values, or morals
  • When a less forceful conflict management style is proving ineffective or counterintuitive
  • When there's been no change

Compromising

When you choose to compromise when managing conflict, you aim to partially satisfy people on both sides of the argument. You act as the mediator between each party.

Issues can be resolved a lot quicker than with a collaborative conflict management style. A positive side effect you will see is that those involved will leave understanding more about the other person’s perspective and opinions. When you use this style to manage conflict, you will be seen as a hands-on and solution oriented conflict resolution facilitator.

However, nobody will leave completely content with the solution. One side might feel they've compromised too much and be unwilling to engage this type of conflict management in the future. TED speaker Jonathan Marks talks about the importance of discussing conflict even if it doesn't yield a perfect solution.

Jonathan Marks emphasizes that conflict is bad but compromise, consensus and collaboration are good.

Be wary of taking advantage of your co-worker's goodwill. Consider this style as an approach to conflict management...

  • When reaching a solution is more important than the solution itself
  • When you need a temporary solution
  • When you're at a standstill in the conflict
  • When you want to motivate the team to move towards collaboration
  • When there is no possible solution that will make both parties happy

How to be comfortable with conflict

Conflict is inevitable. Treat the feedback you receive about your approach to conflict with care. Pinpoint, reframe, and follow through with your game plan and approach when dealing with conflict. But if you're in the midst of conflict, check out these tips.

  • Separating the person from the problem
  • Using “I” instead of “You” statements
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Using active listening
  • Differentiating interest from positions
  • Coming up with options for mutual benefit even if it is not a perfect solution

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