Understanding Conflict Styles

Situations with conflict appear in every area of life: work, home, and even the grocery store parking lot. Unfortunately, many people see conflict as a negative aspect of human relationships and therefore do not invest time in improving conflict management.

If you cannot avoid the inevitable moments of conflict, what would be the value for your team or family to spend time growing in this area of conflict management?

Thankfully, tools and resources are available to help you in this journey toward constructive conflict resolution. Read on to learn the five conflict management styles, the value of each, and how to take this growth to the next level, moving your awareness level from problem awareness toward solution awareness.

Conflict Management

Before pulling back the layers of the conflict styles themselves, let’s start with a basic understanding of conflict management.

Simply put, conflict management is handling disputes or disagreements inside or outside of the workplace to find a resolution that all parties involved can settle. Through intentional leadership development, a leader with developed conflict management skills can smoothly diffuse a tense conflict situation to find a solution satisfactory to those involved.

Productive and well-managed conflict can benefit the organization by building trust, increasing employee engagement, minimizing interpersonal issues, and producing the best outcomes for the business.

What are the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Styles?

Delving deeper into conflict management, you can pull back the curtain on the Thomas-Kilmann conflict styles. KW Thomas and RH Kilman developed a conflict management style model built upon five types. These styles reflect a person’s level of cooperativeness or level of assertiveness. We will take a look at each in more detail below.

  • Avoiding

A person with an avoidant conflict style works actively to elude conflict or disagreement by avoiding conversations, changing the subject, or moving on from the issue in hopes that the friction will disappear. This person does not seek space to voice their thoughts amid a conflict, nor is the person open to hearing the opinions and views of others.

  • Accommodating

An accommodating conflict management style or a style interpreted as one of “giving in.” You are putting the needs or desires of other team members before your own to keep the peace. You do not vocalize your thoughts and opinions in this conflict style.

The reasons for responding in this manner are many. The accommodation could stem from a desire to preserve the relationship and let the other party win, resolve the conflict quickly, eliminate arguments among the team, or if you think you might be wrong in the situation.

  • Compromising

Compromising styles allow the team to meet in the middle ground of the conflict. In this style, individuals work to negotiate to find an acceptable solution for both sides of the situation.

You could view this style as a lose-lose, depending on what each party is willing to do or give up resolving the conflict. A compromising style may be beneficial when the team needs to find a quick solution, rather than a perfect answer. However, if overused, a compromising conflict style can build resentment in the individual or the team, so it is crucial that compromising does not become the norm of the dynamic.

  • Competing

A competing conflict management style is often seen as the opposite of the compromising style, as typically, the individual does not give in to the needs and wants of others. Someone with a competing style makes it a point to vocalize their opinions and desires to see the solution move forward to benefit their ideas.

Often considered a win-lose situation, a person with a competing style chooses to stand their ground and struggles to see the viewpoint of others involved.

  • Collaborating

In the spirit of explaining conflict styles through win-and-lose analogies, a collaborative approach is often a win-win type. In this style, all parties have a voice and get to use it.

Though a more time-consuming approach, collaboration often produces the most fitting and long-term results for the team. A collaborative approach takes longer because the goal is to foster a good relationship among the group while landing on a resolution approved by or benefits all involved.

A Time and Place for Each Style

There is not inherently “bad” conflict style, as each one has its positive traits and can operate under the umbrella of a time and place for each conflict style.

For example, upon taking the Thomas-Kilmann assessment and reading the descriptions of each style above, you might see the avoidant style in a negative light. However, we know that some positive traits of this style include:

  • Creates time and space to process and reflect on the situation before responding
  • Allows time to capture thoughts, data, and crucial information to help move forward out of conflict
  • Keeps the situation and emotions from escalating too quickly in heated situations

All three of these traits are helpful in situations of high emotion, early learning of conflict management, and circumstances with no clear resolution. Conflict with an avoidant style becomes unhelpful if the person remains in a state of avoidance, choosing not to engage in a solution.

Depending on the conflict or situation, any conflict management style might be helpful or unhelpful based on self-awareness or team awareness.

With a competing style, the positive traits could be:

  • Decisive and has solid footing during a critical or emergency situation
  • Implements change rapidly
  • Effective at solving problems

Though you would not want to stay in a competing style to preserve the team, this conflict style can be helpful in crisis or emergent situations.

Conflict Management Styles to Enhance Communication and Productivity

Conflict management styles help right-size the situation and develop a correct perspective of the person, project, or problem. Doing so creates the opportunity for smoother and more sufficient conflict resolution. Staying curious throughout the entire process can empower everyone.

Take the Thomas-Kilmann assessment and better understand your conflict styles. Then you can bring this tool into your team dynamics and begin working toward healthier and more effective conflict resolution.

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