How Your “Conflict Style” Affects Your Relationships

Part Three: The new “How to Tend and Befriend Conflict” series. If you think you know how to deal with conflict, think again.

Happy to announce Part Three of the “Tend and Befriend Conflict” column: A four-part series that will change the way you understand, navigate, and engage the conflict in your life. It works for all types of conflict: personal, professional, and in the broader community. Would love to hear what you think.

A fellow Medium writer once told me that if you want to get “claps,” write about relationships. As a marriage and family trained therapist, I can understand why. Human beings are relational to their core. And whether it’s the relationship we have with ourselves or those we have with others and the world, it’s natural, even constructive, as we learned in Part Two of this series, that conflict will bubble up.

What’s also natural is that we all have “conflict styles” — that is, ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving that we incline when faced with tension or conflict.

So, try this.

Harken back to a conflict or two that you have experienced. It can be from childhood or as an adult, and personal, professional, or community-oriented in nature. Get a good sense of who was involved, where you were, and what issues were at stake. Now, using an animal metaphor, complete the following sentence:

“I responded to that conflict like a…” [select appropriate animal].

Here is a montage of some my favorite responses from various conflict transformation classes I’ve taught.

It’s crucial to know how specifically conflict triggers us; for instance, certain kinds of conflict and certain issues, groups of people, personality types, and environments, because these are the things that influence our actions and determine whether they are constructive or destructive.

Introducing the “Five Conflict Styles”

There are five general conflict styles: competing, collaborating, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. These styles are based on two continuums: how assertive and how cooperative we are. Here’s a graphic that illustrates the basics of each style.

Source: Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

This graphic never fails to elicit strong responses, likely because it’s easy to identify ourselves with one (or two) of the categories or else identify them in others. What’s more, we often make judgments about whether one category versus another is “good” or “bad.” For example, I’ve often watched as Accommodators shake their head, almost in shame, because they see their style as weak. Or Avoiders who have no comment or else laugh off their denial-style with an efficient self-affirming, “Yup, that’s me.” Or Collaborators who feel pretty darn good about themselves, because, as one of my students once said, “Well, duh. It’s the top right quadrant. Isn’t collaborating the point of getting through conflict?” (In many uses of quadrant diagrams, the top right box is the one to aspire to.)

“Not always,” I told him, to his great disbelief. Here’s why.

Collaborating, aka “our way,” is how you breakout out of the “win-lose” scenario and (hopefully) achieve a “win-win,” which, of course, makes everyone happy. This can be super helpful for complex situations where you need a creative and/or dynamic solution that benefits from creating space from a multitude of ideas or when the relationship is meaningful. The downside is that collaborating requires a high-degree of trust and reaching a consensus can require a lot of time to get everyone’s ideas heard and synthesized.

And herein lies one of the keys to engaging conflict well. It’s essential to consider:

1. The importance of issues. Ask yourself how meaningful are the issues that you and another person are at odds about. Make sure to gauge your own importance level and that of anyone else involved.

2. The importance of the relationship. Consider whether this is a long-term connection or just a passing moment. Consider also how deep the connection goes and what is your level of investment in it.

3. Time. Gauge how much time you have to respond to this conflict.

Let’s look at the up- and downsides of the other Conflict Styles based on these three criteria.

Competing, or “my way,” is the notorious “win-lose” approach. Competing focuses on achieving your own needs, wants, desires, and goals, and you’re willing to do so assertively and with little interest in cooperating with others, even if it’s at their expense. When the conflict exists with someone for whom you’re in an invested relationship, and there are meaningful or emotional issues at hand, competing probably isn’t the style of choice. If, however, there is an emergency when time is of the essence, or a situation that demands fast and decisive action and others are aware and support your approach, then this style can be a good choice.

Accommodating, or “your way,” is cooperation to a high degree, and yes, it can be at your expense, because you are often working against your own immediate needs, wants, desires, and goals. The risk is that accommodating too much can breed resentment, which is one reason why having a good sense of the importance of issues and the investment in the relationship is so essential. Accommodating can be useful, even necessary, in order to preserve existing and future relationships. It can also be helpful when the other person has some expertise to offer or has a more effective idea that can help get to a better outcome.

Avoiding, or “no way,” is a method to get fast relief from a conflict. You’re not actively pursuing your own needs, wants, desires, and goals, nor are you helping others with theirs. The upside to avoiding is when the issue at hand is trivial or when it would be very costly to pursue and/or you recognize that you have no chance of winning; likewise, when the atmosphere is emotionally charged and you need to create some space. This said, while some issues will resolve on their own, wishful thinking, in this context, is not a useful strategy, therefore avoiding is not helpful in the long run.

Compromising, or “halfway,” is the lose-lose scenario, where neither party achieves what they fully want. Compromising requires a moderate amount of assertiveness and cooperation. In cases where you need a temporary solution, or where you and others have equally important needs and goals, or when you are facing intractability, this style can be helpful. The risk is that compromising becomes an “easy out” solution, where nothing really ever gets fleshed out and transformed, and when collaborating could have produced a better outcome.

What to remember about the “Five Conflict Styles”

  1. The Five Conflict Styles provide a helpful reference point for how you personally tend towards conflict. The U.S. Institute for Peace has a great assessment tool that will breakdown your natural tendency towards each style.
  2. We all have the capacity for some of each style, and we can build up others as necessary, especially as we get more familiar with each one.
  3. Know which style is appropriate for the context. Engaging conflict is not a one-size-fits all approach. What matters is having a command of each style and being able to move fluidly between them as the situation requires.

Whether it’s our most intimate relationships with family and friends, or the wider net of neighbors, colleagues, and community at large, conflict is natural — and, at times, even necessary to make a difficult situation better and to strengthen and sustain the relationships that matter most.

Knowing which conflict style you tend towards can help you understand the choices you have made in the past when engaging conflict and how you may want to approach it differently the future — of course, depending on how much time you have, the nature of the relationship, and what issues are at stake. Knowing also that there is a time and a place for each style, and that each has its benefits and limitations, can help you navigate the rough terrain of conflict in a way that keeps you and others whole and opens up opportunities for personal and relational growth.

It may sound paradoxical, but conflict itself is neutral. What determines whether it is destructive or constructive is how we choose to respond to conflict. In the final part of this series, we’ll look at how conflict affects us at an embodied level and what specifically, we can do to “struggle well” though any conflicted situation.

Next up! “Part Four: Your Body and Brain Under Conflict — And How to Struggle Well.”

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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