How Do You Handle Conflict?

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K.W Thomas defines conflict as the “process which begins when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about to frustrate, some concern of his”[1] Research demonstrates that people respond to interpersonal conflict with one of five basic reactions (described below). Each reaction can be placed within a range of assertive to non-assertive and cooperative to uncooperative behaviors. [2]

Adapted from Conflict and Conflict Management by K. Thomas.

Competing Conflict Mode:

People with a competing response to conflict typically focus on satisfying their own concerns at the expense of others. Power struggles and win-lose negotiations are commonplace for these individuals who often try to dominate through aggression and an unwillingness to cooperate. The opposite of the competing mode is the accommodating mode.

Collaborating Conflict Mode:

People who choose collaborating in response to conflict strive for a solution that satisfies both parties. They are typically both assertive and cooperative. While they are not willing to disregard their own needs, they are committed to achieving a win-win resolution that benefits both parties. The opposite of collaborating mode is avoiding.

Compromising Conflict Mode:

People who prefer the compromising mode are content when both parties in a conflict are somewhat satisfied.  Compromisers expect each party in a dispute to give up something in order to gain something else. Basically, compromising means neither fully collaborating with the other party nor fully avoiding the problem. This mode sits at the midpoint of the assertive to non-assertive and cooperative to uncooperative scales.

Avoiding Conflict Mode:

People who respond to conflict in the avoiding mode may seem indifferent to their own concerns and the concerns of others. Exhibiting a combination of non-assertive and uncooperative behavior, avoiders often withdraw or take a fatalistic stance. Alternatively, they may be seen as evasive. The avoider might try to distract attention from an issue or simply ignore it. On occasion, avoiding behavior can be considered effective diplomatic maneuvering.

Accommodating Conflict Mode:

People who prefer the accommodating mode when faced with conflict are typically more concerned with meeting the needs of others rather than addressing their own concerns. An accommodating response combines non-assertive and cooperative behavior. Accommodators keep the peace at all costs, frequently sacrificing their own needs and desires to do so.

Different Responses for Different Situations

While people may use different conflict response modes in different circumstances, most of us fall back on one or two styles that we’ve become comfortable with, based on our own personal dispositions, communication styles and life experiences. Thomas and Kilmann [2] suggest that none of the five conflict response modes is inherently better or worse than the others. Rather that each situation and the individuals involved may be best served by a specific type of conflict response.  For example, in an emergency or crisis, the firmness of a competing response might be the most appropriate approach to dealing with conflict. Similarly, avoiding might be the best response in a situation where victory is impossible or the controversy is too trivial to warrant push back.

Proponents of situational leadership advocate matching one’s leadership style to the needs of a particular situation. In much the same way, conflict-mode versatility offers greater flexibility in dealing with conflict, helps people cope with many different kinds of conflict, and enables them to deal with the various responses that other people exhibit in conflict situations.  

Certainly it’s worth thinking about where we and the people we work with fit on the conflict mode grid and gaining a better understanding of our own responses to conflict and how they might be adapted to suit changing needs.


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[1] Thomas, K.W. Conflict and conflict management. Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology. (Vol. 2). Chicago: Rand McNally

[2] Thomas, K.W. & Kilmann, R.H. Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument.  Tuxedo, NY: Xicom

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