Our individual styles of dealing with conflict come from personality traits, as well as the influences of our families and cultures. We may feel reticent to confront a conflict directly or reluctant to take initiative towards a solution. Without stereotyping cultures, we can be aware that different communities and nationalities evolve differing behaviors that are more or less acceptable for engaging in conflict. When a conflict arises, some cultures exhibit more direct and overt argument, while others favor more indirect communication, even via a third party. Traditional cultures may involve an extended family or social network in reaching out to address a conflict—for example, when parents, grandparents, and in-laws offer advice to a struggling young couple in Nigeria.
There are cultural perceptions that cause us to more easily imagine people from the Mediterranean in a public argument than people from East Asian countries, whether over a minor or major issue. The fact that we don’t see an argument on the street in Japan doesn’t mean there is no conflict, and, similarly, if we witness an energetic argument among Italians, it doesn’t mean that a serious conflict exists. Influenced by television and radio talk shows, and now the internet, the United States has developed into an increasingly combative culture. In this case, it does seem to indicate the presence of serious conflict.
Diverse personalities, family histories, and cultural perceptions can lead to differing styles of dealing with conflict. A widely used system for categorizing conflict styles is the Thomas-Kilmaan Conflict Mode Instrument (2001). The five styles are: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, or collaborating.
If I am only concerned with asserting my own needs (see vertical axis on chart) I will be likely to compete or coerce. When I am only concerned with cooperating to insure that another’s needs are met (see horizontal axis on chart) in order to preserve a relationship, I accommodate them. If I avoid a conflict, I don’t take care of my needs—or anyone else’s. With a clever compromise, I can partially meet my needs, as well as the needs of others. If we collaborate as equal partners in trying to communicate effectively, we take on the challenge of trying to meet everyone’s needs.
There are pros and cons to each conflict style:
- Competition may resolve a conflict quickly, but may sacrifice friendships.
- Accommodation may preserve friendships on the surface, but lead to brewing resentments.
- Avoidance may be wise for averting danger in the short run, but cannot resolve the problem.
- Compromise may meet some needs of each party, but not all.
- Collaboration may devise a wise solution, but may require a lot of time and effort to achieve.
By focusing on how we meet our needs, we can also discuss communication styles. Aggressive communication seeks to secure my needs alone, while more passive communication accommodates the other and neglects my needs. Passive-aggressive communication, seemingly passive, yet indirectly aggressive—through sarcastic comments or subtly hostile behaviors such as ignoring someone—attends to no one’s needs. Using assertive communication, I seek to honestly express what I need, while also inquiring about and seeking to acknowledge another’s needs; I own my needs and feelings, and I give clear feedback about what I feel in response to another’s actions.
Individuals may use a different style in approaching different conflict situations. For example, in a more formal conflict at work I may be more competitive, while I may be more accommodating with friends. We can assess our own preferences and styles in addressing conflict to see what pros and cons could arise in each situation.
In sum, competing means dominating, seeking to win and control the outcome of a dispute even if it means forcing one’s will and interests on others. Accommodating means giving away one’s own interests in pursuit of maintaining a relationship. Avoiding means withdrawing and not engaging with an uncomfortable situation. Compromising involves giving up part of one’s own interests in order to achieve a mutually acceptable, if imperfect, solution. Collaborating implies open sharing of information about opposing vs. shared interests in order to reach a satisfactory, and possibly creative, integrated solution for all parties.
It is possible to assess one’s own conflict-handling style by getting feedback from friends or colleagues, or via self-reflection.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What works and what is difficult for me in resolving interpersonal conflicts?
- Why do I lean towards my preferred conflict stye? What in my life and identity has influenced me?
- How does my culture or background influence (help or hinder) the way I deal with conflict?
We may not realize how readily we unconsciously select from a wide range of possible behaviors in response to dynamic social situations. We also may not realize how current fashions or opinions — for example, if compromise has become a bad word — influence our thinking and behavior. Understanding how our own psychological patterns function can help us act more objectively in conflict situations.
Thomas, K.W. and Kilmann R.H. (2001). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument: Profile and Interpretive Report. Mountain View, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.