Understanding Conflict Handling Styles

In a dispute, it's often easier to describe how others respond than to evaluate how we respond. Each of us has a predominant conflict style. With a better understanding of the impact our personal conflict style has on other people, we can consciously choose how to respond to others in a conflict situation.


Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I win, you lose

Competitors come across as aggressive, autocratic, confrontational and intimidating. A competitive style is an attempt to gain power and pressure a change. A competitive style can be appropriate when you have to implement an unpopular decision, make a quick decision, the decision is vital in a crisis or it is important to let others know how important an issue is to you – "standing up for your right." However, relationships can be harmed beyond repair or others may feel they have to use covert methods to get their needs met.


Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value relationship: High
Result: I lose, you win

Accommodators set aside their own needs because they want to please others in order to keep the peace. Smoothing or harmonizing can result in a false solution to a problem and can result in feelings ranging from anger to pleasure. Accommodators are unassertive and cooperative and may play the role of a martyr, complainer or saboteur. Accommodation is useful when admitting you are wrong or when you want to minimize losses to preserve relationships. However, it can become competitive – "I am nicer than you are" – and may result in reduced creativity and increased power imbalances.


Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I lose, you lose

Avoiders deliberately ignore or withdraw from a conflict rather than face it. Avoiders do not seem to care about their issue or the issues of others. People who avoid the situation hope the problem will go away, resolve itself without their involvement or rely on others to take the responsibility. Avoidance can be appropriate when you need more time to think and process, time constraints demand a delay, or the risk of confrontation is not worth what might be gained. However, avoidance is destructive if the other person perceives that you don’t care enough to engage. By not dealing with the conflict, this style allows the conflict to simmer, potentially resulting in angry or negative outbursts.


Value of own issue/goal: Medium
Value of relationship: Medium
Result: I win some, you win some

Compromisers are willing to sacrifice some of their goals and persuade others to give up theirs, too–give a little, get a little. Compromise maintains the relationship and can take less time than other methods but resolutions may focus on demands rather than needs or goals. The compromise is not necessarily intended to make all parties happy or result in a decision that makes the most business sense, but rather ensures the decision is just and equitable, even if it causes a loss for both parties. Power is defined by what one party can coerce or get the other to give up. To split the difference, game-playing can result in an outcome that is less creative and ideal.


Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: High
Result: I win, you win

Collaboration generates creative solutions that satisfy all the parties’ concerns and needs. Collaborators identify the underlying concerns, test assumptions and understand the views of others. Collaboration fosters respect, trust and builds relationships. Collaborators address the conflict directly and in a way that expresses willingness for all parties to get what they need. However, collaboration takes time so if the relationship is not important it may not be worth the time and energy to create a win-win solution.

In any conflict ask, "Is my preferred conflict handling style the very best I can use to resolve this conflict or solve this problem?"

Focus on Interests (Needs), Not Positions (Wants)

Understanding people's interests is not a simple task because we tend to communicate our positions – things that are likely to be concrete and explicit. Try to recognize the difference between positions and interests to assist in creative problem-solving.

  • Positions are predetermined solutions or demands that people use to describe what they want to happen on a particular issue. For example, "I want the report."
  • Interests define the problem and may be intangible, unexpressed or inconsistent. They are the motivation behind the position—the “why.” Conflict usually exists when motivations/needs are not understood or mismatch in some way.
    For example, "I need to receive the report by Friday, so I can have time to review and edit before the due date next Wednesday."

Remember that understanding your own interests is just as important as figuring out the other person’s interests.

How to Identify Interests

To identify interests, ask questions to determine what the person believes he or she truly needs. Be sure to clarify that you are not asking questions for justification of their position, but for a better understanding of their needs, fears, hopes and desires.

Using open-ended questions that encourage a person to "tell their story" helps you better understand their interests. Open-ended questions are opposite of closed-ended questions, which require a response of "yes" or "no." To illustrate the difference, consider the following example:

  • Did you have a good relationship with your manager? (closed-ended)
  • What is your relationship with your manager like? (open-ended)

Examples of open-ended questions:

  • What’s your basic concern about …?
  • What do you think about …?
  • How could we fix …?
  • What would happen if …?
  • How else could you do …?
  • What could you tell me about …?
  • Then what?
  • Could you help me understand …?
  • What do you think you will lose if you …?
  • What have you tried before?
  • What do you want to do next?
  • How can I be of help?

It is not uncommon for you or the other person to have multiple interests. Problem solving based on interests leads to more creative and successful resolutions.

From the Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution Office at the University of Texas at Austin.