Conflict Styles


Heidi Burgess

August 24, 2020

When someone is confronted with a conflict situation, they usually have a number of concerns.  One concern is whether or not they will be able to get what they want or need. Another is how the conflict will affect the other party and their own relationship with the other(s). A third concern is how much trouble the conflict is going to be and how much it is going to cost to lose or to prevail. Generally, people have a tendency to balance those concerns by adopting one of five conflict styles, which are represented in the diagram below.

conflict styles graphic

People who are most concerned about getting their own needs met and are minimally concerned about the relationship or the other side's needs will most likely compete.  They will do whatever it takes to win, and disregard the consequences, particularly those accruing to the other side.  This may bring short term gains, but it risks longer term losses, as the losers may be angry and seek to "get back" at the competitor at a later time.

People who are most concerned about the relationship and less concerned about getting their own needs met are likely to accommodate, meaning they give in, going along with whatever the other party wants.  That usually preserves the relationship, although it can cause harm over the long term if "the other" loses respect for the accommodator because they are a "push over."  There also is a tendency for the accommodator to get resentful of the other party over time, although it is hardly the other side's fault that the accommodator gave in.

People who are mostly just afraid of conflict tend to avoid it.  They might pretend that there is no conflict, or they might simply avoid the person that they are in conflict with. This doesn't get their needs met, and sometimes it fails to get the other side's needs met either, if they need something from the avoider, or they need a decision. As a result, it can easily annoy the other side (or worse), damaging the relationship.

Avoiding may make sense if the conflict is silly and inconsequential and if it will be solved by simply waiting. But if the conflict involves something that matters, avoidance can cause real problems. Feelings get pent up, the conflict simmers along until it finally gets hot enough to blow up, and then it may well destroy the relationship. (When I taught conflict styles in class I showed a picture of Old Faithful for "avoidance."  It simmers along underground, but predictably, every so often, it explodes with gushing steaming water sailing sky high.  That's what tends to happen when important conflicts are ignored.)

When people are concerned about getting their own needs met and are concerned about the relationship, they may try to compromise. Compromise is a give-and-take approach where you give up some of what you want to allow the other side to get some of what they want (hence the picture of the knife cutting the apple in half.)  This is generally seen as "fair," but it doesn't get people everything they wanted, and it doesn't improve the relationship as much as the fifth conflict style, collaboration.  However, it is usually faster and easier to accomplish than is collaboration.

When people are concerned about getting their own needs met and are concerned with the relationship, plus they have time and patience, they may try collaboration. Here they take the time to really understand the interests and needs of the other side, make sure the other side understands their's, and then you work together to craft a solution that meets both sides' needs as fully as possible, ideally, without making concessions.  When one takes the time to do this, one's needs are usually met more fully than they are with any of the other conflict styles (with the possible exception of competing), but this approach doesn't have the relationship downsides of competing, as collaboration usually strengthens relationships.

In their best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, Fisher, Ury, and Patton tell "the orange story," which I (and many others) use in their teaching to explain the difference between compromise and collaboration.  As the story goes, two children are standing in the kitchen, fighting over the last orange.  Mom, sick of the squabbling, takes a knife, cuts the orange in half, and gives each half to each of the children.  That's compromise.  If, instead, she asked each child why she wanted the orange, the mom might have discovered that one child wanted to eat it, and the other wanted the rind for an art project.  Voilà! Peel the orange, give the flesh to one child to eat, and the rind to the other for the art project.  They both got 100% of what they wanted.  That's collaboration!

Collaboration isn't usually as quick or easy as that—that's just a parable that makes the point clear. It often takes a considerably long time and a great deal of creativity to figure out solutions to meet everyone's needs.  But it is possible to do so much more often than is often recognized, even in situations that are generally considered to be "intractable." 

Many people who teach conflict styles do so by first having students fill out and score a questionnaire that labels them according to their dominant conflict style.  When I did that, I found out that many (probably most) of my students found that they tended to avoid conflicts; the next most common categories were competitors and accommodators (usually about evenly matched).  Fewer people were habitual compromisers or collaborators, although there usually were a few.

After we did the questionnaire, I pointed out that it is actually to people's benefit to broaden their repertoires and to learn what conflict style best matches what situation and be able to use all five.  Probably not surprisingly, what style is best is generally determined by the level of concern one has for one's self and the other, the importance of the situation, and the time and effort available to give to the situation.

  • If a conflict is trivial to you, it might be best to accommodate.  Why put up a fight and make the other person annoyed or angry when you don't really care what the outcome is?
  • If you do want to get your needs met, but you don't want to harm the relationship or the other person, then better to compromise or collaborate.  If the issue is easy to split in half and isn't all that important, compromise is fine.  So, if the conflict is over what to cook for dinner, agree to cook one person's choice tonight and the other's choice tomorrow. It's quick, it's fair, and everyone is satisfied.
  • But if the conflict is more substantial, and involves things that really matter to you and the other side, the best option is usually collaboration.  This means you need to take the time to really understand the other sides' needs and concerns, and to explain yours, so that you can work together to create a solution that meets everyone's needs, ideally without anyone having to give up anything that is important to them.
  • If getting your needs met is high priority and you don't really care about the relationship or the other party, you might be able to go ahead and compete.  And if you are a good competitor, you might win.  This often has the advantage of being faster than collaboration (though often not faster than compromise) and you may be able to get 100% of what you want. But often that comes at the cost of a damaged relationships with the other side and the risk that they will "come back" later to "get theirs."
  • If the situation is trivial and is likely to go away on its own soon, avoidance might be a sensible approach.  But when you avoid conflicts that really do matter—even if only to the other side, not to you—your risk an "Old Faithful" blow up that will burn everyone involved. Therefore, accommodation, though not optimal, is usually better than avoidance for trivial issues.