Dealing with conflict: What’s your approach?

MSU Extension’s Community Engagement and Leadership Development team provides education and information on dealing with conflict in your own back yard.

Conflict is variously defined as having differences, being in opposition or struggling with others — and usually thought of as something negative. But conflict is also a way to consciously pursue options to improve relationships, situations or processes. According to studies conducted by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, there are five general approaches to conflict, depending on one’s assertiveness and cooperativeness:

  • Avoiding (low assertiveness and low cooperativeness)
  • Accommodating (low assertiveness and high cooperativeness)
  • Competing (high assertiveness and low cooperativeness)
  • Compromising (medium assertiveness and cooperativeness)
  • Collaborating (high assertiveness and high cooperativeness)

Generally speaking, everyone has a “default” or usual way of dealing with conflict through one of these approaches. For example, one person may tend to avoid all conflict by not bringing up particular topics or dodge potential interaction with certain people entirely. Another may enjoy being competitive by engaging in arguments freely or may perceive the world as made up of winners and losers.

Although everyone may have a most comfortable way of dealing with conflict, all individuals can and do use all five conflict modes at one point or another in their everyday lives. After all, response to a conflict often depends on the context. For example, if someone takes an item from a co-worker’s office without permission, the co-worker will likely feel the need to confront the sticky-fingered office mate (using the compete mode). On the other hand, a person may want to deal with two arguing co-workers by staying out of the way of the situation entirely (using the avoid mode).

There are other times when a particular approach may be most appropriate for a conflict situation. For example:

  • Avoiding may be best when the issue is trivial or if someone else is in a better position to resolve it.
  • Accommodating may be the right approach when establishing good will or maintaining harmony is more important.
  • Competing may be appropriate when snap decisions need to be made in an emergency or when someone is behaving in a discriminatory or otherwise immoral way.
  • Compromising works when all parties can be satisfied with less than total agreement or when a temporary settlement needs to be reached quickly.
  • Collaboration is the best approach when all parties are willing to work toward a creative solution that meets everyone’s needs and when building and strengthening relationships is critical.  

Some other conflict situations may not clearly fit a particular approach, however. As a simple example, consider one cupcake left after a party in the office break room. A coworker could just grab it as quickly as possible (compete), or he/she could try to ignore it due to a strict diet (avoid), or give it to the boss to impress him/her (accommodate), or divide it in half with another coworker (compromise), or everyone could agree to pitch in to go to the store for more cupcakes (collaborate).

Although collaboration often delivers the most satisfying, respectful solution to specifically address people’s interests, this approach is the one we as a culture are less likely to learn about and practice. When taking a collaborative approach to conflict, all parties must begin by trying to understand the issue from others’ perspectives. Instead of defending a position, all must clarify the specific interests of everyone involved. After sharing these interests, all parties need to commit to creatively finding common ground and solutions that addresses those interests.

The careful communication and sharing involved in a collaborative approach requires more time, patience and openness to other perspectives than any other approach to conflict. Stronger relationships and longer-term solutions are usually the rewards for the extra effort.

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