11.2.0: Conflict Management Styles

Would you describe yourself as someone who prefers to avoid conflict? Do you like to get your way? Are you good at working with someone to reach a solution that is mutually beneficial? Odds are that you have been in situations where you could answer yes to each of these questions. You may also find that one of the above approaches is preferable for most situations you face, making it your primary or “go-to” conflict style. Conflict management styles are the communication strategies we use that attempt to avoid, address, or resolve a conflict. In this section, we will describe five approaches for managing conflict: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating.

Each of these conflict styles emphasize a dynamic between concern for self and others. In order to better understand the elements of the five styles of conflict management, we will apply each to the following scenario. Amal and Vaughn have been married for seventeen years. Amal is growing frustrated because Vaughn continues to give money to their teenager, Sasha, even though they both decided to keep Sasha on a fixed allowance. While conflicts regarding money and child rearing are very common, we will see the numerous ways that Amal and Vaughn could approach this problem as we address each of the five styles. We rarely are conscious of our approach. Rather, unless we’ve been trained, we tend to handle conflict habitually, in the default ways we’ve been conditioned through observing others (e.g., family, culture).


11.2.1: Competing

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Coercive Competitive strategies can include verbal and/or nonverbal aggressive acts such as threats, yelling, or violence.

The competing style indicates a high concern for self and a low concern for other. When we compete, we are striving to “win” the conflict, potentially at the expense or “loss” of the other person. One way we may gauge our win is by being granted or taking concessions from the other person. For example, if Vaughn gives Sasha extra money behind Amal’s back, then Vaughn is taking an indirect competitive route. The competing style also involves the use of power, which can be noncoercive or coercive (Sillars, 1980). Noncoercive strategies include requesting and persuading. Amal could try to persuade Vaughn to stop giving Sasha extra allowance money by bringing up their fixed budget or by reminding Vaughn that they are saving for a summer vacation. Coercive strategies may include aggressive communication directed at rousing your partner’s emotions through insults, profanity, and yelling, or through threats of punishment if you do not get your way. If Amal is the primary income earner in the family, they could use that power to threaten to take Vaughn’s ATM card away if Vaughn continues to give Sasha money. In all these scenarios, the “win” that could result is only short term and can lead to conflict escalation, even in the seemingly innocuous noncoercive situation, because the core of the conflict was not resolved. Each parent’s goals for Sasha may still be incompatible.

Interpersonal conflict is rarely isolated, meaning ripple effects can occur that connect the current conflict to previous and future conflicts. Vaughn’s behind-the-scenes money giving or Amal’s confiscation of the ATM card could lead to built-up negative emotions that could further test the relationship.


11.2.2: Avoiding

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When people engage in an Avoiding style, they physical, mentally, and/or emotionally withdraw from the conflict and do not communicate about the issue(s).

The avoiding style of conflict management often indicates a low concern for self and a low concern for other, and no overt or direct communication about the conflict takes place. However, in some cultures that emphasize group harmony over individual interests, and even in some situations in the United States, avoiding a conflict can indicate a high level of concern for the other. In general, avoiding doesn’t mean that there is no communication about the conflict. Remember, you cannot not communicate. Even when we try to avoid conflict, we may intentionally or unintentionally give away our feelings through our verbal and nonverbal communication. Amal’s sarcastic tone when telling Vaughn “You are soooo good with money!” and subsequent eye roll both bring the conflict to the surface without specifically addressing it. The avoiding style is either passive or indirect, which may make this style less effective than others.

We may decide to avoid conflict for many different reasons, some of which are better than others. If you view the conflict as having little importance to you, it may be better to ignore it. If the person with whom you’re in conflict with will only be working in your office for a week, you may perceive a conflict to be temporary and choose to avoid it, hoping it will solve itself. If you are not emotionally invested in the conflict, you may be able to reframe your perspective and see the situation in a different way, therefore resolving the issue. In all these cases, avoiding doesn’t really require an investment of time, emotion, or communication skill, so there is not much at stake to lose. However, while it may be easy to tolerate a problem when you’re not personally invested in it or view it as temporary, when faced with a situation like Amal and Vaughn’s, avoidance may just make the problem worse. For example, avoidance could first manifest as changing the subject, and then progress from avoiding the issue to avoiding the person altogether, to even ending the relationship.

Indirect strategies of hinting and joking also fall under the avoiding style. When we hint, we drop clues that we hope our partner will find and piece together to see the problem and hopefully change, thereby solving the problem without any direct communication. However, often the person dropping the hints overestimates their partner’s detective abilities. For example, when Amal leaves the bank statement on the kitchen table in hopes that Vaughn will realize how much extra money is being given to Sasha, Vaughn may simply ignore it. We also overestimate our partner’s ability to decode the jokes we make about a conflict situation. It is more likely the receiver of the jokes will think you’re genuinely trying to be funny or feel provoked or insulted than realize the conflict situation that you are referencing. More frustration may develop when the hints and jokes are not accurately decoded, which often leads to a more extreme form of hinting/joking: passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of dealing with conflict in which one person indirectly communicates negative thoughts or feelings through nonverbal behaviors, such as not completing a task. For example, Amal may wait a few days to deposit money into the bank so Vaughn can’t withdraw it to give to Sasha. Although passive-aggressive behavior can feel rewarding in the moment, it is one of the most unproductive ways to deal with conflict. However, as noted above, avoidance can be appropriate in some situations—for example, when the conflict is temporary, when the stakes are low or there is little personal investment, or when there is the potential for violence or retaliation.


11.2.3: Accommodating

The accommodating conflict management style indicates a low concern for self and a high concern for other, and is often viewed as passive or submissive, in that someone complies with or obliges another. Basically, accommodating entails doing what the other wants, whereas avoiding is doing nothing in a situation. It should be noted that sometimes avoiding often leads to accommodating indirectly as not addressing a problem or voicing our opinion can lead others to perceive that we are okay with doing things their way.

The context for and motivation behind accommodating play an important role in whether or not it is an appropriate approach. Generally, we accommodate because we are being generous, we are obeying, we are yielding (Bobot, 2010). If we are being generous, we accommodate because we genuinely want to. If we are obeying, we don’t have a choice but to accommodate (perhaps due to the potential for negative consequences or punishment). If we yield, we may have our own views or goals but give up on them due to fatigue, time constraints, or because a better solution has been offered.

Accommodating can be appropriate when there is little chance that our own goals can be achieved, when we don’t have much to lose by accommodating, when we feel we are wrong, or when advocating for our own needs could negatively affect the relationship (Isenhart & Spangle, 2000). The occasional accommodation can be useful in maintaining a relationship. For example, Amal may say, “It’s OK that you gave Sasha some extra money. Sasha did have to spend more on gas this week since the prices went up.” However, being a team player can slip into being a pushover, which people generally do not appreciate. If Amal keeps telling Vaughn, “It’s OK this time,” the family may find themselves short on spending money at the end of the month.


11.2.4: Compromising

The compromising style shows a moderate concern for self and other. Even though we often hear that the best way to handle a conflict is to compromise, the compromising style isn’t a win/win solution; it is a partial win/lose. In essence, when we compromise, we give up some or most of what we want. It’s true that the conflict gets resolved temporarily, but lingering thoughts of what you gave up could lead to a future conflict. Compromising may be a good strategy when there are time limitations or when prolonging a conflict may lead to relationship deterioration. Compromise may also be good when both parties have equal power or when other resolution strategies have not worked (Macintosh & Stevens, 2008). Compromising may help conflicting parties come to a resolution, but neither may be completely satisfied if they each had to give something up.

Compromising versus Accommodating:

People often get accommodating and compromising confused. Accommodating means sacrificing your needs/wants/desires for what the other wants, without them giving anything in return. When you compromise, both parties give something and gain something.

A negative of compromising is that it may be used as an easy way out of a conflict. The compromising style is most effective when both parties find the solution reasonably agreeable. If Amal values using allowance to teach responsibility and Vaughn wants to give Sasha an extra twenty dollars a week to make Sasha’s life easier, they may decide to compromise by giving Sasha ten more dollars a week.


11.2.5: Collaborating

The collaborating style involves a high degree of concern for self and other, and usually indicates investment in the conflict situation and the relationship. Although the collaborating style takes the most work in terms of communication competence, it can ultimately lead to a win/win situation in which neither party has to make concessions because a mutually beneficial solution is discovered or created. The obvious advantage is that both parties are satisfied, which could strengthen the overall relationship and may lead to positive problem-solving in the future. For example, Amal and Vaughn may agree that Sasha’s allowance needs to be increased and may decide to give Sasha twenty more dollars a week in exchange for babysitting their five-year old sibling. In this case, they didn’t make the conflict personal but focused on the situation and came up with a solution that may end up saving them money. The disadvantage is that this style is often time consuming, and only one person may be willing to use this approach while the other person may be eager to either compete or accommodate.


When trying to collaborate on solving a conflict, it is useful to use the following five-step problem-solving sequence:

  1. Identify the problem(s).
  2. Analyze the problem(s), the causes, and symptoms. In other words, how did the problem come about and why are you having this conflict?
  3. Identify the goals/needs of each person in the conflict. In other words, what does each person want?
  4. Identify solutions that might solve the problem and meet the goals/needs of the conflict participants. Be creative and think outside the box if necessary.
  5. Evaluate the solutions that were identified. When evaluating the solutions, you should consider the following: Will it solve the problem? Will it satisfy the goals/needs of the conflict participants? What are some potential issues that might arise when the choice is implemented?

Here are some tips for collaborating and achieving a win/win outcome (Hargie, 2011):

  • Avoid viewing the conflict as a contest you are trying to win.
  • Remain flexible and realize there are solutions yet to be discovered.
  • Separate between the person and the problem (don’t make it personal).
  • Determine the underlying needs driving the other person’s demands.
  • Identify areas of common ground or shared interests that you can work from to develop solutions.
  • Ask questions to allow them to clarify and to help you understand their perspective.


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