Understanding Conflict Styles for Workplace Mediation

By Alyssa Razmus

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Understanding conflict styles opens up a new view of the personal dynamics of workplace conflict. It’s impossible to get through life without meeting someone whose personality clashes with ours or whose ideas are in direct opposition to the goals we’re heading towards.

We all cope with conflict differently. Some are blunt, saying what they mean and what they want and having it out as soon as possible. Some hide and hope the uncomfortable moment passes.

Others take a moment to think everything through and come back with a measured approach.

Still, others dive in headfirst and take no prisoners in their effort to get their way. As leaders, we are charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace among our team.

While conflict styles may seem as varied as the people on Earth, a couple of gentlemen spent their lives boiling it down to five general styles.

Understanding these methods can improve the way you handle your conflicts and give you more tools to mediate disputes.

Five Conflict Styles

Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann initially introduced conflict styles. Together, they identified and introduced five unique methods of navigating conflict and summed them up in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model.

Under their model, everyone has a “default” conflict resolution model that comes naturally and is highly influenced by cultural factors. However, people can learn to use other conflict styles depending on the importance of the resolution, the context, and the time and energy required.

Leaders are often asked to resolve disputes among team members. Identifying different conflict styles and facilitating a resolution will benefit anyone meditating or participating in the conflict.

Initially, this requires a basic understanding of the five conflict styles: avoidance, accommodation, competition, collaboration, and compromise.

1. Avoidance

Someone with an avoidant conflict style will try to keep from confronting anyone. These are the people you may conventionally think of as “conflict-averse.” They will go out of their way to ignore an issue.

Avoidant conflict resolution may be employed if one party is at a significant disadvantage or if the issue has a high cost associated with it. In a very emotionally charged atmosphere, some people will avoid the conflict to cool off or hope the problem will melt away.

Avoidance is a style you don’t want to encourage when mediating problems. It completely discounts the needs and voice of one of your people.

While someone may need to concede their demands to resolve the conflict, eliminating someone’s voice communicates that their opinion is inconsequential and reduces the likelihood that they’ll air grievances in the future.

2. Accommodation

Someone with an accommodating conflict style will also seem classic conflict-averse. Rather than doing everything in their power to avoid confrontation, they’ll use the situation to make themselves and their demands small.

Instead of standing up for what they want, need, or think, they’ll concede whatever they need to resolve the conflict.

Accommodation is frequently used when there’s a significant power distance between the two parties. If one person is higher ranking, has more authority, or is an expert in the subject.

Accommodating may keep the conceding party in the good graces of their opposition, but it’s at the cost of their own goals.

Constantly yielding to another party will often breed resentment within the person who is always making sacrifices. This may result in an emotional blow-up later down the line, and the internal stress of coping with resentment has a negative impact on workplace productivity.

Competition is typical in highly emotionally charged situations or when two individuals vie for status. If a person feels their reputation is at stake, they will be more defensive and aggressive to save face.

3. Competition

Individuals who approach conflict competitively do so with a “win or lose” mindset. To them, yielding demands means losing, and that’s an undesirable outcome. A competitive conflict resolver may be more aggressive in their efforts to prevent losses.

Competition is typical in highly emotionally charged situations or when two individuals vie for status. If a person feels their reputation is at stake, they will be more defensive and aggressive to save face.

Competition can benefit the person using the strategy, but it will rarely make them friends along the way. Competitive conflict resolvers usually don’t mind stepping on toes to get their way, which can create rifts in a team environment.

4. Compromise

Compromise is a “little bit of this, a little bit of that” approach. People who tend towards compromise aren’t interested in yielding all of their needs. But they recognize that they may not get out of the situation with everything they want.

They’ll make strategic decisions about what they’re willing to let go of to bring the opposition partially on their side.

Compromise is responsible for many favorable conflict resolutions. While neither party is satisfied, both sides gain something. This creates a favorable view of their opposition and makes them more willing to work cooperatively in the future.

The downside to compromise is that it requires both parties to make sacrifices. Negotiating can be one-sided if an avoider or accommodator is asked to compromise with someone more prone to competitive problem-solving. Mediation is essential in these cases.

5. Collaboration

Collaboration is the gold standard of conflict resolution, though it is time-consuming and hard to attain. Not every situation is suited to collaboration, and teams will have to decide whether the potential benefits are worth the time and energy.

However, resolutions reached through collaboration are a win for everyone.

When collaboration is successfully implemented, teams work together to find a solution that satisfies the needs of everyone involved.

This may be especially useful for coming up with innovative solutions or re-imagining the future of a project.

For collaboration to be successful, participants must be willing to leave aggression and negative assumptions behind and trust that everyone present has the same goal: reaching an inclusive solution.

Collaboration Conflict Style

Using Conflict to Your Benefit

Conflicts among your employees present unique opportunities for growth in your team. When people disagree, a door opens to create greater understanding between employees and find solutions you may not have seen without the disagreement.

However, creating growth out of conflict is a challenging process that must be carefully facilitated.

Generally, conflicts most suited to team growth focus on tasks and ideas instead of interpersonal grievances.

When team members have differing opinions on where a project should go, how to divide work, or whether or not a system is working, leaders have the opportunity to open discussion among team members.

When facilitating conflict resolution, identify what type of conflict you’re dealing with and what conflict styles may be employed. There will be clues in language, emotion, and the relationship between the two parties. Evaluate the attitudes of either side and express the importance and benefit of civil resolution.

Emptional Intellegence Conflict Style

Emotional Intelligence

Employees and leaders with a greater level of emotional intelligence are more likely to respond well in mediation. The ability to step back and separate logic from internal emotional drivers is invaluable.

Make it clear to each side what they stand to gain by working together and taking care of both sets of needs.

You can set explicit speaking allowances to allow timid avoiders or accommodators to be heard if necessary. It’s all about making sure your team members understand the value of their contributions.

Ideally, teams will resolve conflicts through compromise or collaboration, minimizing resentment and maximizing results.

As a leader, creating an open, trusted environment where collaboration can flourish requires intense work.

However, when your team is working in harmony, and you can see the increase of happy and engaged employees, it will be worth the energy put in.

Do You Understand Conflict Styles?

If you have ideas about conflict styles you would like to share that might be helpful to readers, please share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Alyssa Razmus
Alyssa Razmus
Alyssa is a happy Pacific Northwester with an academic background in communication and management. She enjoys writing about communication strategies, healthcare, and travel, and is always up for a good debate. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably cooking something delicious or waltzing around a ballroom.
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