Conflict Management: Definition, Strategies, and Styles

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn how to manage disputes at home or work using various conflict management styles and strategies.

[Featured Image] A manager discusses conflict management with her team in front of a whiteboard.

Conflict management is an umbrella term for the way we identify and handle conflicts fairly and efficiently. The goal is to minimize the potential negative impacts that can arise from disagreements and increase the odds of a positive outcome. 

At home or work, disagreements can be unpleasant, and not every dispute calls for the same response. Learn to choose the right conflict management style, and you'll be better able to respond constructively whenever disputes arise.  

What is conflict management?

Conflict management refers to the way that you handle disagreements. On any given day, you may have to deal with a dispute between you and another individual, your family members, or fellow employees. 

Although there are many reasons people disagree, many conflicts revolve around: 

  • Personal values (real or perceived)

  • Perceptions 

  • Conflicting goals  

  • Power dynamics

  • Communication style

5 conflict management styles

It's human to deal with conflict by defaulting to what's comfortable. According to University of Pittsburgh professors of management Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, most people take one of two approaches to conflict management, assertiveness or cooperativeness [1]. From these approaches come five modes or styles of conflict management: 

1. Accommodating

An accommodating mode of conflict management tends to be high in cooperation but low in assertiveness. When you use this style, you resolve the disagreement by sacrificing your own needs and desires for those of the other party. 

This management style might benefit your work when conflicts are trivial and you need to move on quickly. At home, this style works when your relationship with your roommate, partner, or child is more important than being right. Although accommodation might be optimal for some conflicts, others require a more assertive style. 

2. Avoiding

When avoiding, you try to dodge or bypass a conflict. This style of managing conflicts is low in assertiveness and cooperativeness. Avoidance is unproductive for handling most disputes because it may leave the other party feeling like you don't care. Also, if left unresolved, some conflicts become much more troublesome. 

However, an avoiding management style works in situations where:

  • You need time to think through a disagreement.

  • You have more pressing problems to deal with first.

  • The risks of confronting a problem outweigh the benefits.

3. Collaborating

A collaborating conflict management style demands a high level of cooperation from all parties involved. Individuals in a dispute come together to find a respectful resolution that benefits everyone. Collaborating works best if you have plenty of time and are on the same power level as the other parties involved. If not, you may be better off choosing another style. 

4. Competing

When you use a competitive conflict management style (sometimes called 'forcing'), you put your own needs and desires over those of others. This style is high in assertiveness and low in cooperation. In other words, it's the opposite of accommodating. While you might think this style would never be acceptable, it's sometimes needed when you are in a higher position of power than other parties and need to resolve a dispute quickly. 

5. Compromising

Compromising demands moderate assertiveness and cooperation from all parties involved. With this type of resolution, everyone gets something they want or need. This style of managing conflict works well when time is limited. Because of time constraints, compromising isn't always as creative as collaborating, and some parties may come away less satisfied than others. 

Learn more about these conflict management approaches in this video from Rice University:

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Conflict Management Styles

Tips for choosing a conflict management style

The key to successfully managing conflict is choosing the right style for each situation. For instance, it might make sense to use avoidance or accommodation to deal with minor issues, while critical disputes may call for a more assertive approach, like a competitive conflict management style. When you're wondering which method of conflict management to choose, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How important are your needs and wants?

  • What will happen if your needs and wants aren't met?

  • How much do you value the other person/people involved?

  • How much value do you place on the issue involved?

  • Have you thought through the consequences of using differing styles?

  • Do you have the time and energy to address the situation right now?

The answers to these questions can help you decide which style to pick in a particular situation based on what you've learned about the various conflict management styles. 

Tips and strategies for conflict management

Conflicts inevitably pop up when you spend time with other people, whether at work or home. However, when conflicts aren’t resolved, they can lead to various negative consequences. These include: 

  • Hurt feelings

  • Resentment and frustration

  • Loneliness and depression

  • Passive aggression and communication issues

  • Increased stress and stress-related health problems

  • Low morale

  • Reduced productivity

  • Staff turnover

Conflict is a part of life. Knowing a few strategies for managing conflict can help keep your home or workplace healthy. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when conflict arises:

Acknowledge the problem.

If someone comes to you with a dispute that seems trivial to you, remember it may not be trivial to them. Actively listen to help the other person feel heard, then decide what to do about the situation. 

Gather the necessary information.

You can't resolve a conflict unless you've investigated all sides of the problem. Take the time you need to understand all the necessary information. This way, you'll choose the best conflict management style and find an optimal resolution. 

Set guidelines.

Whether discussing a conflict with a spouse or intervening for two employees, setting a few guidelines before you begin is essential. Participants should agree to speak calmly, listen, and try to understand the other person's point of view. Agree up front that if the guidelines aren't followed, the discussion will end and resume at a later time. 

Keep emotion out of the discussion.

An angry outburst may end a conflict, but it's only temporary. Talk things out calmly to avoid having the dispute pop up again. 

Be decisive. 

Once you've talked through a dispute and evaluated the best approach, take action on the solution you've identified. Letting others in on what you decide lets them know that you care and are moving forward.  

Next steps

Learn how to transform conflict into collaboration with Relationship Management from Rice University. Develop essential workplace skills, like giving and receiving feedback, coaching team members, building influence, conducting effective meetings, and managing conflict.  

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Article sources

1. Management Weekly. "Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model, https://managementweekly.org/thomas-kilmann-conflict-resolution-model/." Accessed April 29, 2022.

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