Conflict Management: Definition, Strategies, and Styles

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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 identifying and handling conflicts reasonably and efficiently. The goal is to minimise the potential negative impacts arising from disagreements and increase the odds of a positive outcome. 

Disagreements can be unpleasant at home or work; only some disputes call 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 conflict management mode 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 housemate, 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 needs to improve in assertiveness and cooperativeness. Avoidance is unproductive when 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 high 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 you choose another style, you may be better off choosing another one. 

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:

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 current situation?

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

Tips and strategies for conflict management

Conflicts inevitably occur when you spend time with others, 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 trivial dispute, remember it may not be unimportant to them. Actively listen to help the other person feel heard, then decide what to do about the situation. 

Gather the necessary information.

Resolving a conflict requires investigating all sides of the problem. Take the time to understand all the necessary information. This will help you 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 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 later. 

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 happen again. 

Be decisive. 

Once you've discussed a dispute and evaluated the best approach, take action on the solution you've identified. Letting others in on your decision lets them know you care and are moving forward.  

Next steps

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

Article sources

  1. Management Weekly. "Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model," Accessed May 7, 2024.

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