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Do you know your Conflict Style?

By Terry H. Hildebrandt, PhD

When we think of conflict, often we assume that there is only one way to handle it. Kenneth W. Thomas (2002) and Ralph Kilmann have actually identified five strategies to deal with conflict with each having strengths and weaknesses. Managing Conflict is a critical management competency that involves key leadership skills including partnering with others, building relationships, effectively listening, and negotiation. Conflict arises when our desires or concerns are at odds with someone else’s desires or concerns. The five conflict styles are a function of two variables: (a) how much you try to satisfy your own concerns, known as assertiveness, and (b) how much you try to satisfy others’ concerns, known as cooperativeness. Here is a brief overview of each style.

1) Competing

This is perhaps what most of us consider when we think of conflict. We try to win or get what we want, and the other party loses. We exhibit high assertiveness and low cooperativeness. Competing can be fun when we win! Many situations are set up as a competition by definition such as elections, bidding for one contract, and most sporting events. Key skills for competing include arguing, debate, using rank or influence, standing your ground, and rallying allies.

2) Accommodating

When we accommodate, we give the other person what they want but forgo our own needs or desires. We are unassertive and cooperative. In business, there is a common saying, “the customer is always right.” This is an example of accommodation. There are times when this may be the best course of action when we want to create goodwill, keep the peace, or show reasonableness. Skills here include ability to yield, selflessness, and obedience.

3) Avoiding

Many people prefer to avoid conflict altogether. In this case, we are unassertive and uncooperative. Certainly this may be the best choice when we know we can’t win or the battle just isn’t worth it in the first place. Sometimes avoiding may be a great strategy to temporarily delay action until we are in a better position to deal with the conflict or we have had time to “cool down.” Sometimes the issue may resolve on its own. However, when we avoid conflict, neither our needs nor others’ needs or concerns are addressed. The downside of avoiding is that issues may get worse and explode later. Skills for avoiding include withdrawing, ability to leave things unresolved, and deciding what is important.

4) Compromising

When we comprise we get some of what we want and the other party also gets something, but neither party gets all of their concerns met. We take an intermediate position on both assertiveness and cooperativeness. We often call this splitting the difference. Compromising may be a great solution when we know we can’t win without giving a little. We also may not have time to collaborate. Skills needed include negotiation, making concessions, assessing value, and knowing your limits.

5) Collaborating

Much has been written the last decade on the value of collaboration or creating “win-win” solutions. Here we are both assertive and cooperative. Not only do we ensure that our own concerns are addressed we also take on the concerns of the other party and work together to meet their needs as well. Collaborating has many advantages including developing relationships, learning, gaining commitment or buy-in, and integrating solutions. However, collaboration requires skills that may take some time to develop including careful listening, empathy, openness, humility, nonthreatening confrontation, and creativity. Collaboration can also take time and patience to work through the process. Some conflicts do not allow for collaboration in the case where there can be only one winner such as in an election or interviewing for a job.

In my next article, I will elaborate on the 7 Steps for Conflict Resolution Using Collaboration.

If you would like to better understand your own preference for conflict modes, you can take a short online survey, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), through my online assessment website for a small fee. I also offer a half-day to full-day workshop on exploring Conflict and Teams which can be customized for your organization. Call me at 720-318-6625.


Thomas, K. W. (2002). Introduction to conflict management: Improving performance using the TKI. Mountain View, CA: CPP.


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