The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict and conflict styles

Wednesday, 27 June 2012 06:16 AM Written by  Ann Begler

20120627_conflicttable_photocomBWO_032_150How often do you hear people telling you things like, “I tried to get him in a discussion, but he’s a conflict avoider!”? Or, “Any time something tough comes up, she withdraws and won’t talk. She’ll avoid a conflict at any cost!” Many, though not all, people define themselves, or even more often, other people as conflict avoiders. I hear this label among family and friends, during mediation sessions, and often when working with someone, individually, in a coaching relationship. When I hear a reference to conflict avoidance it often seems to be within the context of an either-or relationship, meaning that a person engages in conflict or avoids conflict.

Thinking of conflict management as an “engage-avoid” issue, alone, is limiting and less than helpful in guiding people to engage in conflict more effectively. In fact, the spectrum of conflict engagement styles is much more expansive than a mere “engage-avoid” approach. Gaining a better understanding of conflict styles supports one to actually realize that conflict management is a skill that can be learned, and the options for conflict engagement aren’t nearly as limited as they may sometimes seem ...

While certain conflict assessment tools have been available for some time, back in 1974 Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann developed a diagnostic tool called the Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI), a diagnostic test that is one of the most widely-used assessments to measure a person’s general response to conflict situations.

Rather than identifying a mere dualistic approach such as an “engage-avoid” model, the TKI identifies five primary approaches to conflict. These include, as you might expect “avoiding.” The other possibilities, however, are: competing, accommodating, collaborating, and compromising. What we learn from deeper work with an instrument and approach such as the TKI is that with ongoing self-reflection, skill building and consistent practice, each of these stylistic approaches is available to most of us, and each style has a value in different types of conflict situations.

Knowing and understanding our style options aides us in avoiding assumptions about one style being good and another being bad. We’re able shift our focus to a situational assessment rather then being held captive to our beliefs.

For instance, we all hear a lot of buzz these days about why we need more collaboration in the world. We want our children to share and be collaborative with other children. We want our families to collaborate in making decisions. We get frustrated when some leaders made decisions and haven’t asked for collaboration from a particular work team. We also have leaders who want all decisions to be based on a collaborative model.

When we attach a strong belief to anything -- in this case -- the good found in collaboration, we fail to see other information that could lead us to conclude a different style of interaction might be better. Real collaboration is much more than a warm experience where people just agree not to fight and automatically make choices that promote getting along. That’s a false view of collaboration. Actually, the best collaboration comes from wide and deep discourse where people are able to disagree, where people listen and where people are influenced by what others say. The impact of the process leads to a satisfactory, mutually created outcome.

However, collaboration may not be the best approach in every instance. Collaboration can take considerable time. Some decisions have to be made and they are decisions that can’t be made within the luxury of time. So, when a discussion starts, an issue comes up and a decision is needed, it may well be that other forms of conflict engagement may be much more beneficial that holding out for collaboration.

Each conflict style deserves that kind of deeper understanding. This approach keeps us from conflict stereotypes and expands our ability to choose and interact in multiple ways when in conflict situations.

In future posts I will provide more detail about conflict styles and ways to think about the how to build skill and use these styles with more clear intention and action.

(Top image: Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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