Conflict Styles

Anne and Heather Dranitsaris, PhD and Dranitsaris-Hilliard's picture

Each of us has characteristics inherent in our personality style that reflect our unique wants, needs, and values. Similarly, we all have a characteristic style or manner in which we deal with conflict. We have natural preferences for the conflict style that we will use, based on our personalities. There are strengths and weaknesses to each conflict style. Being aware of our own style, including the strengths and the drawbacks or blind spots, is the first step to understanding our own personal approach to conflict resolution.

An individual’s choice of style in a conflict situation will vary depending on a variety of factors. Some people vary their responses to a conflict situation depending on the type of conflict or on the type of relationship they have to the person involved. Other people choose to use one approach for all conflicts regardless of varying factors or relationships.

Researchers have identified five distinct conflict styles. All five of these styles are effective for resolving conflict some of the time and inappropriate at other times. During conflict, we have the ability to choose a conflict style that is most likely to get us the results we want. However, most of us rely on our favorite style when reacting to conflict. The key to effectively preventing, managing, and resolving conflict is the ability to respond appropriately to the situation by analyzing what is going on and making a conscious decision about what conflict style to use.

The five conflict styles are described below. They are Collaboration, Competing, Avoiding, Accommodating, and Compromising. Animals are associated with each conflict styles to help you remember the differences. Representative animals also give you a common language to discuss conflict styles with others.

The Turtle (Avoiding Style)

Turtles withdraw into their shells to get away from conflict. They are willing to give up their personal goals and relationships in an attempt to avoid the stress that conflict causes them. They also stay away from the issues which cause conflict and from the people they are in conflict with. Because of this, they never develop conflict skills leading them to believe it is hopeless to try to resolve conflicts. They feel helpless. They believe it is easier to withdraw (physically and psychologically) from a conflict than to face it because for them, it is. Although being a turtle is effective when conflict has escalated or when they need to take time to think things through prior to acting, it limits their ability to achieve their goals and strengthen relationships.

The Shark (Competing Style)

Sharks do not shy away from conflict. Instead, they try to overpower opponents by forcing them to accept their solution to the conflict. Their goals are highly important to them and they seek to achieve their goals at all costs. Their relationships are less important to them and they are willing to sacrifice relationships to achieve their goals. This makes them very effective in situations where their focus and determination drives the success of an endeavor or when tough decisions need to be made. Sharks assume that one person winning and one person losing settle conflicts. Winning gives them a sense of pride and achievement and losing gives them a sense of weakness, inadequacy, and failure. Sharks may attempt to win by intimidating, overpowering, overwhelming, and personally attacking other people.

The Teddy Bear (Accomodating Style)

Teddy Bears are highly relational people who are willing to sacrifice their goals to preserve harmony in relationships. To them, the relationship is of great importance, while their own goals are of lesser value. Teddy Bears want and need to be liked and accepted by other people. Because they do not see the value in creating disharmony in relationships by getting the conflict out in the open, they tend not to develop conflict skills. They think that conflict should be avoided and believe that conflicts cannot be discussed without damaging relationships. They fear that if the conflict continues, someone will get hurt and that would ruin the relationship. Teddy Bears behaviour says, “I’ll give up my goals, and let you have what you want, if you will like me.” They will attempt to smooth over the conflict so that the relationship does not get damaged in any way.

The Fox (Compromising Style)

Foxes are willing to give a little to get a little. They are somewhat concerned with their own goals and about their relationships with other people. Foxes seek balance and compromise. They do not avoid conflict, nor do they fully engage in resolving it to the complete satisfaction of both parties. They give up part of their own goals and persuade the other person in a conflict to give up part of his goals. They seek solutions to conflicts where both sides gain something so that they can arrive at the middle ground between two extreme positions. This way, they come to a “sorta win, sorta lose” compromise. They are willing to negotiate and to sacrifice part of their own goals and relationships to find agreement for the common good.

The Owl (Collaborating Style)

Owls place a high value on both their goals and relationships. They take a problem solving approach to conflicts and work to find a solution that achieves both their own goals and the goals of the other person in the conflict. Owls recognize that when handled effectively, conflicts can improve relationships by reducing the tension between two people. They try to begin a discussion that identifies the issues that are creating the conflict. They look for solutions that will satisfy both themselves and the other person, thereby preserving the integrity of the relationship. Owls will work diligently and are not satisfied until a solution is found that achieves their own goals and those of the other person. This also includes working at the conflict until all of the tension and negative feelings have been fully resolved.

Summary

Abraham Maslow once said, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see each problem as a nail.” The same applies to the tools that you have for responding to conflict. If you have only one predominant conflict style, you will be limited to being effective in the situations that warrant that response. Becoming versatile in all of the conflict styles will help to increase your effectiveness when dealing with different types of conflicts and with individuals using conflict styles inappropriately.

Conflicts with co-workers or clients can make working conditions unpleasant, create stress, lose business, and waste managers’ time. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Developing conflict management skills can provide individuals with the tools, knowledge, and skills required to deal with conflict constructively.

Approaches to developing conflict skills are built on the belief that appropriate responses to conflict can be learned, disputes can be resolved without attacking and without avoiding, and non-defensive communication and problem-solving methods can be employed to bring about win-win solutions.

Objectives of developing conflict management skills include an awareness of your own conflict style, including the strengths and weaknesses of that style. A second objective is an understanding of the conflict styles of others. Finally, learning when each style is best utilized can help expand your own repertoire of responses to conflict management.

In every situation, we are responsible for our actions. We cannot change the behaviour of others, but we can choose to behave in ways that get us the results we want. The key to effectively preventing and managing conflict is to choose the conflict management style appropriate for the conflict.

Want to know more about your conflict style? Contact Anne for more information