Learning how to effectively manage conflict is probably one of the most critical aspects of a healthy relationship. Are you one who avoids conflict for fear of retaliation or rejection? Or do you take the offensive and charge head-on? I am uncomfortable with conflict, for fear I may say something I may regret. Conflicts are messy and I hate mess! And this applies to my physical space and my relationships! But life is messy!
I was raised in a home where my parents did not demonstrate a healthy way of dealing with strong emotions, let alone conflict. My dad deflected with humor, and my mother was highly emotional. But my best friend’s dad had an explosive temper, and she grew up walking on eggshells. I remember her exact words: “his explosions keep me silent.”
Most of us were not taught how to handle conflict effectively. Yet, conflict is part and parcel of life. Being skilled at handling conflict is one of the cornerstones of high emotional intelligence because disagreements are part and parcel of relationships – they can happen at work and in our personal lives.
We all approach conflict differently. How we handle conflict is influenced by our upbringing, culture, personalities, our level of self-awareness, and the current situation we’re facing.
Drs. Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann developed the famous Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument to measure people’s different styles in managing conflict. And have come up with five distinct types of how people handle conflict:
People with a competing style view conflict as a win-lose game. Their sole intent is to win an argument. We have all met people like this. Unfortunately, no one indeed “wins’ in this approach to dealing with conflict. And it just perpetuates conflict.
People with a conflict-avoidant style find conflict very uncomfortable. Some would rather bury their heads in the sand than notice a problem. Unfortunately, when we avoid conflict, the situation gets worse.
Is ‘being ‘nice’ how you approach conflict? Trying to be ‘nice’ comes with a price. While appearing agreeable and easygoing, people who are accommodating may grow resentful over time. An accommodating style of conflict management is different from an avoidant style. Someone who is accommodating would tend to give in during a conflict, whereas a person with an avoidant style would rather avoid conflict altogether.
While a compromising approach to managing conflict sounds healthier than the previous styles, it still does not address the root issues of the competition. It is merely an attempt to come in the middle.
The healthiest approach to resolving conflict is by collaborating. When we adopt a collaborative style, we express our needs while also seeking to understand the needs behind the other person’s requests. It’s a win-win situation. This style of managing disagreements deepens relationships by building bridges — I see and hear you, and I feel seen and heard by you.
What’s your style?
While we all have a dominant style in our approach to conflict resolution, this can change depending on the relationship and greater self-awareness. I had met women who were vocal in expressing their needs and were later silenced when they entered an abusive relationship.
In observing myself over the years, I have seen myself go from a competing to avoidant and now a collaborative style of managing conflict.
If you are in a relationship with an unhealthy conflict style, it may be time to learn the skills of conflict resolution or seek help from a professional. One way to change your approach to disagreements is to practice mindfulness which creates greater self-awareness.
To discover your conflict style, take the test below.