How Your Way of Handling Conflict at Work Might Be Hurting You

The Importance of Consciously Choosing Your Conflict Handling Style

We all have different ways of handling conflict based on our upbringing, our experiences, our core values, and many other factors. Our default approach may work well in some situations, but it may work against us in others.

This is why it’s important to understand your default style so that you can consciously decide whether that approach is the best one in a situation (as opposed to acting on “auto-pilot.”)

It’s also helpful to understand which styles the people you work with tend to use you so that you can adjust your approach, if necessary.

According to conflict-handling behaviour theorists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, Ronald Kraybill, and others, there are 5 basic approaches (or ways) to deal with a conflict. And they centre around two key factors:

  • Your level of focus on the issue (i.e., the task, your needs, and your goals). Another way of looking at this is your level of assertiveness.
  • Your level of focus on the relationship (i.e., getting along, the other person’s well-being, and the other person’s needs). Another way of looking at this is your level of empathy.

The 5 Styles

Here’s a brief description of what the styles looks like and some of the pros and cons of each one:

Take a Stand (high assertiveness & low empathy): “I can’t budge on this.” This style usually generates win/lose outcomes.

This style can be useful in situations when the issue is too important for you to compromise on. And just for the record, it’s quite possible to take a stand without being confrontational. The downside, however, is that even when it’s done amicably, this style can upset others because their needs are not met through this approach. This style can also be harmful to relationships in the long run if it’s overused.

Do Nothing (low assertiveness & low empathy): You won’t hear much from someone using this style. They’re not actively pursing a solution to the situation or trying to maintain the relationship. This style usually generates lose/lose outcomes.

This style can be useful when you’re not involved in the situation and there isn’t a clear benefit to your involvement. The downside of this approach is that others may feel frustrated if they want you to become involved. And if you do happen to have some needs at play in the situation, they won’t be met through this approach.

Give In (low assertiveness and high empathy): “Sure! We’ll do it your way.” This style usually generates lose/win outcomes.

This style can be useful when the issue isn’t important to you and when you want to focus on meeting the other person’s needs. As with all the styles, this one is perfectly appropriate. However, if it’s used excessively and your needs regularly don’t get met, you’ll probably end up feeling resentful and this in and of itself will damage the relationship.

Compromise (moderate assertiveness and moderate empathy): “Let’s meet halfway.” This style usually generates outcomes where both people win a little and lose a little.

This style is great when you need to come to a quick resolution and the issue and relationship are somewhat important in the situation. The downside of this style is that not all of your needs get met through this approach and the other person also won’t have all of their needs met in the situation.

Collaboration (high assertiveness & high empathy): “Let’s find a way to make this work for both of us.” This style usually generates win/win outcomes.

This style is appropriate when both the issue at hand and the relationship are important. It essentially involves advocating for your needs to be met… and also advocating just as strongly for other person’s needs to be met. The downside is that it can take a more time to use this approach and it’s not ideal when a quick decision is required.

Food for Thought

All five styles are appropriate and effective if used at the right time and in the right context. It all depends on what your particular goals are in the situation.

As you can see, certain styles require more assertiveness and certain styles require more empathy. Both assertiveness and empathy are core leadership competencies.

Assertiveness is the ability to express your feelings and thoughts appropriately. And empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the way others feel.

One possible way of viewing our choice of styles is this:

  • When we choose to use a style that requires us to be more assertive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have empathy or care about the relationship… it simply means that the issue is really important to us in that situation.
  • On the flipside, when we choose to use a style that requires us to be more empathetic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have the ability to be assertive or care about the issue… it can simply mean that the relationship is really important to us in that situation.

Maintaining a neutral perspective about the styles can help us test out new approaches that are outside our comfort zone. And it can be useful to maintain this neutral perspective when we come across others who are using a style that we may not like.

The key here is to make sure that we’re not overusing one style… and as a result, experiencing the downsides of this. There are 5 styles for a reason. We encounter many different situations at work and in life so why not use the style that will work best for us!

It’s also important to keep in mind that difficult situations and conflict are dynamic in nature.

You may decide to use one style at the beginning of the situation and as things evolve, you may eventually decide to switch to another style that is more fitting for the new circumstances.

It’s this type of reflection and flexibility that will allow you to maximize your chances of reaching your goals and a successful outcome.

So the next time that you encounter a difficult situation at work, try consciously reflecting on which style would be most helpful in the situation and see what you might do differently to improve both your impact and your results!

For more information please also see:

“When a child is learning how to walk and they fall down 50 times, they never think to themselves, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’” – Anonymous