By Katie Shonk
This post originally appeared on Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation’s Daily Blog on October 25, 2021. We are reposting it with the Program on Negotiation’s permission.
Conflict-management styles can affect how disputes play out in organizations and beyond. Research on conflict-management styles offers advice on managing such difficult situations.
People approach conflict differently, depending on their innate tendencies, their life experiences, and the demands of the moment. Negotiation and conflict-management research reveals how our differing conflict-management styles mesh with best practices in conflict resolution.
A Model of Conflict-Management Styles
In 1974, Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann introduced a questionnaire, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, designed to measure people’s conflict styles. Based on people’s responses to pairs of statements, the instrument categorizes respondents into five different conflict styles:
- When adopting a competing style, people view interpersonal conflict resolution as win-lose games. Rather than recognizing the value of ensuring that each party walks away satisfied, disputants focus narrowly on claiming as much as they can for themselves. While value claiming is an important component of negotiation, a single-minded competitive orientation sacrifices value in the long run and perpetuates conflict.
- Because dealing with conflict directly can be highly uncomfortable, many of us prefer to avoid it. An avoidant conflict style might at first appear to be the opposite of a competitive style, but in fact, it can be similarly obstructive. When we avoid conflict, we often allow problems to grow worse.
- Because they defer so often to others, negotiators who adopt an accommodating style can seem agreeable and easygoing. But when people consistently put others’ needs first, they are liable to experience resentment that builds up over time. Accommodating negotiators typically will benefit from learning to express their needs and concerns.
- Sometimes we try to resolve conflict by proposing seemingly equal compromises, such as meeting in the middle between two extreme positions, or by making a significant compromise just to move forward. Although a compromising conflict style can move a conversation forward, the solution is often unsatisfying and temporary because it doesn’t address the root issues at stake.
- Those who adopt a collaborative conflict-resolution style work to understand the deeper needs behind other parties’ demands and to express their own needs. They see value in working through strong emotions that come up, and they propose tradeoffs across issues that will give each side more of what they want.
A collaborative negotiation style is usually the most effective style for managing conflict and fostering productive long-term relationships; however, different conflict-management styles can be effectively applied to different phases and types of conflict in management. Moreover, though we may have a predisposition toward a particular conflict style, we adopt different styles depending on the situation.
Competing is often useful when you’ve jointly created value through collaboration and now need to divide up resources. Accommodating may be the best immediate choice when your boss is unhappy about a project that went awry. Avoiding can be wise when someone seems volatile or when we don’t expect to deal with them again. And compromising can be a fine way of resolving a minor issue quickly.
Conflict-Management Styles: Lessons from Marriage Research
Can people with different conflict-management styles get along? In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail . . . and How You Can Make Yours Last (Simon & Schuster, 1995), psychologist John Gottman writes that healthy marriages tend to settle into three different styles of problem solving: validating (compromising often and working out problems to mutual satisfaction), conflict-avoidant (agreeing to disagree and rarely confronting differences directly), and volatile (frequently engaging in passionate disputes).
Perhaps surprisingly, Gottman’s research suggests that “all three styles are equally stable and bode equally well for the marriage’s future,” as he writes. Which style a couple leans toward isn’t important; what’s more important for lasting satisfaction is that both spouses adopt the same style.
Though Gottman’s research was conducted on married couples, the results suggest that disputants in the business world who have similar conflict-management styles may find they feel comfortable managing (or avoiding) conflict with each other.
When Conflict-Management Styles Are Complementary
By contrast, in the realm of negotiation, the results of a 2015 study published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research by Scott Wiltermuth, Larissa Z. Tiedens, and Margaret Neale found benefits when pairs of participants used one of two different negotiating styles.
They assigned study participants to engage in a negotiation simulation using either a dominant or submissive negotiating style. Those assigned to be dominant were told to express their preferences with confidence, use expansive body postures, and otherwise try to influence their counterpart. Those assigned to the submissive style were told to be cooperative, agreeable, and conflict avoidant.
Interestingly, pairs in which one party behaved dominantly and the other submissively achieved better results in the negotiation than pairs who were in the same condition (whether dominance, submission, or a control group). It seems the pairs of dominant/submissive negotiators benefited from their complementary communication style. A pattern in which one person stated her preferences directly and the other asked questions enabled the negotiators to claim the most value. By asking questions, the submissive negotiators assessed how to meet their own goals—and helped their dominant counterparts feel respected and competent in the process.
The research we’ve covered on negotiation and conflict-management styles suggests that opportunities to work through differences abound, regardless of our natural tendencies. Rather than spending a lot of time diagnosing each other’s conflict-management styles, strive for open collaboration that confronts difficult emotions and encourages joint problem solving.
Question: What lessons about conflict-management styles have you learned in your own negotiation and conflict-resolution efforts?
Katherine Shonk is the editor of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter, a monthly source of negotiation advice for professionals published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She is also a research associate for Harvard Business School and was formerly employed by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Shonk received her BS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her MA in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. She has published articles in the Harvard Business Review and other management journals. An accomplished fiction writer, Shonk is the author of a novel, Happy Now?, and a short story collection, The Red Passport.