Rob Cairns - Conflict Resolution

Styles for Communicating
in Conflict

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is an easy to administer self assessment tool that takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to complete, score and review in a group. From the results of this assessment it is possible to identify individual (and team) preferences or styles for communicating in conflict.

The five styles vary along dimensions of Assertiveness and Cooperativeness. The Avoiding style, for example, is low in both Assertiveness and Cooperativeness. The Accommodating style is high in Cooperativeness, and low in Assertiveness. The Competing style is high in Assertiveness and low in Cooperativeness. The Collaborating style is high in both Assertiveness and Cooperativeness. And finally, the Compromising style is in the middle range for both Assertiveness and Cooperativeness. These styles are enduring, and have been extensively validated.

I think people can begin to intuit which of these styles they are more at home in, just by looking at their labels. However, if you’re not sure which is your dominant style, or what each of these styles looks like in practice, you may want to complete the Thomas Kilmann Assessment. Another way to find out would be to ask those around you which style they see you using most of the time. I often administer this assessment during training and team building sessions, and it is relatively inexpensive to do so.

Situational Applicability

Ideally, all of us are able to use all of these different conflict styles. Each style is appropriate and useful in different circumstances. For example, if you haven’t really got your head around the issues and interests in dispute, it would be advisable to avoid direct conflict until you’ve had time to clarify for yourself how you want to approach the discussion. In a crisis, where there’s no time to collaborate, you may want to use the more assertive “competing” style, and worry about its impact on your relationships later. Where the relationship is your primary concern, you may want to accommodate, particularly when you can do so without significant cost to your own interests.

The difficulty comes when we tend to rely on one or two styles to the exclusion of the others. Some of us, for example, have never learned how to use the collaborating style effectively. This is the most difficult style to master in my opinion, since it requires high degrees of both assertiveness and cooperativeness. There are some circumstances where it is necessary to use this style to reach your desired outcome, and if you are unable to bring these skills to bear, you may find conflict frustrating in those circumstances. In many other circumstances, one or more of the other styles may be sufficient to obtain the outcome you desire. Each style is a necessary part of your arsenal for communicating in conflict. The trick is to recognize which style is most appropriate in a given set of circumstances, and to include all of the styles in your repertoire.

For a more detailed discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each style, and the circumstances where each can best be utilized, contact me to discuss how we can arrange to administer the instrument to you or your group during coaching, training, or team building sessions. An awareness of the different styles and their applicability to different situations can make your experience of conflict less frustrating, and the outcomes you achieve more satisfying.

hands over face


people competing