By Rachel Puryear
In life, conflict is an inevitable part of human relations. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be inherently destructive – or that we cannot pretty often resolve it with some mutual effort, and a willingness to do so constructively.
Improving one’s conflict resolution skills is a worthy goal for anyone, and it’s also a lifelong learning process.
In order to better improve our conflict resolution skills, though, it’s helpful to first realize what our conflict style is.
Therefore, here is a description of five different conflict styles, including how they are determined.
Please note, of course, that people are commonly combinations of more than one style. This includes having different styles with different people, as well as depending upon the situation:
How are the Five Styles Determined?
There are two main factors considered for each conflict style. These are:
- Level of cooperativeness.
- Level of assertiveness.
So the combination of these two factors goes into each of the following conflict styles:
Aggressive Conflict Style
People with an aggressive style have high levels of assertiveness, combined with low levels of cooperativeness.
Not only do they not tend to shy away from confrontation, but they usually relish it – and are often skilled debaters.
They are often quite visible to others when in heated conflict. However, they’re not necessarily angrier than others, although they might show their anger more unabashedly.
Culturally, the aggressive style is viewed as ideal for men, while aggressive women are often viewed more negatively. However, any gender can be aggressive (or any other style).
Disadvantages of the aggressive style are that others could be very uncomfortable with the aggressiveness, and thereby avoid the aggressive person altogether (see the next style). If the aggressive person is prone to hot-headed anger (though they’re not necessarily), their lack of restraint in expressing it could alienate others. Furthermore, they may tend to win a lot of disputes more because they are better advocates for themselves than others, rather than because it is necessarily a fair result. This can lead to a lot of resentment from others, who may even view them as bullies – whether that is the aggressive person’s intention, or not.
Advantages of the aggressive style are that aggressive people tend to share pretty openly, and lay out everything, which can also help clear up a lot of misunderstandings. They are also (particularly if they have a strong internal sense of fairness) often willing and able to stand up to bullies, and against injustice in ways that other conflict styles have a lot more trouble with.
Avoidant Conflict Style
People with an avoidant style have low levels of assertiveness, combined with low levels of cooperativeness.
They will go to great lengths, and even give up a lot, to avoid confrontation. They abhor conflict.
Others might view them as very peaceful, or even passive – and might not realize how many grudges they are secretly harboring, because of a strong reluctance to avoid any conflict.
Whereas aggressive people are highly emotive, avoidant people tend to deeply repress and hold in their anger and other feelings – often burying it quite deep. At some point, though, they can become so angry that they eventually lash out, and appear aggressive – often to the mystification and shock of others.
Or, they might also release ongoing anger more gradually, by being passive-aggressive – and doing sneaky things to “punish” people they feel have been unjust to them, but who they do not want to directly confront.
They might stonewall others during disagreements. While stonewalling can be used to intentionally confuse or hurt others in arguments, avoidant people don’t necessarily mean to do those things – instead, they might feel overwhelmed during conflict, and simply be unable to respond effectively. They might also doubt that they will be listened to or understood, whether or not that’s actually the case.
People with an avoidant style are often perceived as being afraid of conflict. While that is the case for some of them, many of them are simply overwhelmed by conflict, and shut down. They may struggle to deal with what is coming up for them or the other person, or need time to process what is being said and have trouble with constant back-and-forth, quickly, and on the spot – and might feel that it’s just easier to avoid conflict.
Sometimes, people who prefer the aggressive style, but who also have anger problems, get into trouble because of such; and then become avoidant – because they’re afraid they’ll end up lashing out again if they don’t avoid conflict altogether.
Therefore, although it seems counterintuitive, it’s not unusual for people to be prone to both aggressiveness and avoidance, especially if they have difficulty with self-control.
Avoidant people might also have relatively low levels of power in society and in their community (or been treated that way in their families), and therefore not be accustomed to sharing their thoughts and feelings openly – at least not without negative repercussions. So this might have taught them to keep a lot to themselves.
Any gender can be avoidant. However, avoidant men and those assigned male at birth are more likely underskilled in discussing their feelings openly, while avoidant women and those assigned female at birth more likely don’t believe that their feelings will be taken seriously. This is a nuance that I think a lot of people confuse.
The disadvantages of the avoidant style are that conflicts often go unresolved, while the avoidant person still holds onto a lot of resentment – and it gradually eats away at them, while others often don’t notice. The avoidant person might not resolve relationship conflicts this way, until it has eroded too much.
The advantages of the avoidant style are that there are definitely times when it is best to avoid a conflict. Though it’s good to stand up to people at times, there are also plenty of times where it’s best to just walk away, and avoid a fight – and avoidant people can do this quietly. Avoidance might also be the most effective defense against certain toxic personalities who will never fight fairly, and who constantly stir up drama.
Accommodating Conflict Style
People with an accommodating style have low levels of assertiveness, combined with high levels of cooperativeness.
People with an accommodating style tend to be kind, they tend to be givers, they like to see other people happy, and they are the ones who will meet others more than halfway to settle a dispute – whether that’s fair to them or not.
Others might mistakenly assume that accommodating people are foolish, or don’t realize that they’re getting less in making a deal. Actually, accommodating people are as well aware of this as anyone else if that’s actually happening, that’s not the issue – they just let it go for their own reasons, though.
Accommodating people might also turn avoidant at times, feeling that they’re unlikely to obtain a fair result in a conflict, and resigning to simply avoiding the conflict instead. This might be the case if they are in an unequal relationship where they don’t feel particularly empowered.
Culturally, the accommodating style is viewed as ideal for women, while people don’t expect men to be as accommodating. However, again, any gender can be accommodating.
In contemporary American service industry culture, the accommodating style is commonly expected from service workers in customer service matters. This creates a large emotional labor expectation for such workers that tends to be underestimated in how many people view such jobs – i.e., that they are “unskilled”.
The disadvantages of the accommodating style are that the accommodating person’s needs often don’t get met, because they tend to frequently give more than their fair share – possibly leaving them depleted, ashamed of themselves for letting others take advantage of them (they may see it that way, whether it was intentional on other people’s part or not), and frustrated and resentful that others around them often don’t give as much as they do.
The advantages of the accommodating style are that it does quite often resolve conflicts satisfactorily with regards to others parties involved, and others may feel quite happy with the accommodating person (at least in the moment, people are not always as grateful – or at least not for long – as they should be). The accommodating person may also feel quite good about helping others and making them happy, so long as they don’t feel taken advantage of, or that they are the only ones ever giving.
Compromising Conflict Style
People with a compromising style have moderate levels of assertiveness, combined with similarly moderate levels of cooperativeness.
These folks tend to meet others halfway, and split the proverbial loaf of bread. They can advocate for themselves, but are less demanding than those with aggressive style. They’ll try to minimize the need for conflict initially, but unlike those with avoidant style, will address it soon enough if that seems necessary, before getting out of hand. They’ll give something as part of a give-and-take, but they are reluctant to make a deal that’s not a reasonably even exchange, in contrast to those with accommodating style.
They tend to approach conflict will a cool head, and believe that logic and fairness should be their – and others’ – guides.
In the legal industry, there is a stereotype of lawyers having the aggressive style. While that is largely true of litigators (trial lawyers), there are also lots of attorneys with more of a compromising style – these ones tend to be the best at getting cases settled early, which is typically best for clients where it’s feasible.
People with a compromising style tend to be good negotiators, and good at making deals. They are often good at seeing more than one side to a dispute, but also stay true to looking after their own best interests.
They are more interested in resolving a conflict than in dragging it out, or in pursuing Phyrric victories.
There aren’t many disadvantages to the compromising style, as it’s an inherently balanced approach. However, when faced with a very selfish or unreasonable person, it might not work with those types of people – so a person with a compromising style would need to have backup skills for such situations. Furthermore, its simplicity is best suited for situations where one needs to get along with someone on an occasional or casual basis, but might be inadequate for the depths of intimate, ongoing relationships – see the next section for more on that.
The advantages of the compromising style are, of course, that it’s good for balancing the needs of different parties to a conflict. It’s quite often good for resolving a conflict relatively quickly, fairly, and in a manner that each party can live with. It’s ideal for resolving conflicts with people you don’t need intimacy with, but just need to co-exist peacefully with.
Collaborative Conflict Style
People with a collaborative style have high levels of assertiveness, combined with high levels of cooperativeness.
The collaborative approach is about going specifically for a win-win.
This is a great approach for an intimate and ongoing relationship. It’s more work than compromising – because whereas compromising is done to simply resolve a conflict and move on; collaboration is about not only resolving an argument now, but coming to better understand one another’s needs and motivations.
In order to make such win-wins possible, this approach requires a lot of work – but it’s worth it. Everyone involved must want to make it work for everyone. They must also be willing to listen to one another’s perspectives, and be open to them, even if they still sometimes disagree. They must also be willing to self-reveal – to know and say what they want and need, for it to be possible to find satisfactory solutions for all. This is not a fast and efficient approach, but the rewards and enhanced closeness makes these efforts well worthwhile.
There are no inherent disadvantages to the collaborative style, as it’s about going for the win-win, and ensuring that everyone’s needs are met. However, it requires a lot of work as well as self-revealing, and may be more than what is necessary to resolve small conflicts with people you won’t have ongoing interactions with. Furthermore, it only works if everyone involved is on board with it, and willing to cooperate as well as know – and share openly – what they want and need. Not everyone might be ready for that yet.
The advantages of the collaborative style are pretty profound, once those involved commit to developing the skills needed to make it work best. It’s about finding the win-win, listening to everyone, and deepening intimate relationships by not only resolving conflict, and even finding solutions, but better understanding one another. It should be the practice – or goal – of any healthy close or intimate relationship.
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