Five Ways to Manage Conflict Before It Manages You

Conflict gets a bad rap. Most people tend to view conflict as a bad thing, automatically assuming it has to be an adversarial win or lose situation. The reality is that conflict is inevitable in relationships and it isn’t inherently a negative thing. It depends if you choose to manage the conflict or let the conflict manage you.

I’m a fan of the Thomas Kilmann model of conflict management because of its dispassionate approach to the topic and the practical strategies it offers for its followers. Kilmann defines conflict as any situation where your concerns or desires differ from those of another person. That can be as simple as deciding where to go for dinner with your spouse to something as complex as brokering the details of a huge corporate merger.

According to Kilmann’s model there are five basic modes of handling conflict that result from the amount of assertiveness and cooperation you employ. Each of us tend to have a natural, default mode we use when faced with conflict, but that particular mode isn’t always appropriate for every situation. The key to effectively managing conflict is to understand which mode is most appropriate for the situation given the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. Here’s a quick snapshot of the five modes of managing conflict:

Avoiding – Taking an unassertive and uncooperative approach to conflict defines the Avoiding mode. Sometimes avoiding conflict is the best move. Perhaps the issue isn’t important enough to address or you need to allow some time to pass to diffuse tensions. But of course avoiding conflict can also be harmful because issues may fester and become more contentious or decisions may be made by default without your input or influence.

Competing – High on assertiveness and low on cooperativeness, the competing mode is appropriate when you need to protect yourself, stand up for important principles, or make quick decisions. Overuse of the competing style tends to result in people around you feeling “bulldozed,” defeated, and un-empowered.

Collaborating – The collaborating mode is the highest use of assertiveness and cooperation and is appropriate when your focus is on merging the perspectives of the parties, integrating solutions, and building relationships. Overusing the collaboration mode can lead to inefficiency,  wasting time, and too much diffusion of responsibility (because if everyone is responsible, then really no one is responsible).

Compromising – Many times people think compromising should be the goal of resolving conflict. I give up something, you give up something, and we agree to settle somewhere in the middle…hogwash! There are certainly times when compromise is the best route, such as when the issue in dispute is only moderately important or you just need a temporary solution. But if you overuse the compromising mode, you can neglect to see the big picture and create a climate of cynicism and low trust because you’re always giving in rather than taking a stand.

Accommodating – This mode is high on cooperativeness and low on assertiveness which is appropriate for situations where you need to show reasonableness, keep the peace, or maintain perspective. If you overuse the accommodating mode, you can find yourself being taken advantage of, having your influence limited, and feeling resentful because you’re always the one making concessions to resolve conflict.

Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, and if managed effectively, can lead to deeper and stronger bonds of trust and commitment. The key is to diagnose the situation, determine your preferred outcomes, and use the mode most appropriate to help you achieve your goals.

28 Comments on “Five Ways to Manage Conflict Before It Manages You

  1. Great model, Randy. It shows how we should through work through various challenges and issues. Having some tension is healthy, if worked through in a productive way. Tension creates energy, which may result in more creative solutions to problems. We need to embrace the tension and work through it, and this model sets the stage. Thanks! Jon

    • Hi Jon! I always appreciate you taking the time to lend your insightful perspective. You hit the nail on the head in terms of the creative power that resides in conflict, assuming we manage it in the appropriate way…which is a science and art form unto itself!

      Take care,


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  3. Hi Randy, Thanks for this simple (on the surface) tool. What a great starting point for discussing conflict without blame. The solution focussed range of responses encourages us to clarify our own intentions and motivations, allowing us to take responsibility for our role in creating and eveloving through the conflict we experience. I plan to put this model to use right away.

    • Hi Andrea,

      I’m glad you found the Thomas Kilmann model helpful. As you can tell, I just touched the surface and the model offers a lot of depth and the variety of ways you can apply it. If you do a google search on Thomas Kilmann you’ll find several places where you can purchase the assessment.

      Best wishes,


      • Thanks Randy, I am a firm believer that we learn who we are through other people and handling conflict in a positive way can provide the greatest opportunities for growth.

  4. The Kilman instrument has been around forever. I’ve used it even before I becaame a certified executive and life coach. It’s testimony to its staying power. I find conflict energizing because it calls on me for compassion for the other, trust in myself, and the capacity to step back and observe. The step back is usually facilitated by a reminder “I’m not my thoughts, feelings, or assessments. Neither is the other.” Once in the observer position I’m in good shape to influence a positive outcome. If I’m clear about who I am (not my thoughts….therefore I don’t have to believe everything I think), I can focus my energies on the results I want to produce without being attched to the outcome. Being guided by “I am willing to be a contribution” gets me in the space of appreciative inquiry which reduces the other’s temparature and gets both of us back in our rational mind where we can solve problems, be creative, deliberately use the styles in the Kilman, etc. Check out my blog called Courageous Conversations at Or my book, The Un-Game: Four-Play to Business As UNusual.

    • Great insights Ingrid! You articulately describe the importance of “stepping outside ourselves” and becoming an observer of the process and not just a participant. Mastering that skill allows you to be less emotionally attached to the process/outcome, seek more creative solutions, and build higher levels of trust. Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts!

      Best wishes,


  5. Managing conflict is the great challenge for all of us. This is a discipline and it should not just be limited to being taught at home when we’re children, it should be part of the curriculum in our schools, just as financial education should be as well.

    Without the foundational skills to navigate conflict, we or others are going to struggle regardless of the great knowledge, tools and help that is out there.

    If our base education (elementary, middle school and high school) won’t make room for such a critical life skill, if we’re not learning it at home (where dysfunction is part of many families), then colleges and yes, even human resource departments, should make classes in the area mandatory and in the workplace, ongoing.

    The benefits are exponentially wonderful. The costs of the failure to do so are high and sometimes dangerous.

    • Excellent thoughts Michael. Teaching conflict management skills in our elementary education system would do wonders for the establishment of healthy realationships as an adult.

      Thanks for taking the time to add your comments.

      Best wishes,


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    • Dancing all over the board is excellent! Being able to flexibly move among the various modes of handling conflict is an important skill for those who want to effectively handle conflict.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts!


  7. I map this onto the public governance system in the US – a broad generalization, but broad dysfunctionality, too. “A climate of cynicism and low trust,” anyone?

    How do we foster real collaboration around serious challenges we face together?

    • Great point Kevin. If we could figure out a way to get our governmental leaders to address conflict in a healthy and productive way we’d be genius’!

  8. Prior to completing my Masters in Conflict management, I used to utilize the method of avoidance. This isn’t the case anymore. I learnt that all of the methods you mentioned above can be used depending on not only the dispute, but also the relationship the conflicting parties have with each other. I now try not to avoid conflict, but rather address it using an appropriate method.

    Thank you for simplifying these methods, Randy!

    • Hi Kay, thanks for your comments.

      You hit on the key point: we should handled conflict in different ways depending on the situation, the people involved, and the desired outcome. One size definitely does not fit all!


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  13. Conflicts help us to understand ourselves and also to understand our fellow human beings .Although the most painful aspect of it is when it involves the lost of life or lives .Those who may lost their lives will not tell their stories .Those who are a life will tell the story of the conflict . I think what we need to do is to learn from the past conflicts and reduce our bad behaviors that could lead to sever dangerous conflicts .We can not avoid conflicts completely but we can escape those dangerous causes of conflicts . The causes of conflicts are man made .It is man that can resolve conflicts for its better living

    • Hi Oliver,

      You make a critically important point – we need to learn from past conflicts so we know how to better handle (or prevent) future ones. Thanks for adding your insights.


  14. Good short summary explanations. Where do YOU land?

    I used to find myself over Accommodating people, then trying to real it in later. But it’s much harder to gain Cooperation once you’ve established that your lax on expecting it. Now I kindly and gently, expect Cooperation from day one.

    When I’m working with someone for the first time, and they have been generally uncooperative before I got there, I try to find the ROOT CAUSE of why they are uncooperative. People don’t refuse to cooperate just because they feel like it, or are a so-called “crabby person.” Something is usually done to make them lose respect for the process that is requiring their precious time, or the person that is expecting the cooperation. For me, finding out the cause, and fixing the issues that caused the lack of respect in the first place, is the best way to GAIN COMPLIANCE with an employee or team memberr.

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