Understanding common conflict modes and their application

the five conflict modes

According to the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument, there are five prevailing conflict modes, or styles. We each reflect a preference for one style above others, but there’s a place for each one and with practice we can learn to use them all at the appropriate time.


This very assertive style puts more emphasis on winning than on nurturing a caring long-term relationship. You steamroll your way to victory. It is suitable when we are convinced we are right, or in a very strong bargaining position, when there’s a lot to gain, when success is vital, or there’s little time for niceties. The downside of competing aggressively is that it can leave the other side feeling hard done by, resentful and uncommitted.


Accommodating puts the relationship ahead of our own short term interests, and accepts a less than ideal outcome in the interests of peace. We’ll live to fight another day by giving ground now. This highly non-assertive behaviour is useful when we realise our position is weak, or when we are building emotional credit with our counter-party. The risk is that they take their gains for granted and expect us to be a pushover next time.


This is a classic non-engage strategy. We’d rather put off confrontation or avoid it altogether. It’s suitable when we just don’t care to argue, or when the conflict is trivial and not worth the dispute. Right now may be the wrong time, or we may be lacking authority to act immediately, or missing vital information which would help us to negotiate. The style can be effective in buying time, but is frustrating to deal with.


This “split the difference” approach sees the combatants meeting in the middle. When both parties give up equal portions of our objectives, neither gets exactly what we want, but it seems a fair and reasonable way to settle our differences. Compromising doesn’t exactly optimise our relationship, but doesn’t harm it much either. It’s the knee-jerk solution: easy to grasp and pragmatic when time is short. But it may miss some valuable nuances and potential gains.


Collaborating, or working together, is the win-win solution. It involves really understanding the other side’s interests. It disregards a quick solution in favour of more creative and constructive ways to solve problems. Yes, it takes effort and active listening skills, but if the game is worth the candle, this is the solution which serves both parties’ best interests and builds our relationships in the longer term. Reserve it for when the outcomes justify the investment.