July 17, 2017

There are many styles of conflict resolution–from competition to avoidance. Experts say each of us tends to have a “default style.” Yet our preferred approach won’t work in every situation.

You need to understand each style, especially if you are in a leadership role in your organization, and when to use it. Here are five styles, drawn from the work of conflict scholars Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, and tips on using them effectively.


Competition works when the goal is critically important and well worth the fight. But too often people with this style dominate others, even when the goal isn’t important. They risk losing good relationships and being seen as bullies, especially if they use threats or insults to get their way.

Pro tip: Leaders must know the competition style because there are times when you must stand firm on an issue or principle.


Compromise works when a decision has to be made in a hurry, the other side seems willing, and we all feel good about taking less than we wanted. It is a good “backup” style. But if we approach every conflict thinking “compromise,” we may miss chances for creative resolution that gets all parties what they want.

Pro tip: Always have an idea for compromise in your back pocket. Use it if necessary.


Collaboration works when the parties really value a partnership and are willing to take time to keep asking one another good questions about goals, needs and interests. When done properly, collaboration forges strong bonds. But it must be genuine, not manipulative, and the relationship should be worth the investment of time.

Pro tip: Strive for this. If you have a reputation for being great at collaboration, people will understand when circumstances demand you use another style.


Accommodation works when the other person is in a position of authority (such as a supervisor) and you recognize the need to build the relationship. It also works in the wake of wrongdoing, as a conciliatory gesture. But it can be destructive when it stems from fear of any sort of difficult conversation, because it ignores conflicts rather than resolving them.

Pro tip: Be a peacemaker, yes. But don’t let people walk on you or others.


Avoidance works when the other person is dangerous or all but impossible to work with. It is a self-preservation tactic that keeps us safe, but it also encourages bullies. Avoidance can lead to miserable working conditions or the loss of good people who simply choose to work elsewhere. Conflict avoidance can cause serious problems in the workplace.

Pro tip: If you are using avoidance regularly, it might be a sign that you are in a dysfunctional organization that requires you to either step up and work to fix it, or move to a better workplace.

Taken from Dealing With Difficult Conversations, a self-directed course by Jill Geisler at Poynter NewsU. Looking for more leadership training? See our lineup of upcoming Poynter programs.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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