The Best Approach for Dealing with Conflict

Written by Melissa Kessler, MA, PCC

Photo by Jean Wimmerline – Unsplash

Most of us have a habitual “go-to” response when dealing with conflict. This knee-jerk reaction may work sometimes, but not in every situation. That’s because no single approach works for all conflicts. However, there is a best approach for every different circumstance. Different situations call for different methods. So how do you know which method to use?

My conflict management course teaches the 5 different modes of dealing with conflict according to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument™ (TKI):

  1. Competing – I win / You lose
  2. Accommodating – You win / I lose
  3. Avoiding – No one wins – ignore the conflict
  4. Compromising – I win some / You win some – split the difference
  5. Collaborating – We both win

Many people view conflict as negative, involving an emotional battle. This does not have to be the case. A conflict simply means that my needs or concerns differ from yours. When this happens, I must decide the best way to handle this based on 5 key factors:

  1. How important is the issue? If it’s vitally important to me and only moderately or not very important to you, then competing may be my best option. If it’s really important to you as well, then collaborating may be best. If it’s moderately important to both of us, then we may want to compromise and find a middle ground. If it’s not important to me, but really important to you, then I may want to accommodate to meet your needs. If it’s not important to either of us, then we may choose to avoid it and let it go. If emotions are high, I may also choose to avoid it until things cool down, and then select another method.
  2. How important is the relationship? If it’s really important and the issue is also really important to me, then collaborating is the best option. If the relationship is important and the issue is much more important to you than it is to me, then accommodating is best to use. If the relationship is unimportant to me, then I may choose to use either avoiding, competing or compromising, depending on how important the issue is to me.
  3. How much time do we have? If we have lots of time and the outcome is important, then collaborating is best. If there is not enough time to collaborate on critical issues, then I may choose to use competing. If we have little time, and the outcome is less important than the relationship, then accommodating is best. If there is little time and the outcome is not critical, then compromising may be best. If I need to buy some time, then avoiding is a good initial option. Then I may choose a more active approach later.
  4. How serious is the issue? If it’s serious as it relates to safety and ethics, then competing is the best option to use. Collaborating also works well for serious issues where commitment and buy-in are important. If it’s moderately serious, then compromising may work best. If it’s not serious, then avoiding or accommodating may be used depending on the other related factors above.
  5. How complex is the issue? In complex issues, it’s best to use collaborating so we can gain new insight and ideas to solve these challenges. For simple issues, the other modes can be used based on the above factors involved.

Many people believe that collaborating is always the best option to use because it creates a win-win. However, you can see from the factors above, it’s best in some situations, but not all. Because collaborating requires time, effort and creativity energy, the outcome must be important enough or large enough to merit the amount of work involved. No single conflict mode is best for all situations; nor is one conflict mode better or worse than the others. It depends on the situation. Hopefully by asking yourself these questions about the factors involved, you will consciously choose the best approach for different conflict situations rather than using your “go-to” response in all conflicts out of habit.

If you would like more information about how to use the 5 conflict modes effectively or my training course, or if you would like to take the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument™ (TKI) to understand your conflict style and order of preference in using the 5 different conflict modes, please contact me at

 “Conflict is neither good nor bad. Properly managed, it is absolutely vital.” – Kenneth Kaye

 “If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.”  – Cheryl Richardson

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