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Making Conflict Less Scary and More Productive


Just reading that word probably made you feel a certain way. That tends to happen when we think about conflict.

I teach a class on conflict resolution and work with leaders and teams on this topic regularly. I have seen with consistency just how people feel about conflict. Hint: they don’t love it. I have also seen how much conflict impacts the dynamics of people and groups in general. I have observed people have healthy conflict and I have also observed some unhealthy conflict over the years. I know that I have certainly engaged in conflict as well.

Conflict exists all around us. It can be found in relationships, social issues, and organizations. Yet, it is still something that so many of us are afraid of and still don’t understand. We fear what we do not know so I believe knowledge is power here.

Being able to properly manage conflict is vital to relationship health, personally and professionally! I want to provide some key aspects of conflict that can help better understand what conflict is and how to navigate it effectively.

Defining Conflict:

To talk about conflict, we have to understand what conflict is. We can define it as:

An active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles.

There are a ton of definitions on this word but I think this is a good place to start since it’s the most straightforward one. Putting words to an abstract concept helps make it easier to understand and engage with. Eventually we all find ourselves having some sort of disagreement or being at odds with other people because, well, we’re people.

Let’s dig into conflict and break it down.

Types of Conflict:

There are actually two kinds of conflict that we engage in almost every day.

  • Interpersonal Conflict – This is conflict that we engage with other people. This is when we have a disagreement friends, family, coworkers, leaders, etc.
  • Intrapersonal Conflict – This is conflict that occurs internally. We can and do have arguments with ourselves. It’s usually things like if we should do something or want to buy something.

Awareness of both is important because we have to navigate and negotiate those conflicts regularly. Conflict isn’t always a two-way street. There are times when conflict is one-sided. By that I mean, you can be in conflict with someone but they have no idea or someone is in conflict with and you just don’t know.

Whether the conflict is interpersonal or intrapersonal, there are generally three types of conflict that happen:

  • Task Conflict – A disagreement on what needs to get done and how it should get done.
  • Relationship Conflict – This conflict comes from the human side of things like different personality styles, ways of thinking, and differences of opinion.
  • Value conflict – We each hold different principles or stands in a certain regard which can be different than the people around us causing conflict.

For leaders, you will spend anywhere from 25%-40% of your time managing conflict. If you are a caregiver of children, I can’t even imagine how high that number is! It is best to be prepared as possible and understand when you need to intervene.

Understanding the different conflict styles also allows us to be more productive when resolving conflict. These types of conflict are not limited to these three and they are not mutually exclusive. A conflict can start as a task conflict but then become a relationship or value conflict. A relationship conflict can turn into a value conflict.

Conflict Resolution Styles:

Between 1960 and 1975, two psychologists, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed this commonly accepted conflict management model and assessment that came to be called the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model Instrument or TKI for short.

This model offers five styles of managing conflict that we tend to use. The model is build off of two dimensions regarding how we engage in conflict:

  • Assertiveness – This is the degree you are willing to push for your interests and concerns.
  • Cooperativeness – This is the degree that you are willing to meet the interests and concerns of others.

Based on where you fall on both of those determines your conflict resolution style. We are able to use all of them regularly and weave through them from time to time.

The Five Conflict Styles:

Below is a description of the five conflict resolution styles, when it is appropriate to use them and what happens when we overuse them as explained by Kenneth Thomas.

  • Competing – This is high assertive/low cooperative. This style is focused on getting your needs met by force, skill, and power. The goal is to win.
    • Appropriate use: When quick action is needed, a tough decision needs to be made, and protection is needed. On issues you know you are right.
    • Overused: People feel alienated and less empowered. Feedback is avoided.
  • Avoiding – This is low assertive/low cooperative. This style delays addressing the issue or pretending it doesn’t exist. No one’s needs are met.
    • Appropriate use: Issues are low in importance. Reduce tension. Not the right time. Little to no control of the situation.
    • Overused: Issues fester internally. Emotions are redirected else where.
  • Accommodating – This is low assertive/high cooperative. This is giving the other people in the conflict what they want. It is appeasing them and the situation to maintain harmony.
    • Appropriate use: Keep the peace, for issues that are of low importance to you, and show that you are being reasonable.
    • Overused: People expect this from you and treat you accordingly. Your ideas get less attention and your influence will be diminished.
  • Compromising – This is mid assertive/mid cooperative. This style is a “let’s meet halfway” one where people bargain for what they are willing to give up in turn for something of value and for a temporary solution.
    • Appropriate use: When issues have moderate performance. When people have equal power and are committed to their opposing views.
    • Overused: Resentment for what was given up. Lack of trust. Can destroy long term goals.
  • Collaborating – This is high assertive/high cooperative. This style tries to satisfy everyone’s needs and concerns by working together so that everyone gains from the solution. This style takes the most time.
    • Appropriate use: Merging together needs of the group. Gaining commitment from everyone. Improving relationships. Supports open discussion.
    • Overused: Spending too much time on unimportant issues. Being taken advantage of and overloaded with work.

You can take the TKI self assessment for free with this linked PDF to identify your conflict style (the online versions cost money). I highly suggest taking a few minutes to download that and assess yourself. Competing is first for me and Collaborating is my second.

What you will find is that how you describe conflict often indicates your natural style that you go to more than others. People who hate conflict generally use Avoiding more. People who don’t mind conflict or even like it tend to be more Competing. This are two of many examples.

There is this myth that the Collaborating style is the ideal one people should strive to achieve. That is false. If you believe you have to use Collaborating to be successful and do not reach that, you may feel defeated in the conflict.

All of the styles have strengths and are appropriate for certain conflict styles. Sometimes you need Competing when something is at risk. Not every issue is worth engaging into conflict and so Avoiding works. Compromising may be in order to help move us forward quicker.

Different people have different styles and ways of approaching conflict.

Conflict Biases:

According to the Dynamics of Conflict book, when we are in conflict, we have two ways that we view the people that we are in conflict with through cognitive errors. This also includes how we see ourselves.

  • Fundamental Attribution Error – We tend to attribute someone’s actions to their character or personality.
  • Actor-Observer Bias – We tend to ascribe our own harmful behaviors to circumstances.

When we attribute people’s behavior to their personality we make it personal. If we committed that same behavior we would say it was the situation that made me do it. Either way, we are creating stories in our head and make snap decisions about people, even when we know them. Conflict aimed at a person’s character is unhealthy conflict and it becomes more about the person defending themselves than addressing the issue at hand. When conflict becomes more severe, this is much more likely to increase.

Speaking of people, avoid “conflict triangulation”. Do not involve people into the conflict that aren’t part of it. I’ve seen couples do this when they fight. If you and your partner are in a conflict, don’t loop in your best friend or sibling. It only hurts the situation.

The issue that caused the conflict in the first place also requires more knowledge and awareness. We can get so wrapped up in the issue and our conflict styles during conflict that we lose sight of something crucial: The issue is usually never really the issue.

The Conflict Iceberg:

There is so much that lies beneath the surface of the conflict issue. We have to be aware of how these factors contribute to the conflict. This conflict iceberg shows you what we don’t see when an issue arises.

  • Issues – The situation or event that cause the conflict.
  • Personalities – Our unique characteristics and traits that form who we are. No one is exactly the same and this shows up in conflict.
  • Interests, Needs, and Desires – We all have needs we want met which directly drives our interests and the position we take.
  • Self-Perceptions and Self-Esteem – How we see ourselves and how we feel about ourselves come into play here.
  • Hidden Expectations – Sometimes referred as unspoken expectations. We hold people to expectations they don’t know about and react when they violate those expectations (and vice versa).
  • Unresolved Issues from the Past – Everyone entering into a conflict brings with them a lifetime of experiences that shaped who they are. This includes issues that still linger and remain unresolved. Most people experience some kind of trauma in the past that can also influence the current conflict.

When an issue comes up, we also have to consider how these are also showing up. They are all part of the equation and not acknowledging that is going to make the conflict hard to work through. When we do address these, that helps move through the conflict way more effectively.

There is also something that greatly impacts conflicts that we have to address because this isn’t visible as it should be. Power.

Power in Conflict:

We have to understand power to understand conflict. Power is our ability to get our needs met and further our goals when we are in conflict. It is the ability to influence the outcome of the conflict. We use power in conflict whether we know it or not or do it on purpose or not.

There are two main types of power:

  • Structural Power – This power comes from the situation, resources available, legal and political components of the conflict, and formal authority.
  • Personal Power – This power is derived from individual, their personal characteristics and traits like grit, resilience, communication skills, etc.

As you can see, power exists not just in us, but in the institutions around us as well. There are also sources of power that exist as well.

Sources of Power:

We all have multiple sources of power to leverage in conflict and they can be used either in a negative or constructive way. This is not an exhaustive list but here are some examples of power:

  • Formal Authority – Power given by an institution or by laws and policies like judges, cops, leaders, military.
  • Social Legitimacy – Cultural or social belief that someone’s authority is legitimate often powered by the community. Parents would be an example.
  • Information – Data and knowledge. How people share, hide, or find information are key to how conflict occurs. Expertise is a power relation to information.
  • Resources – Money, time, and labor are major sources of power. This include tangible resources like money or property or intangible resources like reputation, grit, and endurance.
  • Personal Characteristics – Emotional intelligence, communication, empathy, courage, etc determine if or how needs are being met.
  • Rewards and Sanctions – The ability to reward or punish is a major source of power.

Everyone has some sort of power in conflict. But not everyone has the same amount of power. Some people have more and some have less. Social identities can impact access to power. Marginalized groups tend to hold less power than more privileged groups. There is this idea of “balance of power” where, as the name suggests, that power is balanced among the disputants to achieve a goal or solution. I don’t subscribe to that. There is too much to be considered which makes a level playing ground seem impossible.

Instead, we need to consider what is the adequate power required to engage in conflict to at least get others to consider concessions and push back on solutions.

For conflict to occur, everyone involved has to have some kind of power, even if it’s a little. If one group or person completely dominates another, there is no conflict. Conflict is clashing! Engaging in conflict without power can cause needs to be ignored.

Power is embedded into relationships. If one person is always getting their way, there is a serious issue in that relationship.

Up until this point we have covered what conflict is, types of conflict, the five conflict resolution styles, the conflict iceberg model and power. Now we can lean into the resolution of conflict.

Conflict Resolution:

We usually want to find a resolution to a conflict. What I would like to point out is that resolution is actually a process, not a singular outcome, that involves peoples’ time, energy, and resources.

There are also several kinds of resolutions for conflict like facilitation, arbitration, collaborative negation and others. These all involve third parties.

For the post, I am offering information on resolution that doesn’t a third party (but always feel free to leverage someone who can help!).

There are a ton of tips on how to resolve conflict but I think does a great job of listing them out and applies both personally and professionally:

  • Acknowledge the conflict – The conflict is happening and it is worth acknowledging that. Sometimes that can even help with the conversation.
  • Define the problem – Defining and aligning on the exact issue is important. The framing of a conflict is often the key to how it is resolved. This makes it source of power in conflict.
  • Meet on neutral ground – The helps create a comfortable environment for everyone involved to speak honestly.
  • Let everyone have their say – Grant everyone in the room the time to express their thoughts, needs, feelings, and perspectives openly. Actively listen to understand and let go of whatever story you have told yourself of this person or people.
  • Agree on a solution – It can take time and multiple meetings to even consider a solution. Work together to identify or create a solution that works for everyone.
  • Determine each side’s role in the solution – Determine what steps are needed to achieve the solution and who will be responsible for those steps.

You have to be proactive in this process. Don’t wait for the other person or people to seek you out. Seek them out. Initiate the conversation. Plan a meet up time.

If the conversation goes sideways for whatever reason, feel free to take a break or end the conversation there and meet up after folks have had a chance to reset. If the conversation stalls or there is a lot of disagreement, go back to your shared goal. Conflict often arises in the process of achieving a goal. That can help reset the conversation as well.

I need to emphasize how important the resolution process is. In conflict, you have to go slow to go fast. If you try to go fast, you will end up going slow. You must do your due diligence in defining the issue and making sure that everyone is heard. When you address the right issue and the needs of everyone involved are in the open, you will much more like to achieve a resolution that ends the conflict. It is possible for people to reach a resolution and still be in conflict after because needs weren’t met or power was used negatively.

Closing Thoughts on Conflict:

Conflict will always be a part of our lives. We cannot control or change that.

Humans have the beautiful ability of reframing our minds and change how we think about things. We can do that with conflict too. We reframe to conflict as:

The opportunity for growth, improved relationships and finding common ground.

Conflict can be a transformational experience if we allow it to be. It is an opportunity for growth and to build resilience. It can teach us how to communicate our needs and interests. We can identify our boundaries. We can also stretch. It can show us that patience really is a virtue. We can develop the ability to really listen to people to understand without judgment. We can sharpen our curiosity and empathy skills.

“Conflict forces us to be fully present because it shatters our ego—stripping away all hope of escape or sugar coating. It removes everything that is nonessential to our authentic being; it removes all superficial layers. Conflict is painful because it wakes us up out of our created illusions. And if we lean into it, conflict can be the catalyst to our enlightenment.” – Alison Hutchinson


One response to “Making Conflict Less Scary and More Productive”

  1. Wadsworth Pilot Avatar
    Wadsworth Pilot

    Been a while since I have gotten the pleasure of being in one of your training classes. Crazy you listed acknowledging conflict as the first point in resolving conflict; because it is also sometimes the hardest part. Super excited for this blog!

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