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Conflict Approaches, Pictured & Explained

Picture a pie.*

Your favorite pie. 

You’re hungry, and in the mood for dessert. You want that pie. You even want to eat the WHOLE pie! 

But there are others present. You know they want some pie too. 

Do you:

  • Insist it’s YOUR pie?
  • Decide to just make a bigger pie, so there’s enough for all?
  • Offer to split the pie evenly?
  • Give away your pie and go without?
  • Or, decide that maybe, even though it’s your favorite, you’ll just go without pie and get yourself something else...

I LOVE this example! And this perfect image to go with it, created by my friend Lauren Green in collaboration with Lizard Brain for Kate Morse Gigax.

The various attitudes toward pie represent conflict styles - everyone has a preference on how to approach conflict (strangely, my preferences are accommodating and competing…).

The 5 styles outlined in this image and represented by pie decision-making are:

  • Competing
  • Collaborating
  • Compromising
  • Accommodating
  • Avoiding 

These five preferences were first outlined by researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann back in the 1970s. The developed what is widely known as the TKI, which assesses preferences for how to approach conflicts.

While each of us has a preference for one or two styles over others, each of these approaches to conflict can be the best approach, depending on the situation.

When it comes to actual pie to be shared, compromise might be the best approach, once you determine who actually likes that particular type of pie. 

If it’s about running your business, you might take the competing approach - it’s your business, you have a vision, you know what you want and you go for it.

If it’s about how to spend your time with friends, perhaps accommodating is the best approach - at this point in the pandemic, just seeing people is wonderful, who cares how you spend the time! (Or maybe you do care, so you adopt a collaborative approach.)

Another piece of this graphic I adore is how they sum up what the two dimensions are. The conflict preference dimensions are assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here, “assertiveness” is summed up by “me;” and it is indeed more of a focus on yourself. Low assertiveness aligns with avoidance; high assertiveness aligns with competitiveness. “Cooperativeness” is summed up by “you;” and it does require more of a focus on others - especially your partner in the conflict. Low cooperativeness also aligns with avoidance; it’s a turning away from anyone’s role or needs in the conflict at hand. High cooperativeness aligns with accommodating others - not avoiding the conflict, but allowing others to feel they’ve won. 

Interestingly, it takes a high amount of both “me” focus and “you” focus to achieve collaboration, which can also be defined as co-creating a new path forward. Collaboration probably takes more energy than the other styles! 

I’ve written before about how I am fascinated by various behavioral and personality assessments. In this case, the TKI model assesses behavior, not character traits.

That means We can all learn to use different conflict styles.

My preference for how to “learn” this is pretty intellectual, to be honest: it’s a mix of getting super clear about your own goals in any conflict, and, using cognitive empathy and active listening to try to understand your conflict partner’s perspective. If something is super important to them, and less important to you, and your goals in the conflict include finding a resolution that lets you keep working with or being a friend to this person, then you might find yourself adopting an approach that’s not competitive. 

Spend some time thinking through different types of conflicts and how you have approached them - or - you can also take the TKI assessment for yourself. 

*What, you prefer cake? Cookies? Ok! Picture that!

**I regret that I did not have this blog post ready in time for Pi Day. 


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