When you think of animals in the wild, you might imagine constant bloody battles for domination. However, most animals do not engage in conflict unless it is an absolute necessity, and will only go as far as to scare off their competitor . This is because conflict is costly at best and fatal at worst, even for the winners. For humans, navigating conflict can drain physical, emotional and material resources. For this reason, it’s vital that we only engage in conflict when the outcome exceeds the cost of engaging. Going further, by being strategic in how we engage we could potentially create outcomes that benefit both sides, building stronger relationships as a result.
Personally, I use the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKCI) during times where I need to navigate conflict . I have found it Immensely useful when debating with colleagues, and even during arguments with family members. The model helps you to navigate conflict by providing you with five different strategies.
To use this tool effectively, it’s important to have self-awareness. In many cases, destructive conflicts are caused by unmet psychological needs [1,7]. You can identify these conflicts by how both sides resort to personal attacks and judgements. However, while you can’t control the emotions you feel, you can control how you respond to the situation. You can achieve this by focussing on the outcome you want and resist letting your emotions influence your approach. Ask yourself, what is the ideal outcome I want from this situation?
Once you know this, you can apply the model to choose the approach that will help you navigate the conflict efficiently and with minimal cost.
Breakdown of the model
The model describes five different stances to take when engaging in conflict. Your choice should be determined by how you view the situation, and the outcome that you want.
The Avoiding stance is exhibited by the person sidestepping the issue. For example, going silent, responding in a non-committal manner, or walking away from the situation. This strategy is best used when the issue is generally unimportant, or when engaging in the issue costs more than the perceived reward. More simply put, if the cost of engaging is higher than the reward, avoidance is a perfect strategy. Don’t waste energy over every angry comment, it’s generally better to let them go.
As the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg advices, when it comes to marriages and the workplace “It pays to be a little deaf”.
Accommodating is the strategy that prioritises the other persons needs. A person using this stance will be listening and agreeing more. In other words, you are yielding to the other person’s point of view or demands. This is an effective strategy to use when the outcome is more important to the other person than it is for you. Being accommodating puts you in good graces and makes it more likely for other person to reciprocate in the future. It is a useful way to defer an argument until the outcome is important to you.
Competing is putting your own needs at the cost of others. It is a quick, powerful, and assertive approach that focusses on achieving the desired outcome quickly. When the result is Important to you and time is precious, this is the ideal approach. For example, in an emergency situation there is no time to debate what the best option is, assert yourself and make yourself heard. This is also an appropriate strategy when standing up for your own rights.
Compromising is quickly finding an acceptable solution that partially satisfies both sides. To reach a decision quickly, both sides will have to sacrifice some of their needs. In essence, you are splitting the difference. This is an appropriate strategy when the outcome is not important enough to require more effort, or when there is not enough time to work towards a win-win scenario. Compromising should be avoided when the outcome is vitally important to you, as you will always feel a little dissatisfied with the result.
Collaborating is an effective and often underused strategy when approaching conflict. Taking time to understand the root cause, you try to find a solution that fully satisfies the needs of both sides. In this scenario, engaging in conflict leads to a better outcome for all.
For this approach to be effective, both parties need to be open with their needs and be willing to fully explore them. This process takes time and can be uncomfortable. People who are collaborating will ask open questions, listen, and share their own insights. The collaborating stance is a perfect strategy when you want to take the time to develop a perfect solution. You should also use it to develop stronger long-term relationships.
My personal stories of applying this model
I had to present an important project to my boss. She disagreed with a lot of the content, and wanted to change it significantly. I could have been stubborn by taking a Competing stance, or I could have yielded by taking an Accommodating stance. If we Compromised then both of us would be partially dissatisfied with the result. I realised that I did not want to lose the core message of the content and I assumed that my boss was being difficult. By asking questions and listening to her, I realised that she was worried that the content was too complex for the audience to understand. Taking the time to work together, we edited the content to suit both our needs.
The end result was much better than what I could have achieved on my own. In this situation, it was worth taking the time and effort to find a perfect solution.
It was only after reading about TKCI that I realised that accommodating was a game-changing stance to take. A colleague once summoned me to his desk to show me that he found a technical error in my report. I disagreed. During our heated discussion, I paused and asked myself if fighting this point was important. I realised that correcting the error would not have changed the report’s message. I adapted my approach to being Accommodating, outlining that while I didn’t agree, I was happy to go forward with his correction. My colleague wanted to win this out of pride or ego, I was not willing to waste time and energy fighting him for it.
Choose your battles. You don’t have to win every conflict. Similarly, you don’t have to engage every time. I could have saved myself a lot of time by Avoiding this argument all together.
Moving from Competing to Collaborating
When conflict happens, we often engage assuming the other person is in the wrong. We don’t make an effort to understand the other person’s perspective, this is when we are potentially overusing the Competing stance. In my personal relationships, I have noticed that I sometimes jump to defend my position without first considering the other persons. In the moment I just want to be right, without realising that the cost of being right is hurting my partner. Once I stopped and asked my partner questions about their point of view, I realised that I wasn’t completely in the right. Collaborating is useful in building deeper and more functional relationships.
My concluding thoughts and personal tips
Once you understand the main outcome you want from a conflict you can start to consider how to engage. Conflict management techniques can be powerful in producing creative solutions or building powerful relationships. However, take nature’s advice, and only engage when the benefit exceeds the cost.
Here are some personal tips that have helped me to navigate conflict more effectively.
 Chun, J. S., & Choi, J. N. (2014). Members’ needs, intragroup conflict, and group performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 437.
 Craig, W. (1921). Why do animals fight?. The International Journal of Ethics, 31(3), 264-278.
 Rosenberg, M. B., & Chopra, D. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life: Life-changing tools for healthy relationships. PuddleDancer Press.
 Thomas, K. W. (2008). Thomas-kilmann conflict mode. TKI Profile and Interpretive Report, 1-11.
 The Challenge of Managing Conflict. (2020, February 19). Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/got-minute/202002/the-challenge-managing-conflict
 Vanhee, G., Lemmens, G. M., Stas, L., Loeys, T., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2018). Why are couples fighting? A need frustration perspective on relationship conflict and dissatisfaction. Journal of family therapy, 40, S4-S23.