While each style can be appropriate to different situations, a collaborating conflict resolution style is generally the healthiest for relationships because it emphasizes a team-oriented approach to finding a solution that satisfies both partners. By the same token, a competing style often puts excess strain on a relationship because it pits one partner against the other with the assumption that only one can win.
Better conflict resolution skills can improve your relationships
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), one of the most widely-used models of conflict management, identifies five conflict resolution styles: competing, avoiding, collaborating, accommodating, and compromising.
Research suggests that conflict resolution style has an even bigger impact on the strength and longevity of a relationship than the kind of conflicts or frequency of conflict. In other words, how you fight matters more than how often you fight or what you fight about.
The Five Conflict Resolution Styles
The five conflict resolution styles described by the TKI are positioned along a spectrum of cooperativeness and assertiveness.
Cooperativeness refers to the extent to which a person tries to understand and satisfy their partner’s concerns. Assertiveness, meanwhile, refers to the extent to which a person seeks to satisfy their own concerns.
A style leaning too far to either extreme can be unhealthy. For example, people who are too assertive and make no effort at all to satisfy their partner’s concerns can end up making that partner feel uncared for and, ultimately, unfulfilled in the relationship. But people who are too cooperative and refuse to assert themselves at all can end up creating a similar relationship dynamic, where one partner always gets their needs met and the other never does.
This style approaches the conflict as if it’s a battle of wills where one person will win and one will lose. It’s less about solving the problem and more about figuring out which person gets to have their way this time. Eventually, this can erode the very foundation of the relationship as partners increasingly view each other as competitors battling for control over the relationship.
This style tries to pretend the conflict doesn’t exist. Avoidance is usually done out of fear that the conflict could hurt or even end the relationship. But it’s not a long-term solution because you can’t solve a problem if you refuse to confront it. This, too, can erode the relationship as the unresolved problem puts strain on it and becomes harder to ignore.
A collaborating couple treats conflicts as an “us versus the problem” situation. Rather than competing against each other, they work as a team to figure out a solution to the problem where both partners win. It leads to the best outcomes, but it also takes the most energy, patience, and empathy, especially when the problem doesn’t have an obvious win-win solution.
One partner chooses to neglect their own needs or concerns for the sake of keeping the peace. For relatively small issues, like where to go for dinner, that might be fine. But for bigger issues, it’s not a long-term solution because it only “solves” the problem for the partner whose needs were accommodated. The one doing the accommodating will still feel like the issue isn’t resolved.
A compromise is a middle ground between two opposing sides. It still positions the partners as competitors, but instead of fighting for victory, they negotiate a solution that’s acceptable to both. Rather than win-win, it’s more often a draw where each side is left only partially satisfied. For tricky issues where there just isn’t a win-win, compromise is a good alternative. But when couples rely too much on compromise, both partners can end up feeling like they’re sacrificing too much for the sake of the relationship.
Common Types of Conflict in Relationships
Conflict is normal in every relationship. The more two people try to build a life together, the more they will confront differences in views and expectations as they navigate the logistics of combining finances, sharing responsibilities, and agreeing on what they want for their future together.
- Financial disagreements. Couples can often get into disagreements about how to balance saving for the future with paying for the lifestyle they want right now. Others will disagree about how to share financial responsibilities.
- Parenting disagreements. Differing views on discipline, nutrition, education, and division of parenting labor can all be tough conflicts to navigate.
- Division of household labor. People might have different standards of cleanliness that are hard to combine. In other cases, one person might end up carrying more weight than the other.
- Intimacy. This refers to sex as well as other kinds of emotional and physical intimacy like cuddling, spending quality time together, and expressing your love and appreciation for each other. While it’s natural for intimacy to fluctuate over the course of a relationship, conflict can arise when one or both of you start to feel less loved than they used to at other points in the relationship.
How to Determine Your Conflict Resolution Style
To figure out which style you tend to use in conflicts, it helps to see each one in a real-world context.
Consider This Real-World Scenario to Figure Out Your Conflict Resolution Style
Picture a couple with a teenage daughter. While she used to get a good mix of As and Bs on her report cards in the past, it’s shifted to a mix of mostly Cs with a few Bs now that she’s in high school.
The first parent wants to discipline the daughter when she comes with her latest report card of mostly Cs. The lower grades are going to make it hard to get into a decent college and have a bright future. The second parent thinks discipline is uncalled for. Cs are still passing grades. As long as she’s passing her classes, she should be given some room to live her own life.
Now, put yourself in this situation and consider how you would respond. After, you’ve decided how you think you might respond, read ahead to see which style best matches your response.
- A competing parent would continue to rehash their own point of view, either refuting or dismissing any counterpoints or concerns brought up by the other parent. They’ll continue arguing until one gives in or they both get exhausted and temporarily drop the issue without resolving it.
- An avoiding parent would ignore the topic altogether. The second parent might hide the report card, for example, hoping the first parent doesn’t find it so they don’t have to confront the issue.
- An accommodating parent would just let the other one do what they think is best. The first parent might just drop the issue as soon as they encountered any pushback from their partner.
- A compromising parent would try to find a middle ground. Perhaps they settle on not punishing her this time, but sitting her down for a serious discussion and a warning that she will be punished if her future report cards don’t improve.
- A collaborating parent would look for a solution that addressed the concerns of both parents. That might look like sitting their daughter down to ask her about school and her plans for the future. The parents can uncover any struggles she might be dealing with that are causing the declining grades or else work with her to figure out what she wants for her future and what kind of grades she’ll need to achieve that. That way, the first parent can leave satisfied that they’re helping their daughter achieve the goals she has for herself while the second parent is satisfied that they’re not placing undue pressure on her.
How to Improve Your Conflict Resolution Skills
Conflicts are difficult by definition, so don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t great at resolving them.
Follow these tips to improve your conflict resolution skills:
- Forgive each other and start with a fresh slate. If your conflict resolution styles were unhealthy in the past, it’s easy to go into future conflicts expecting the same unhealthy dynamic to emerge. That expectation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you lean on old defensive habits that trigger your partner to fall back into their own old habits. So you both need to agree to forgive the past hurt and be patient and forgiving with each other as you work on developing a healthier conflict resolution style.
- Listen and repeat. Don’t interrupt each other when you’re talking. In addition to letting the other person finish speaking, start your response by recapping what they said to confirm that you understood them.
- Hold back judgment. If you feel the other person’s concerns are overblown or unimportant, keep it to yourself. Both of you need to be able to talk openly about your thoughts and feelings without worrying that they’ll just be dismissed.
- Treat it like a brainstorming session, not an argument. Each of you will throw out solutions that the other person doesn’t like. Instead of judging it, focus on addressing the elements of the plan that don’t work and suggesting alternatives.
- Brainstorm with empathy. Instead of focusing only on your needs, focus on ways to incorporate your partner’s concerns into the solution you’re proposing. Even if those concerns aren’t as important to you, you can still look for ways to tweak your original idea to address them. Your partner should do the same.
Can a Relationship Work If You Have Different Conflict Resolution Styles?
You don’t need to have matching styles to maintain a healthy relationship. However, it’s still important to find balance in how you resolve conflicts. If one partner has a competing style while the other has an accommodating style, for example, it’s easy for the relationship to become extremely one-sided, with the competing partner often getting their way.
It’s important to find balance in how you resolve conflicts.
If you feel like you and your partner struggle to really resolve conflicts or it’s become one-sided, couples therapy can help you develop a better approach.