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The Five Approaches to Resolving Conflict

by David Goldwich

There are five approaches to conflict. Your approach, based on your personality style and the other party’s style, will have a great impact on how and whether a conflict is resolved amicably.

The five approaches are:


A person perceives that a conflict exists and withdraws from it, ignores it, or avoids the other party to the conflict. People with the avoidance style

  • Do not appear interested; act as if they do not want to be involved.
  • Act passive or submissive at all times.
  • Do not respond unless the other party pushes them.
  • May be overly agreeable, conciliatory, and polite.
  • Put the other party’s needs ahead of their own needs.
  • Respond with statements such as “Whatever you want” and “It really doesn’t matter to me.”


One party sacrifices his own interests and allows the other party’s interests to take precedence in the interest of preserving the relationship. Accommodating personalities will

  • Apologize freely; not risk offending the other party.
  • Ask what the other party wants.
  • Put the other party’s needs ahead of their own needs.
  • Be very agreeable, conciliatory, and polite.
  • Make concessions early and freely, even if the other party does not ask for them.
  • Respond with statements such as “That sounds good to me” and “Whatever you think is best.”


One party seeks to satisfy his own interests at the expense of, or without regard to, the interests of another. Competitive people will

  • Dominate the conversation.
  • Interrupt the other party.
  • Insist on having their way.
  • Not offer reasons for their statements or behavior.
  • Focus on the other person rather than the issues.
  • Use put-downs and personal attacks.


Each party makes concessions and accepts a solution which only partially satisfies his own interests. Those who are quick to compromise will

  • Ask the other party for ideas and input.
  • Look for some underlying needs and interests—for both parties.
  • Focus on the problem, and try to solve it quickly and easily.
  • Strive to appear fair and balanced.


The parties cooperate and attempt to fully satisfy the concerns of each. A person with the collaborating style will

  • Ask lots of questions, and ask about feelings and opinions.
  • Listen attentively and paraphrase.
  • Clarify and summarize.
  • Ask the other party for ideas and input.
  • Look for underlying needs and interests—for both parties.
  • Focus on the problem, and try to solve it together.
  • Look for a win-win outcome.

The five styles can be arranged graphically as follows:

As depicted in the above graphic, the five approaches can be arranged according to two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperation. This model is widely accepted. The fact that assertiveness is deemed to be one of two critical variables in determining conflict management style illustrates how important assertiveness is in resolving conflict. You can see that people who rate low in assertiveness (that is, passive people) will not generally do well in a conflict situation.

What is your personal style when dealing with conflict? If it is avoidance or accommodation you are bound to lose. You must learn to be more assertive. You can learn to craft messages to assert your needs. You can act more assertive by adopting the behaviors and speech patterns of the assertive personality. You can learn to ask for what you want and say “no.” But you must be assertive. Seek to identify the style of the other party to the conflict. If he is significantly less assertive then you, does that mean you will win? Perhaps this time, but not in the long run. Nobody likes to be bullied or taken advantage of, and the relationship will suffer eventually if the outcome is always win-lose. Instead of pressing a passive counterpart in a conflict for every advantage (the competitive approach), imagine the result if you help him satisfy his interests. Not only will you resolve the conflict, you will have made a friend and strengthened the relationship. Your counterpart will like and trust you more in future interactions.

Notice that compromise is not the optimal outcome. Compromise results in only a partial win for each party. Yet many people are quick to compromise or “split the difference.” It sounds fair, but a split down the middle may not always be fair. It is an easy out for people who are not willing or able to be more assertive. An assertive person will strive to maximize her outcome. And if she also cares about the other person enough to help him maximize his outcome as well, you have a true win-win. Thus, the ideal outcome is based on collaboration, where both parties are highly assertive and highly cooperative.

Here are a few additional strategies for successful conflict management:

  • Separate the people from the problem. Focus on the facts and substantive matters, not on personality issues.
  • Involve other people, accept their input, and gain their support. Inviting the participation of others can reduce the chances of conflict later. This could also mean using a third party to help mediate a conflict.
  • Communicate clearly and openly. Conflict is almost always a communication problem. By keeping the lines of communication open, honest, and straightforward, you can resolve conflict more easily and minimize the chances of having a conflict in the first place.
  • Confront difficult issues frankly, fairly, and directly. Not only are these key to effective communication, they make you appear more credible.
  • Address conflict in the early stages before it gets out of hand. Conflicts have a way of snowballing, and are more difficult to resolve as time goes by.
  • Establish procedures for managing conflict and make sure all parties understand them. Do you have such procedures in place at your workplace? Do you have a set of “rules of engagement” for resolving disputes in your marriage? A clear set of ground rules can help keep the peace in any relationship.

Dealing with Difficult People and Mastering Conflict Resolution

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