Many times, people have asked me: “What is the best conflict mode — competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating — for managing differences between two or more people?”

As you can imagine, I always respond by letting people know that there is not one, single best conflict mode to use in all situations, since the effectiveness of each of the five modes always depends on how well the requirements of that mode match the eight key attributes of the situation. Each conflict mode, therefore, has its time and place; there is not a single best conflict mode for all occasions.

But even after I restate that situation-based perspective, people often repeat the identical question: “Yes, I hear you, but I still want to know: What is the best approach for managing employee conflict?”

Because people are always so eager to know the “best approach” for resolving conflict, the list below allows me to answer that popular question. In this article, we’ll review the steps to managing conflict in the workplace and on your teams.

The Best Approach to Conflict Management

  1. Know all five conflict modes are available to you at all times, in every situation.

First, it’s vital to know that all five conflict modes are available to you at all times, which becomes apparent when you study your results after taking the Thomas Kilmann conflict mode Instrument (TKI) assessment. Even if you discover that you typically rely on one or two modes most the time, you still get to see the other conflict modes that you have inadvertently neglected, since those underused modes have not previously been included in your behavioral repertoire. But from taking the TKI and seeing your results, you can now discover that you have more behavioral options available to you than you previously realized. With self-awareness and then trying out how to use those underused modes, you will have more behavioral choices in the future — for everyone’s benefit, including your own.

  1. Develop the ability to read (assess) the eight key attributes of any conflict situation.

The next step is to assess — or read — the eight key attributes in a conflict situation, as we’ve just discussed. So, after you’re aware that you theoretically have access to all five modes, and after you’ve also had a chance to practice using those five modes in one situation or another, you have to learn how to read the situation. This is so you can pick the best mode to use, and therefore, be more likely to satisfy your needs as well as the other person’s. The very first thing to assess is the level of stress in the situation, since that powerfully affects which of the five modes can be used under different levels of stress.

  1. Choose the conflict mode that best fits the eight key attributes of the situation.

Then we consider additional key attributes that pertain to the complexity of the conflict, for example, the relative importance of the conflict to each person, the amount of time to discuss the issues, trust between the two people and individual interaction skills (e.g., speaking nondefensively and being attentive).

We also “read the situation” to answer these additional questions:

  • What does the culture say about how to talk about and approach conflict in our group or organization?
  • What is the effect of the reward system on our conflict-handling behavior; and do we intend to address this conflict in a manner that will help preserve our relationship well into the future?
  1. Enact the chosen mode with care, sensitivity and respect.

Once we read those eight key attributes in the conflict situation, we then can choose to use the one or more modes that can be expected to be most effective in addressing and resolving the conflict in that particular situation. However, after we’ve selected a conflict mode, we must still enact that chosen mode with emotional sensitivity and genuine respect. I would like to emphasize that each of the five conflict modes can be enacted in an emotionally intelligent manner.

You can never control how the other person will respond, but if done well, it can be a great way of maintaining a relationship among participants. But if you enact a conflict mode without any regard to another individual’s feelings, needs, fears and concerns, such a defensive-producing approach always has negative consequences — both short term and long term.

  1. Switch to a different conflict mode as you experience changes in the key attributes of the situation.

The next item on this list of best approaches is concerned with developing the skill of being able to smoothly and easily switch from using one conflict mode to another as the key attributes of the situation change. If trust goes up or down, such a change might encourage you to apply a different mode (e.g., switching from the compromising mode to the collaborating mode or switching from collaborating to compromising).

But if you eventually realize that the issue isn’t as important to you as you had thought at the outset, you might then switch to a different mode, maybe from competing to accommodating. Based on your dynamic interactions with other people, you might, in effect, change one or more key attributes of the situation, which then suggests the use of a different conflict mode. Conflict management is dynamic, regardless of which mode you first use to begin the discussion. In sum, rather than initially reading the conflict situation and then using the same conflict mode during the entire discussion, it’s therefore critical for you to keep reading the situation. And every time you sense that something has shifted, anything that pertains to those eight attributes of a conflict situation, you can then choose a different conflict mode to use. That dynamic, flexible approach is the height of adaptability when it comes to choosing and using a sequence of one conflict mode after another, as the situation changes.

  1. Continue to improve your listening and communication skills — and your ability to engender trust.

The last bullet on this list of best practices emphasizes the importance of continually improving your communication skills and your ability to foster trust. Even though collaboration mode is not ideal in all situations, the more you use this mode over a period of time, the more people will get their most important needs met. Maintaining a high level of trust with other people in the situation can therefore allow you to use the collaborating mode more often than not. But never forget that it won’t be productive to collaborate under adverse conditions, such as when the issue is not that important, or you have little time to have a quality discussion on all the relevant aspects of the conflict.

Moving Forward

Managing conflict on your teams is important to promoting a psychologically safe workplace where employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves and innovating together. With these six best practices in their learning and development toolkit, managers can have the power to enhance communication and collaboration while driving better performance.