5 ways of dealing with conflict

 “I can’t stand that guy!  Every time we try to come to an agreement, all he does is poke holes in our idea.”  “She’s missed another deadline…  I’ve got to speak to her.”  “I need more resources but my boss won’t allocate them to me. I need to tell him I can’t be working these 60 hour weeks.”  Conflict is a constant in the work environment.  Unfortunately, most people really don’t like conflict, and they will do whatever it takes to minimize it.  And even though it is a necessary requirement of being a leader, we have seen a lot of leaders avoid these conversations altogether. 

However, science shows that conflict is a good thing, and is something that should be welcomed in the workplace.  The difference between a good workplace and an unhealthy workplace isn’t a lack of conflict among the colleagues.  Instead, how you and your colleagues handle conflict is what separates a great place to work from a toxic environment.  You need to be aware of how to manage conflict among your colleagues, and when done well you can use this natural conflict to the betterment of your team and your overall company.   

In this article we will introduce the 5 conflict mindsets, and how you can use these mindsets to manage your conflicts in a more positive and professional manner.  In the end, the goal of this article is for you to manage a conflict as painlessly as possible so that both parties are stronger, wiser, and able to move on.

How we deal with conflict

The foundational research on how we deal with conflict comes from the 80s, when 2 psychologists (Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann) found that a person’s mindset had two main variables when dealing with conflict.  For one variable they looked at how focused the person was on addressing their own concerns.  This was a person’s assertiveness score, and it represented how hard they fought for their own ideas.  The second variable looked at how the person focused on satisfying the other person’s concerns.  This was a person’s cooperativeness score, it is represented how likely the person was willing take the other person’s issues into account.

When placed in a 2×2 grid these score fell into 5 distinct mindsets for dealing with conflict.

  1. Avoid (low assertive & low cooperative) – “What conflict?”  These are the people that avoid conflict when given the chance.
  2. Compete (high assertive & low cooperative) – “It’s my way or the highway…”  These are the people that believe their ideas / concerns are the greatest, and are unwilling to even listen to the other person.
  3. Accommodate (low assertive & high cooperative) – “Let’s do it your way.”  These are the people that want to kill their enemies with kindness.  They aren’t avoiding the conflict, as much as they are just following what the other person wants to do.
  4. Compromise (medium assertive & medium cooperative) – “Let’s split the difference.”  Each person gives up something in order to come to an agreement.
  5. Collaborate (high assertive & high cooperative) – “If we work together on this, I am sure we can find an ideal solution for both of us.”  While compromising means that you have to give something up to get something else, Collaborating is about working together to maximize the satisfaction of both parties. 


Definition – Avoid is when we give low importance to our own needs and the needs of the other person.  While avoiding can mean physically leaving the room, more often it done by changing the conversation to something less conflicting.

Benefits – Avoiding allows time to cool off, or prevents emotions from escalating.  Sometimes the conflict is insignificant when compared to another pressing issue, and for that reason it is better to pick which battles you fight.

Weaknesses – If the issue doesn’t resolve itself naturally, then avoiding it won’t help.  It can hurt your reputation as a leader, if you are primarily known as avoiding conflict.

How Avoid matches up with the other conflict styles

  • Avoid vs. Avoid – Nothing happens, and that’s fine with me.
  • Avoid vs. Compete – I want to get out of the conversation because you always dominate the decision.
  • Avoid vs. Accommodate – I shouldn’t avoid this conflict when you want to accommodate my position.
  • Avoid vs. Compromise – If it is an all or nothing type of compromise, then maybe I should avoid it to buy some time.
  • Avoid vs. Collaborate – I should listen to what they are saying, because they want to work together.


Definition – Competing is when we want to win, even at the cost of the other person.  That is because we place a high priority on our needs (high assertive) and pay almost no attention to the other person’s needs (low cooperative).

Benefits – The compete mindset is great when the facts are clear (nothing subjective), the solution is straightforward, and we need the issues to be addressed immediately. 

Weaknesses – As there is only 1 winner that makes the other person automatically the loser.  If you compete too often, you may end up hurting your relationships. Too much of a compete mindset can give you a reputation of being uncooperative, self serving, and overall a bad colleague.

How Compete matches up with the other conflict styles

  • Compete vs. Avoid – They want to avoid you because of your competitive nature.  To get around this try and ask more questions.
  • Compete vs. Compete – Be careful of fireworks.  Make sure you stick to observable and objective facts.
  • Compete vs. Accommodate – This is great for you as you will give me everything, but when this happens you need to make sure you don’t completely dominate the other person.  If that happens too frequently, then they may start avoiding you.
  • Compete vs. Compromise – Sometime it is justified to never compromise, and sometimes it isn’t.  You need to know which battle this is.
  • Compete vs. Collaborate – The other person wants your needs to be met, so you should listen to their ideas.  Maybe they really have identified the idea that fulfills all needs.


Definition – Accommodating is the opposite of competition.  It is when we place a higher priority of meeting the other person’s needs (high cooperative) then meeting our own (low assertiveness). 

Benefits – Not every battle is equal in importance.  Some you need to win, and some just aren’t worth the fight.  Accommodating is the friendly option if what is at stake is something important to the other person, but little importance to you.

Weaknesses – If the issue is critical to you, then accommodating does little to resolve it.  If you accommodate too often, then your reputation will diminish, as you will be seen as a pushover.

How Accommodate matches up with the other conflict styles

  • Accommodate vs. Avoid – They want to avoid the conflict, but you want to accommodate their views.  Engage them in the conversation by asking for their inputs, and show how you want to help.
  • Accommodate vs. Compete – For one off conflicts this is easy, but beware if they tend to always compete and you always accommodate.  At some point you will have a battle you want to fight, and if they are always used to you accommodating them they might react even stronger against your views.
  • Accommodate vs. Accommodate – This occurs when the issue doesn’t matter much to either person.  Pick a solution and you should both move on.
  • Accommodate vs. Compromise – A person willing to compromise is willing to hear what you want.  If you don’t say anything, you won’t get anything.
  • Accommodate vs. Collaborate – Collaboration takes time, so if there is something you really want then tell them. Otherwise tell them they can pick the best solution.


Definition – Compromising is about giving up a little in order to get something in return.  We are still slightly assertive in pursuing our needs, but we understand that both parties cannot fulfill all their needs and so we are willing to cooperate to reach a fair agreement.

Benefits – Compromising is a quick an easy tactic, especially great when there is not enough time to collaborate.  The mindset shows we are trying to value the other person’s mindset, and that helps your relationship in the future.

Weaknesses – Sometimes compromising becomes too much negotiations and playing games.  Everything does not need to be a give and take.

How Compromise matches up with the other conflict styles

  • Compromise vs. Avoid – Be careful that perceived avoidance isn’t just a cleaver negotiation tactic.  Be up front with what you are willing to give up, in order to get them engaged in the conversation.
  • Compromise vs. Compete – You need to test their willingness to move on some of their needs.  Get them to share all their wishes up front to see where a compromise might be possible.
  • Compromise vs. Accommodate – While it is easy to take advantage of an accommodator, you should make sure that you do address some of their needs otherwise there may hold a grudge.
  • Compromise – This should be easy to do the deal. Find where you are both willing to compromise and get the agreement.
  • Collaborate – Collaborators want to find a way to fulfill both sides, so don’t be in a rush to compromise some of your needs. Listen to them, and see if there is a way you can both get everything you want.


Definition – Collaboration is when we focus on meeting all of our needs and all of their needs.  Often this takes more work to identify the solution, as it usually is not immediately apparent.

Benefits – Meeting both parties needs is the best outcome possible.

Weaknesses – The downside to collaboration is that it takes time to work together and find the ideal solution.  Sometimes an ideal solution is not possible, and then it is time to compromise.  In the wrong situation, collaboration can cause frustration, and the other person might just want a simple answer (accommodate or avoid mindsets).

How Collaborate matches up with the other conflict styles

  • Collaborate vs. Avoid – They want to avoid the conversation, so try and ask them questions to engage them.    
  • Collaborate vs. Compete – Ask them what may change their view.  Any response gives you something to work with in building your collaborative solution.
  • Collaborate vs. Accommodate – You need to make them feel important and that their point of view matters.
  • Collaborate vs. Compromise – Get them out of the dealing/negotiation mindset, by explaining there is no rush and that an equally beneficial solution may be possible.
  • Collaborate vs. Collaborate – Aim for the ideal agreement, but come up with options for other ideas.  Sometimes the first idea isn’t the best.

Be the bigger person

The final recommendation from us at Caveman in a Suit, is not really a tip or trick.  It is a call for flexibility.  Conflict is a common and necessary part of any relationship, but not all conflicts are the same.  Different situations and different people may require you to be flexible in your approach.  You need to be able to use all 5 mindsets, and not just 1 or 2.  Some people tend to think collaboration or compromise can solve just anything, but the reality is that sometimes you need to compete to get your needs met, or even avoid the conflict altogether. 

At the end of the day, you need to take ownership for dealing with conflicts.  You cannot wait for the other person to flexibly adapt to your reality, because they won’t.  Be the bigger person and make the first move.  If you don’t work to have manage these conflicts professionally, then neither will the other person.

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I would also like to give credit to the company who is the inspiration for this article on conflict.  I have had the pleasure to work with the international training company Mind Gym, which specializes in integrating best in class practices, science, and energetic activities into 90 minute training modules.  You might not think you can learn a lot in 90 minutes, but you would be wrong.  Mind Gym has created some of the best material I have ever worked with, and that is based on my experience running the training and development for 2 Fortune 500 companies. You can find more about them at:

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Cary Bailey–Findley has built High Performance Cultures within three Fortune 500 companies, and was awarded the ranking of #1 development organization in the world by the Association of Talent Development. He is currently the Talent Manager for SimCorp, but spends his free time helping startups scale up the the talent they need to succeed.

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