Conflict is a daily reality. Some conflicts are relatively minor and easy to handle. However, conflicts of greater magnitude require a strategy for successful resolution to prevent them from creating constant tension. The strategy requires using the best conflict style for each situation.

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...

Consider the follow conflict situations. Each is named for later reference:

  • Milk quality. An owner is listening to the milking center manager insist he has a better way to manage cow flow into the milking center. The owner realizes, from his vast experience, this idea would increase the likelihood of a treated cow getting milked.

  • Business strategy. Three owners are discussing alternative future directions for the farm.

  • Dinner out. Betsey and a new friend are deciding where to go for dinner. Betsey has no real preference about where or what type of food. She knows her friend has numerous food allergies.

  • Vacation request. A supervisor fields a request for a one-week vacation during a very busy period. The discussion becomes very argumentative and overly emotional.

Think about choosing seed varieties or matching semen from bulls. You have a variety of options; any one of the options may be best depending on the situation. For each situation, however, there is a best choice.

Similarly, we have several options for addressing conflict situations. Likewise, for any given conflict situation, there is a best approach. The approaches are called conflict styles. Below we discuss four conflict styles:

1. Competing conflict behavior: Competing is used to meet one’s own needs and concerns even if it is at the expense of others. This is the most assertive, least cooperative style. The result is an “I win, you lose” solution. When this style is used in excess, or in situations where it is not appropriate, feedback is stifled and hard feelings result.


2. Collaborating conflict behavior: Collaborating aims to satisfy needs and concerns of both parties. This style maximizes the need for both cooperation and assertiveness. It requires the most commitment, energy and time. The goal is to find “I win, you win” outcomes.

3. Accommodating conflict behavior: Accommodating places the other party’s needs and concerns above one’s own. It is a cooperative but unassertive behavior. The user defers to others needs, concerns and solutions. The result is an “I lose, you win” outcome. When used in excess, the user may feel resentment that his or her own ideas, needs and concerns are being ignored.

4. Avoiding conflict behavior: Avoiding means being unwilling to address the conflict. This is uncooperative and unassertive behavior and is indifferent to one’s own and others’ needs and concerns. This is “I lose, you lose” The user evades issues and effectively withdraws from a decision.

Please return to and re-read the four conflict situations at the beginning of this article. Think about which style is best for each situation. Here is my analysis of the best style for each situation:

  • Milk quality. The competing style is best here, as the milking center manager’s idea could create very negative consequences. The best use of the competing styles is to be firm and clear but not argumentative or harsh.

  • Business strategy. The collaborating style is best here, as you need collaboration and synergy to find the best direction.

  • Dinner out. The accommodating style is best, as Betsey’s friend’s need is greater than Betsey’s.

  • Vacation request. The avoiding style is best here as an interim strategy since emotions are out of control.

Think about your analysis of the four situations. Were there one or two styles that were your first thought for the best choice? If so, these are likely your natural styles. Just as you have favorite seed varieties and bulls, you have natural conflict behavior styles. These natural styles will likely be your choice if you do not consider which style is best for the situation.

Using the styles other than your natural style is often uncomfortable and difficult. The challenge is: We must alter our behavior.

Let me share a personal example. For those who do not know me, I am a very energetic presenter, I speak often (perhaps too often) in meetings and, although not a social butterfly, I am not shy in social settings. When discussing natural conflict styles, I often ask: “What do you think is my natural conflict style?” Usually, the answer is “collaborating.” Based on my behaviors, that is an insightful answer. The reality is, though, my natural styles are accommodating and avoiding.

I have changed my conflict behaviors to be successful in my chosen career. I can assure you, it has not been and still is not easy. The good news is: As you use new behaviors, they become easier and sometimes even become habits.

I conclude with two suggestions to assist you in selecting the best conflict style:

1. Active listening. We typically think of listening as a passive activity. That is wrong. Listening is hard work. We must listen to the content of what is being said and the emotions being communicated in the words, the body language and the tone of voice.

Don’t let your mind wander or your attention wane while listening. To the extent possible, refrain from diverting your attention from listening by thinking about how to respond. You may miss key points. I suggest, in intense discussions, get in the habit of pausing for a second or two before responding.

This pause shows you are listening, reduces the chance you will interrupt before the person speaking has finished and enables you to focus on listening as you now have time to prepare your response.

2. Recognize the difference between emotions and the behaviors we exhibit resulting from those emotions. Emotions are normal and very personal. The effect and impact of the emotion is primarily on the person having the emotion; it is internal.

This is the reason we should never tell someone else how to feel. For example, “Don’t be angry!” is a no-no. Our individual behavior in response to emotion is very different. The effect of the resulting behavior is primarily external. The impact is primarily on others. Since the impacts are external, others are impacted by behavior resulting from the emotion being experienced. Although our emotional reactions are natural and largely beyond our control, our resulting behavior is completely under our control.

Two final comments

If you would like to learn more about your natural conflict style, email Bob Milligan for a short self-disclosure exercise that identifies your natural conflict tendencies.

Begin now to use active listening, including the short pause, and the recognition of emotions and behaviors to assist you in selecting the best conflict style for each conflict situation.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

Bob Milligan