Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

Know your default style

We each have our own unique way of reacting when faced with a conflict situation. Our primeval response is one of fight or flight, so when we are confronted by a threatening situation our brain will automatically scan the environment and determine whether we run away or confront it head on (see Amygdala hijack in the Emotional Intelligence topic).

We might like to think that we’re slightly more sophisticated than this – and indeed most of us are. However, when under the stress and pressure of a conflict situation, we all typically revert to a default style or pattern of behaviour.

Knowing your own style is useful because

  • You can identify patterns of behaviour that might not be getting you what you want when in conflict and you can therefore now do something about it
  • You can develop greater flexibility in how you approach and resolve conflict
  • You can begin to identify certain triggers that send you into your default response so you can now anticipate future events
  • You become more adept at influencing others by recognising their conflict handling styles.

Typical styles

The most popular theory on conflict handling was developed by two leading academics, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, who identified five typical human responses to conflict handling. Another popular theory developed by a group of leading Harvard academics is called The Harvard Negotiation Grid and looks at four typical approaches adopted in negotiations. These models have been adapted over time, but generally include the following:


People who adopt this approach tend to avoid any conflict or confrontation and are likely to withdraw, both physically and psychologically. They tend to bury their heads in the sand, pretending that a conflict doesn’t exist and avoiding addressing any issues with the other party. This is a lose/lose approach.


People who adopt this approach might tend to acquiesce with others; they behave deferentially to people in positions of seniority and place the needs and interests of others above theirs. Anything for an easy life is what they might say, but they may also feel frustrated and resentful at the same time. This is a lose/win approach.


People who adopt this approach might use their power, authority and strength to win their position. In fact, they tend to do whatever it takes to win. They might say things like, ‘It’s a matter of principle – I’m not backing down; that’s a sign of weakness.’ They place their interests firmly ahead of the interests of others. This is a win/lose approach.


People who adopt this approach are focused on getting everyone’s needs met. They see conflict as a problem needing a solution and they want to work with the other party to resolve it. They can look beyond people’s positions and are willing to explore their underlying concerns, ensuring they don’t get their needs met at the expense of others. This is a win/win approach.


People who adopt this approach may sit on the fence when it’s time to find a solution to their conflict. They’re neither competitive nor accommodating, so they might be willing to compromise on their needs, if the other party compromises on theirs. Nor are they collaborative or avoiding, because while they don’t necessarily deal with the issues in any great depth, they don’t avoid them completely. Their focus is on splitting the difference or looking for the quick middle ground that might not be the best solution, but will do. This is neither win/win nor lose/lose and can often be a place of stalemate or no deal.

What are your default responses in a conflict situation?

Do you recognise any of these responses in others?