Wright Foundation | May 26, 2016

5 Conflict Handling Styles for
Constructive Interpersonal Conflicts

Life is full of conflict—and we all have different conflict-handling styles. Whether you’re someone who dislikes conflict or someone who jumps in, rolls up their sleeves and engages, conflict is inevitable.

Conflict is a vital part of growth. In fact, one could pose that conflict IS growth. When a seed is planted, it must push its way through the ground toward sunlight. It must find a path through the dirt. It has to resist pests, drought and storms just to grow. Just like a seed, we must engage in conflict to grow and develop.

Growth is tough stuff. It’s not always pleasant and it doesn’t come easy. You might feel you and your partner are often engaged in conflict where you say terrible things to each other you later regret. Maybe you get passive-aggressive, shut down and give your partner the hidden middle finger. Maybe you play the blame game, telling each other things like, “You’re just like your dad,” or, “You NEVER do such and such…”

Whatever conflict you’re facing, one thing’s for sure: most partners have different conflict-handling styles, and some tend to play into others more clearly. In fact, just like a magnet, some conflict styles are drawn out by other styles. At work, you might be a Competitor or a Negotiator, but at home, you might be an Avoider. It’s important to identify these conflict-handling styles so we can better understand them and learn how to navigate the roadblocks that might come up as we’re stretching ourselves toward the sun.

The 5 Conflict Handling Styles: Explained

There are five conflict-handling styles: Avoiders, Competitors, Negotiators, Pleasers and Synergizers. Each of these types has specific traits—and there’s no type that’s “wrong” or “bad.” In many situations, different conflict-handling styles are appropriate and can even be seen as strengths.

We discuss the importance of conflicts and engagement in our new book, The Heart of the Fight. Conflict can actually strengthen relationships and help reenergize your connection. The goal of conflict should be to fight FOR the relationship rather than against, and to play by the rules of engagement—essentially to fight fair. To understand the way you fit into conflict, you must understand the different conflict-handling styles.

1. Avoiders

Avoiders can identify when a situation isn’t worth engaging in or pursuing. They pick their battles. Avoiders would also rather just put their head in the sand and pull back (unlike Pleasers). In most scenarios with Avoiders, we’re engaged in a lose/lose situation. The Avoider is too ambivalent to fight for a win, and the other party doesn’t have a chance to win because no one’s engaged with them. Some Avoiders think they are Pleasers, but if they become passive-aggressive, then the truth is, they’re simply practicing conflict avoidance.

2. Pleasers

Pleasers, on the other hand, want to make their partner happy. They tend to put their partner’s happiness above their own. While this is kind and very altruistic, it’s also a recipe for passive aggression and resentment. The Pleaser isn’t acting in a way that meets their own needs and yearnings—they’re simply doing what they think will make everyone else happy. They tend to be engaged in what we call a lose/win situation. They lose on the outcome so the relationship can win. While this is, of course, okay sometimes, it’s not ideal in all situations.

3. Negotiators

Negotiators are engaged in a win-some/lose-some balance. While this may seem ideal, there are times when negotiations can result in a mediocre outcome, pleasing neither party. For example, if a couple is arguing over dinner and one wants sushi and one wants steak, negotiating a deal where you both go to a burger joint might result in no one being happy with their dinner. It’s a small example, but when it comes to negotiation, there’s always the risk neither party will end up satisfied.

4. Competitors

Competitors are engaged in a win/lose battle. They want to win and they want to win all the time. While this can be great when we want to win the championship, we might be emotionally knocking our partner out, so we’re left standing alone holding the victory cup. The outcome doesn’t result in an ideal situation for the relationship. You might be the winner, but the relationship loses. Competition can drive us and keep us sharp. It can keep us moving toward the things we want. Maybe you’re right, but you might also end up alone.

5. Synergizers

Lastly, we have Synergizers. Synergizers are looking for a win/win situation. They’re working toward the goals of the relationship and trying to find a balance that acknowledges the yearnings of both parties. They listen. They share their vision with their partner. They acknowledge their partner’s role and the importance of the feelings of those around them. We should all be perfect Synergizers, but of course, the drawback is it takes time to get to that point. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Conflict Handling Styles: Each Style’s Strengths

Each of the conflict-handling styles can be appropriate in certain situations. Getting down to the bottom of each situation can help you understand the heart of the fight. While synergy is the ideal state, it’s all about give-and-take and working together toward an ideal outcome. It’s not going to happen right away. It requires communication and understanding. It requires both parties to be on board and working together.

A skilled Negotiator can be a wonderful asset in a relationship when you’re raising teenagers together. In a work situation, you might find your Negotiator skills are highly valued and folks walk away from interactions feeling there was a mutual benefit.

If you’re a Pleaser, your caring and nurturing side is strong. You’re probably sensitive to the needs of others and you read their emotions well. Those who engage with you will be drawn to your fun and lively style.

Avoiders will have an easy time circumnavigating typical “drama” and sweating the small stuff as it comes up. At times, conflict avoidance comes from a place of suppressing your feelings and trying not to “rock the boat” per se, but it can also come from being able to quickly discern whether a situation merits addressing or if you can just avoid and move on.

Competitors can get what they want when they want it. Again, in business, this might serve you very well. You might get the deals you want, drive sales, and make purchasing decisions that can save your company big bucks. You might also drive certain types away because you push too hard. It’s a fine balance.

Understanding the different conflict-handling styles can give you insight into your relationships with your partner and your children, as well as at the office. It’s not holding back on conflict, it’s moving forward with it and learning to embrace it. It’s using conflict to propel you toward an ideal state within your relationship. It takes work, but it’s well worth the effort.

For more on engaging in productive conflict, moving toward the things you want and discovering your conflict handling style, click here to learn more about our next More Life Training. Learn how to strengthen your relationships, reach for the things you desire, unlock your potential, and live your best life.

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Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.