Addressing Conflict

There may be differences in your insights, interpretations and perceptions to those of your Supervisor/s which can be helpful and encouraged in order to broaden the breadth of your learning experience whilst completing your studies. Sometimes these may conflict strongly with your own ideas and intentions. The causes may be varied. They may relate to differences in your thoughts, the task you are attending to or perceptions and practicalities of the way in which you are working with one another. Should this occur it’s a good idea to begin to address the differences quickly.

Differences and conflicts are a natural part of learning with others. The most effective way of handling any differences is to pre-empt and plan for them.  When we are in conflict with others we tend make assumptions about the interests of the other party and they must be in direct opposition to ours. The reality is we can never truly know unless we confront the issue. How we go about doing this can vary according to the person we are in conflict with, the issues that need attention and the approach used. 

The Thomas and Kilmann’s Five Style approach can be beneficial to consider our own communication patterns, preferences, and manner. Conflict styles are the predominant ways that people deal with conflict. Most people rely on one or two styles. People develop styles based on experience and have reasons for the styles they use. The styles can however undergo change as they are not static and fixed. No one style is automatically better than another, but each has it’s benefits and limitations in different situations. It is helpful to use the styles to identify and elaborate on your own conflict styles. You can explore your own preferred styles using this resource:

Conflict Styles Approach emphasises two key dimensions in conflict: Concern for the self (assertiveness); and Concern for the other (cooperativeness). The five Thomas-Kilmann styles are: Avoidance, Accommodation, Competition, Compromising, and Collaboration. 

The styles explained: 

Avoiding involves a low concern for your own interests and the other persons. Avoidance can be either physical and/or psychological. It can helpful when the issue is trivial to you or when there is no long-term relationship. It can be demonstrated by walking away or choosing not to engage. There tends to be an underlying view of conflict as hopeless so avoid it and overlook the differences, accept the disagreement or get out because you don’t care about the issue. It can be helpful as a short-term response if you (or someone else) are very angry and need time to cool off before discussing the issue or if the situation becomes dangerous and you don’t need to be there. It is unhelpful as an approach when you rarely want to deal with the conflicts in your life or you care about the issue but are afraid to speak up. If you find that you keep being bothered by a disagreement with someone you need to have a relationship with it is helpful to consider a different style.

Competing is generally thought of as a win-lose orientation in which you try to maximise your own wins. It can be helpful when thing need to be done. It can be demonstrated through taking control of the situation and the outcome and discourages disagreement, insisting on our own view prevailing. It can be helpful when the conflict is simple and clear, when pressure and coercion are necessary to complete something quickly. It is not always helpful to maintaining an equal relationship with others or when difference and disagreement can help develop better outcomes.

Accommodating focuses on meeting the needs of the other person but ignoring our own needs. It is demonstrated through “giving in” to others. It can be helpful when the issue is trivial or when building trust in the relationship by protecting their interests is more important than addressing the issues of difference. There is an underlying view that conflict is usually disastrous, so yield to the interests of others. The emphasis is on putting the relationship first and keeping the peace at our own expense. This is unhelpful when our own interests are sacrificed, and the issues between us are ignored, especially when it happens a lot and we wish we could speak up more often.

Compromising involves a moderate protection of your needs as well as theirs. It is either known or assumed there are fixed resources but can be helpful when there are truly limited resources, there are no means to increase the resources, but progress can be made by the democratic process or sometimes chance.  It can be demonstrated through urging moderation, bargaining and meeting halfway. The emphasis is on mutual gain and loss through cooperation and compromise. It can help to reach a quick settlement relying on both being prepared to give up something. It is a hindrance when other options could have helped reach a full resolution and doesn’t account fully for development in the relationship.

Collaborating focuses on your own interests and the other persons and in maximising wins for both. The underlying view of conflict is that it’s natural and neutral and affirms differences, valuing each person’s uniqueness. There is a recognition that tensions in relationships and contrasts in viewpoint can and will exist and it is possible to work through these. It involves a problem-solving style in which you and the other person work together to address the problem. It is helpful when there is an existing and on-going relationship. The issue maybe complex, requires creativity and the implementation of the decision is necessary. It requires the ability to assert your views while also inviting other views, so welcomes differences, identifying all main concerns, generating options through exploring solutions which meets as many concerns as possible through mutual agreement. It requires the willingness to make available time and commitment to work something out that satisfies everyone where the relationship is important and feel strongly about the issue. It can be helpful when you want to get thoughts and feelings out on the table and deal with them, so they don’t cause problems later. It is unhelpful if there is a lack of concern about the issue, or you need to do something quickly as a matter of emergency. 

When faced with conflict, people are inclined to respond in different ways. The goal is to be able to use any conflict style according to the conflict situation. As a PGR student your objectives in completing your work, will be influenced by your relationship with your Supervisor/s. When conflict arises therefore both the way in which you work as well as the reasons for working together will require attention. Using styles that are helpful to this can influence the outcomes, and the experience. 

Rather than hoping or assuming, a proactive and reliable way of handling conflict would benefit from effective mutual communication skills (i.e. Confrontation, Confirmation, and Comprehension) Communicating for clarity and understanding to be able to work with the different points of view. Knowing which approach to use can be helped by identifying the problem. Define the issues first. You may not agree on the issues in conflict so it’s helpful to develop an opening statement to be able and willing to articulate why you are raising the issue and your needs. Include explainations to make your situation, perceptions, expectations clear. Create the opportunity to invite the other persons view point. Listening is as essential as articulating in effective communication and conflict resolution. Try to understand their perceptions and be prepared to ask questions in order to understand and encourage a response. Make sure you can distinguish between the issues to be solved and the people involved. Explore all the desired outcomes and why they would be preferable to ensure the underlying concern about the problem is addressed. This can then help you generate options to create as many solutions as possible before you evaluate them to decide which options are best. You can then begin to choose a mutually satisfactory solution/s and develop a negotiated agreement from the best solutions. Often the outcome is likely to be a creative solution that might not have been imagined if worked out alone. The agreements would still benefit from a review so it’s worth considering when and how these will be reviewed to ensure they continue to work or need revisions going forward.  

Having these conversations can be difficult but productive and benefit not only the work but the working relationship. If through the course of the conflict it becomes apparent that it is too difficult to do alone, explore the opportunities for support: are there any resources available to facilitate a conversation between you and your Supervisor such as a Mediation Service or another person who is able to remain fair and objective that can help you find a way forward? Whichever resource, or approach you use the intention is to address things as fully and as quickly as possible to avoid any escalation and free you up to be able to achieve your goals.

Written by Rupinder Mahil (University of Derby)



Womack DF. Assessing the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode survey. Management Communication Quarterly. 1988 Feb;1(3):321-49.