Which Conflict Style Should You Use?


Every nail

Each conflict style shines for certain purposes, and fails for others. Thus, choosing the style most likely to bring you the results you want is essential for good conflict management.

Expanding your comfort and skill with all five style is one of the easiest ways to improve your conflict management abilities. Why? Most of us favor one or two styles and over-use them. It's rewarding, and not so difficult, to improve your abilities in all five styles.

To build your toolbox of conflict styles: learn the strengths and limits of each style, so you can choose your response, consciously and wisely.



  • Directing
  • Harmonizing
  • Avoiding
  • Cooperating
  • Compromising

When to use Directing - and When Not

Directing is most useful when:

  • An emergency looms
  • There is no time for give-and-take discussion
  • You are sure you’re right, and being right matters more than preserving relationships
  • The issue is trivial and others don’t really care what happens
  • Weaker parties need to be protected from stronger ones
  • Principles are at stake and must not be compromised, regardless of cost

Directing is least useful when:

  • Support and cooperation of others who want to be treated as equals is important
  • Used routinely for most issues; others either get annoyed and resistant or fall into passiveness and dependency in the presence of someone who chronically directs
  • Self-respect of others is diminished needlessly

When to use Harmonizing - and When Not

Most useful when:

  • Keeping others happy is the most important goal
  • Expressing your wishes may bring retaliation from others and you have no means to protect yourself
  • You really don’t care about the issue
  • You are powerless and have no wish to block the other person

Least useful when:

  • You are likely to harbor resentment
  • Used habitually in order to win acceptance by others (outcome: lack of self-respect and personal growth in you and eventually perhaps depression)
  • Unacceptable conduct or incompetent work needs to be confronted
  • Others wish to Cooperate and will feel like Directors if you Harmonize

When to Use Avoiding - and When Not

Most useful when:

  • The issue is trivial
  • The relationship is insignificant
  • Time to talk is limited and a decision can be delayed for now
  • You have little power to openly resist an opponent but you don’t want to actively go along with their wishes

Least useful when:

  • You care about both the issues involved and the relationship
  • Used habitually for most issues (leads to “explosions” or “freeze-out"
  • A residue of negative feelings is likely to linger
  • Others would benefit from constructive confrontation
  • Your role or duties oblige you to take a stand (even though you may personally prefer to Avoid or Harmonize)

When to Use Cooperating and When Not

Most useful when:

  • The issues and relationships are both significant
  • Long-term ability to work together is important
  • A creative outcome is important
  • Time and energy are available for discussion
  • Reasonable hope exists to meet all concerns
  • The people involved have the communication skills required (good listening, ability to present own concerns clearly and constructively, ability to examine problems deeply and look for creative solutions) or are willing to invest the effort to do their best to communicate and learn required skills

Least useful when:

  • The issues are trivial
  • Time and energy are in short supply
  • Key people lack the commitment to listening and talking things through required by this approach
  • You’re overloaded with “processing”
  • The goals of the other person are wrong beyond doubt

When to Use Compromising and When Not

Most useful when:

  • Getting an agreement quickly is a high priority
  • When the issue is of moderate importance; important enough to invest some energy in finding an agreement, but not important enough to justify the energy required to talk through every option in detail if you use Cooperating
  • Working together is important, but time or resources to Cooperate fully are limited
  • When finding some solution, even if less than ideal, is better than a complete stalemate
  • When efforts to Cooperate will be misunderstood as Directing (a concern when your opposite partner is very Harmonizing or Avoiding)

Least useful when:

  • In-depth analysis or finding the most creative solution possible is essential (use Cooperating instead)
  • When you can’t live with the consequences of getting less than what you want or need
  • Deep principles or values are at stake

Click on the tabs above for an overview of each style and when to use it.
Next topic: Support Strategies (what you need from others to function well).