I find the five styles of conflict management a useful, easy-to-understand way of thinking about different approaches to ways of responding to conflict:
- Avoiding (the Turtle)
- Confronting (the Shark)
- Accommodating (the Teddy Bear)
- Compromising (the Fox)
- Collaborating (the Owl)
These five styles, identified by Kenneth Thomas in 1971  and since refined by him and his colleague Ralf Kilmann [2-5], are widely used, particularly in discussion of management styles.
According to Thomas and Kilmann, the five styles can be placed on a matrix involving two underlying dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness (see Figure 1).
I find it more helpful to think about the five styles as being on a matrix based on how important the goal is to you and how important the relationship is to you. I also like the additions of the animals as a metaphor for each of the styles. (See Figure 2.)
The following is a brief description of each of the styles and some examples of where each style might be appropriate (largely based on Blake  and Burrell ). Although a collaborating approach is the preferred style in a problem-solving approach to conflict – where conflict is seen as a problem needing to be addressed rather than as a competition between opposing parties – there are times when each of the approaches can be appropriate.
Turtle behaviour (Avoiding)
When acting as a turtle, people tend to hide in their shells in an attempt to avoid conflict and confrontation. This avoidance might be more important to them than their goal or the relationship. Sometimes, when people are being a turtle, they will give up on their goal or end a relationship rather than face up to the conflict or issue. It can involve a decision that, at this time, it is better to avoid conflict that to confront it.
Examples of when being a turtle might be appropriate include:
- When the goal or relationship is not important to you
- When confronting the issue is unlikely to make any difference
- When the costs of confronting the issue are greater than any benefits
- When it could be better to wait until things cool down, there is more information or other things have been addressed first.
Shark behaviour (Competing)
When acting as a shark, people are more concerned about their goal than the relationships. If they must choose, they will often choose their goal at the cost of the relationship. Being a shark often involves using authority or power-over, ignoring or intimidating others, or using threats or violence. There can be times when a goal is more important than the relationship.
Examples of when being a shark might be appropriate include:
- When facing an emergency or a decision needs to be made very quickly
- When the stakes are very high, and the potential consequences are significant
- When you are being stood over, threatened, or treated unjustly.
Teddy Bear behaviour (Accommodating)
When acting as a teddy bear, people value the relationship more than their goal. If they must choose, they will often give up their goals to help maintain their relationships or to support other people. Sometimes people acting as teddy bears believe that sticking up for their goals in a conflict will damage a relationship, so they let the other person have their way. Sometimes, they are willing to set aside their goals because they believe the value to the relationship is greater than the benefits of achieving their goals.
Examples of when being a teddy bear might be appropriate include:
- When the issue is more important to the other person than to you
- When strengthening relationships are more important than achieving specific goals
- When the other person needs some care and nurture
- When you have little hope of achieving your goals and you can accept the consequences
Fox behaviour (Compromising)
When acting as a fox, people are moderately concerned about both their goals and relationships. In seeking a compromise, they are willing to give up some of their goals in return for the other person giving up some of their goals. They seek a middle ground where both sides gain something.
Examples of when being a fox might be appropriate include:
- When you don’t have the time to keep going until everybody’s goals can be met
- When a compromise is OK
- When there is a history of mistrust and long-term conflict
- When compromising helps to move on with a complex issue.
Owl behaviour (Collaborating)
When acting as an owl, people value both their goals and their relations: they respect their own goals and care about the other persons goals. As an owl, conflicts are seen as a problem that can be solved (rather than a competition) and as having the potential to strengthen relationships. The aim is approach conflict in ways that helps build the relation and discovers ways forward that satisfy everybody involved. This is often called a win-win approach.
Examples of when being an owl might be appropriate include:
- When your goals and your relationships are both important
- When you want to strengthen your relationships without compromising your needs or goals
- When outcomes depend on everybody’s commitment
- When you need to work through difficult issues that have been damaging relationships
While each of these styles can be helpful, if we are largely stuck in one of the first four styles, then we are likely to be either not meeting our own needs or damaging our relationships. Being an owl take practice and persistence, but it involves attitudes, skills and approaches that can be learnt and strengthened.
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- 12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution
- 4 types of power: What are power over; power with; power to and power within?
- What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
- The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
- Power and strengths-based practice
- More posts in the “What is/are…?” series (Key concepts related to working with families and communities)
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- Thomas, K. W. (1971). Conflict-handling modes in interdepartmental relations [PhD dissertation, Purdue University].
- Kilmann, R. H., & Thomas, K. W. (1975). Interpersonal conflict-handling behavior as reflections of Jungian personality dimensions. Psychological Reports, 37(3), 971-980. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.19126.96.36.1991
- Thomas, K. W. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (pp. 889-935). Rand McNally.
- Thomas, K. W. (1978). Special section introduction. California Management Review, 21(2), 56-59.
- Thomas, K. W. (1992). Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(3), 265-274.
- Blake, O. E. (n.d.). Adkins’ conflict management styles assessment. http://www.blake-group.com/sites/default/files/assessments/Conflict_Management_Styles_Assessment.pdf
- Burrell, B. (2001). Conflict styles: The five conflict styles MIT. http://web.mit.edu/collaboration/mainsite/modules/module1/1.11.5.html