Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

9.4: Conflict Management Strategies

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Learning Outcomes
    • Differentiate between conflict and disagreement.
    • Explain the three common styles of conflict management.
    • Summarize the STLC Model of Conflict.

    Many researchers have attempted to understand how humans handle conflict with one another. The first researchers to create a taxonomy for understanding conflict management strategies were Richard E. Walton and Robert B. McKersie.41 Walton and McKersie were primarily interested in how individuals handle conflict during labor negotiations. The Walton and McKersie model consisted of only two methods for managing conflict: integrative and distributive. Integrative conflict is a win-win approach to conflict; whereby, both parties attempt to come to a settled agreement that is mutually beneficial. Distributive conflict is a win-lose approach; whereby, conflicting parties see their job as to win and make sure the other person or group loses. Most professional schools teach that integrative negotiation tactics are generally the best ones.

    ABC’s of Conflict

    Example: Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire

    Read the following questions and select the answer that corresponds with how you typically behave when engaged in conflict with another person. Do not be concerned if some of the items appear similar. Please use the scale below to rate the degree to which each statement applies to you.

    Strongly Disagree - 1 Disagree - 2 Neutral - 3 Agree - 4 Strongly Agree - 5

    When I start to engage in a conflict, I ________

    1. Keep the conflict to myself to avoid rocking the boat. ________
    2. Do my best to win. ________
    3. Try to find a solution that works for everyone. ________
    4. Do my best to stay away from disagreements that arise. ________
    5. Create a strategy to ensure my successful outcome. ________
    6. Try to find a solution that is beneficial for those involved. ________
    7. Avoid the individual with whom I’m having the conflict. ________
    8. Won’t back down unless I get what I want. ________
    9. Collaborate with others to find an outcome OK for everyone. ________
    10. Leave the room to avoid dealing with the issue. ________
    11. Take no prisoners. ________
    12. Find solutions that satisfy everyone’s expectations. ________
    13. Shutdown and shutup in order to get it over with as quickly as possible. ________
    14. See it as an opportunity to get what I want. ________
    15. Try to integrate everyone’s ideas to come up with the best solution for everyone. ________
    16. Keep my disagreements to myself. ________
    17. Don’t let up until I win. ________
    18. Openly raise everyone’s concerns to ensure the best outcome possible. ________


    Avoiders Add scores for items 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, & 16 = ________
    Battlers Add scores for items 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, & 17 = ________
    Collaborators Add scores for items 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, & 18 = ________


    Each of the four parts of the EQ Model can have a range of 5 to 25.

    Scores under 11 represent low levels of EQ for each aspect.

    Scores between 12 and 18 represent average levels of EQ.

    Scores 19 and higher represent high levels of EQ


    Over the years, a number of different patterns for handling conflict have arisen in the literature, but most of them agree with the first two proposed by Walton and McKersie, but they generally add a third dimension of conflict: avoidance.


    Alan Sillars, Stephen, Coletti, Doug Parry, and Mark Rogers created a taxonomy of different types of strategies that people can use when avoiding conflict. Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) provides a list of these common tactics.42

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Avoidant Conflict Management Strategies
    Conflict Management Tactic Definition Example
    Simple Denial Statements that deny the conflict. “No, I’m perfectly fine.”
    Extended Denial Statements that deny conflict with a short justification. “No, I’m perfectly fine. I just had a long night.”
    Underresponsiveness Statements that deny the conflict and then pose a question to the conflict partner. “I don’t know why you are upset, did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?”
    Topic Shifting Statements that shift the interaction away from the conflict. “Sorry to hear that. Did you hear about the mall opening?”
    Topic Avoidance Statements designed to clearly stop the conflict. “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
    Abstractness Statements designed to shift a conflict from concrete factors to more abstract ones “Yes, I know I’m late. But what is time really except a construction of humans to force conformity.”
    Semantic Focus Statements focused on the denotative and connotative definitions of words. “So, what do you mean by the word ‘sex’?”
    Process Focus Statements focused on the “appropriate” procedures for handling conflict. “I refuse to talk to you when you are angry.”
    Joking Humorous statements designed to derail conflict. “That’s about as useless as a football bat.”
    Ambivalence Statements designed to indicate a lack of caring. “Whatever!” “Just do what you want.”
    Pessimism Statements that devalue the purpose of conflict. “What’s the point of fighting over this? Neither of us are changing our minds.”
    Evasion Statements designed to shift the focus of the conflict. “I hear the Joneses down the street have that problem, not us.”
    Stalling Statements designed to shift the conflict to another time. “I don’t have time to talk about this right now.”
    Irrelevant Remark Statements that have nothing to do with the conflict. “I never knew the wallpaper in here had flowers on it.”


    For our purposes, we have opted to describe those who engage in distributive conflict as battlers because they often see going into a conflict as heading off to war, which is most appropriately aligned with the distributive conflict management strategies. Battlers believe that conflict should take on an approach where the battler must win the conflict at all costs without regard to the damage they might cause along the way. Furthermore, battlers tend to be very personalistic in their goals and are often highly antagonistic towards those individuals with whom they are engaging in conflict.43

    Alan Sillars, Stephen, Coletti, Doug Parry, and Mark Rogers created a taxonomy of different types of strategies that people can use when using distributive conflict management strategies. Table \(\PageIndex{2}\) provides a list of these common tactics. 44

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Distributive Conflict Management Strategies
    Conflict Management Tactic Definition Example
    Faulting Statements that verbally criticize a partner. “Wow, I can’t believe you are so dense at times.”
    Rejection Statements that express antagonistic disagreement. “That is such a dumb idea.”
    Hostile Questioning Questions designed to fault a partner. “Who died and made you king?”
    Hostile Joking Humorous statements designed to attack a partner. “I do believe a village has lost its idiot.”
    Presumptive Attribution Statements designed to point the meaning or origin of the conflict to another source. “You just think that because your father keeps telling you that.”
    Avoiding Responsibility Statements that deny fault. “Not my fault, not my problem.”
    Prescription Statements that describe a specific change to another’s behavior. “You know, if you’d just stop yelling, maybe people would take you seriously.”
    Threat Statements designed to inform a partner of a future punishment. “You either tell your mother we’re not coming, or I’m getting a divorce attorney.”
    Blame Statements that lay culpability for a problem on a partner. “It’s your fault we got ourselves in this mess in the first place.”
    Shouting Statements delivered in a manner with an increased volume. “DAMMIT! GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!”
    Sarcasm Statements involving the use of irony to convey contempt, mock, insult, or wound another person. “The trouble with you is that you lack the power of conversation but not the power of speech.”


    The last type of conflicting partners are collaborators. There are a range of collaborating choices, from being completely collaborative in an attempt to find a mutually agreed upon solution, to being compromising when you realize that both sides will need to win and lose a little to come to a satisfactory solution. In both cases, the goal is to use prosocial communicative behaviors in an attempt to reach a solution everyone is happy with. Admittedly, this is often easier said than done. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that one side says they want to collaborate, and the other side refuses to collaborate at all. When this happens, collaborative conflict management strategies may not be as effective, because it’s hard to collaborate with someone who truly believes you need to lose the conflict.

    Alan Sillars, Stephen, Coletti, Doug Parry, and Mark Rogers created a taxonomy of different types of strategies that people can use when collaborating during a conflict. Table \(\PageIndex{3}\) provides a list of these common tactics.45

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Integrative Conflict Management Strategies
    Conflict Management Tactic Definition Example
    Descriptive Acts Statements that describe obvious events or factors. “Last time your sister babysat our kids, she yelled at them.”
    Qualification Statements that explicitly explain the conflict. “I am upset because you didn’t come home last night.”
    Disclosure Statements that disclose one’s thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way. “I get really worried when you don’t call and let me know where you are.”
    Soliciting Disclosure Questions that ask another person to disclose their thoughts and feelings. “How do you feel about what I just said?”
    Negative Inquiry Statements allowing for the other person to identify your negative behaviors. “What is it that I do that makes you yell at me?”
    Empathy Statements that indicate you understand and relate to the other person’s emotions and experiences. “I know this isn’t easy for you.”
    Emphasize Commonalities Statements that highlight shared goals, aims, and values. “We both want what’s best for our son.”
    Accepting Responsibility Statements acknowledging the part you play within a conflict. “You’re right. I sometimes let my anger get the best of me.”
    Initiating Problem-Solving Statements designed to help the conflict come to a mutually agreed upon solution. “So let’s brainstorm some ways that will help us solve this.”
    Concession Statements designed to give in or yield to a partner’s goals, aims, or values. “I promise, I will make sure my homework is complete before I watch television.”

    Before we conclude this section, we do want to point out that conflict management strategies are often reciprocated by others. If you start a conflict in a highly competitive way, do not be surprised when your conflicting partner mirrors you and starts using distributive conflict management strategies in return. The same is also true for integrative conflict management strategies. When you start using integrative conflict management strategies, you can often deescalate a problematic conflict by using integrative conflict management strategies.46

    STLC Conflict Model

    Ruth Anna Abigail and Dudley Cahn created a very simple model when thinking about how we communicate during conflict.47 They called the model the STLC Conflict Model because it stands for stop, think, listen, and then communicate.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): STLC Conflict Model


    The first thing an individual needs to do when interacting with another person during conflict is to take the time to be present within the conflict itself. Too often, people engaged in a conflict say whatever enters their mind before they’ve really had a chance to process the message and think of the best strategies to use to send that message. Others end up talking past one another during a conflict because they simply are not paying attention to each other and the competing needs within the conflict. Communication problems often occur during conflict because people tend to react to conflict situations when they arise instead of being mindful and present during the conflict itself. For this reason, it’s always important to take a breath during a conflict and first stop.

    Sometimes these “time outs” need to be physical. Maybe you need to leave the room and go for a brief walk to calm down, or maybe you just need to get a glass of water. Whatever you need to do, it’s important to take this break. This break takes you out of a “reactive stance into a proactive one.” 48


    Once you’ve stopped, you now have the ability to really think about what you are communicating. You want to think through the conflict itself. What is the conflict really about? Often people engage in conflicts about superficial items when there are truly much deeper issues that are being avoided. You also want to consider what possible causes led to the conflict and what possible courses of action you think are possible to conclude the conflict. Cahn and Abigail argue that there are four possible outcomes that can occur: do nothing, change yourself, change the other person, or change the situation.

    First, you can simply sit back and avoid the conflict. Maybe you’re engaging in a conflict about politics with a family member, and this conflict is actually just going to make everyone mad. For this reason, you opt just to stop the conflict and change topics to avoid making people upset. One of our coauthors was at a funeral when an uncle asked our coauthor about our coauthor’s impression of the current President. Our coauthor’s immediate response was, “Do you really want me to answer that question?” Our coauthor knew that everyone else in the room would completely disagree, so our coauthor knew this was probably a can of worms that just didn’t need to be opened.

    Second, we can change ourselves. Often, we are at fault and start conflicts. We may not even realize how our behavior caused the conflict until we take a step back and really analyze what is happening. When it comes to being at fault, it’s very important to admit that you’ve done wrong. Nothing is worse (and can stoke a conflict more) than when someone refuses to see their part in the conflict.

    Third, we can attempt to change the other person. Let’s face it, changing someone else is easier said than done. Just ask your parents/guardians! All of our parents/guardians have attempted to change our behaviors at one point or another, and changing people is very hard. Even with the powers of punishment and reward, a lot of time change only lasts as long as the punishment or the reward. One of our coauthors was in a constant battle with our coauthors’ parents about thumb sucking as a child. Our coauthor’s parents tried everything to get the thumb sucking to stop. They finally came up with an ingenious plan. They agreed to buy a toy electric saw if their child didn’t engage in thumb sucking for the entire month. Well, for a whole month, no thumb sucking occurred at all. The child got the toy saw, and immediately inserted the thumb back into our coauthor’s mouth. This short story is a great illustration of the problems that can be posed by rewards. Punishment works the same way. As long as people are being punished, they will behave in a specific way. If that punishment is ever taken away, so will the behavior.

    Lastly, we can just change the situation. Having a conflict with your roommates? Move out. Having a conflict with your boss? Find a new job. Having a conflict with a professor? Drop the course. Admittedly, changing the situation is not necessarily the first choice people should take when thinking about possibilities, but often it’s the best decision for long-term happiness. In essence, some conflicts will not be settled between people. When these conflicts arise, you can try and change yourself, hope the other person will change (they probably won’t, though), or just get out of it altogether.


    The third step in the STLC model is listen. Humans are not always the best listeners. As we discussed in Chapter 7, listening is a skill. Unfortunately, during a conflict situation, this is a skill that is desperately needed and often forgotten. When we feel defensive during a conflict, our listening becomes spotty at best because we start to focus on ourselves and protecting ourselves instead of trying to be empathic and seeing the conflict through the other person’s eyes.

    One mistake some people make is to think they’re listening, but in reality, they’re listening for flaws in the other person’s argument. We often use this type of selective listening as a way to devalue the other person’s stance. In essence, we will hear one small flaw with what the other person is saying and then use that flaw to demonstrate that obviously everything else must be wrong as well.

    The goal of listening must be to suspend your judgment and really attempt to be present enough to accurately interpret the message being sent by the other person. When we listen in this highly empathic way, we are often able to see things from the other person’s point-of-view, which could help us come to a better-negotiated outcome in the long run.


    Lastly, but certainly not least, we communicate with the other person. Notice that Cahn and Abigail put communication as the last part of the STLC model because it’s the hardest one to do effectively during a conflict if the first three are not done correctly. When we communicate during a conflict, we must be hyper-aware of our nonverbal behavior (eye movement, gestures, posture, etc.). Nothing will kill a message faster than when it’s accompanied by bad nonverbal behavior. For example, rolling one’s eyes while another person is speaking is not an effective way to engage in conflict. One of our coauthors used to work with two women who clearly despised one another. They would never openly say something negative about the other person publicly, but in meetings, one would roll her eyes and make these nonword sounds of disagreement. The other one would just smile, slow her speech, and look in the other woman’s direction. Everyone around the conference table knew exactly what was transpiring, yet no words needed to be uttered at all.

    During a conflict, it’s important to be assertive and stand up for your ideas without becoming verbally aggressive. Conversely, you have to be open to someone else’s use of assertiveness as well without having to tolerate verbal aggression. We often end up using mediators to help call people on the carpet when they communicate in a fashion that is verbally aggressive or does not further the conflict itself. As Cahn and Abigail note, “People who are assertive with one another have the greatest chance of achieving mutual satisfaction and growth in their relationship.” 49

    Mindfulness Activity

    Mindfulness Activity.PNG

    The STLC Model for Conflict is definitely one that is highly aligned with our discussion of mindful interpersonal relationships within this book. Taylor Rush, a clinical psychologist working for the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Neuro-Restoration, recommends seven considerations for ensuring mindfulness while engaged in conflict:

    1. Set intentions. What do you want to be discussed during this interaction? What do you want to learn from the other person? What do you want to happen as a result of this conversation? Set your intentions early and check-in along to way to keep the conversation on point.
    2. Stay present to the situation. Try to keep assumptions at bay and ask open-ended questions to better understand the other person’s perspective and experiences.
    3. Stay aware of your inner reactions. Disrupt the automatic feedback loop between your body and your thoughts. Acknowledge distressing or judgmental thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. Then check them against the facts of the situation.
    4. Take one good breath before responding. A brief pause can mean all the difference between opting for a thoughtful response or knee-jerk reaction.
    5. Use reflective statements. This is a tried and true strategy for staying present. It allows you to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying (rather than form your rebuttal) and shows the other person you have an interest in what they are actually saying. This will make them more likely to reciprocate!
    6. Remember, it’s not all about you. The ultimate objective is that both parties are heard and find the conversation beneficial. Try to actively take the other person’s perspective and cultivate compassion (even if you fundamentally do not agree with their position). This makes conflict escalation much less likely.
    7. Investigate afterward. What do you feel now that the conversation is over? What was the overall tone of the conversation? Do you feel like you understand the other person’s perspective? Do they understand yours? Will this require further conversation or has the issue been resolved? Asking these questions will help you to hone your practice for the future.50

    For this activity, we want you to think back to a recent conflict that you had with another person (e.g., coworker, friend, family member, romantic partner). Answer the following questions:

    1. If you used the STLC Model for Conflict, how effective was it for you? Why?
    2. If you did not use the STLC Model for Conflict, do you think you could have benefited from this approach? Why?
    3. Looking at Rush’s seven strategies for engaging in mindful conflict, did you engage in all of them? If you didn’t engage in them all, which ones did you engage in, and which ones didn’t you engage in? How could engaging in all seven of them helped your conflict management with this person?
    4. If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about the questions posed in #7 of Rush’s list. What can you learn from this conflict that will help prepare you for future conflicts with this person or future conflicts more broadly?
    Key Takeaways
    • A conflict occurs when two people perceive differing goals or values, and if the two parties do not reach a solution, the interpersonal relationship could be seriously fractured. An argument, on the other hand, is a difference of opinion that occurs between two people during an argument. The primary difference between a conflict and an argument involves the emotional volatility of the situation. However, individuals with a low tolerance for disagreement may perceive any form of argument as interpersonal conflict.
    • In this section, we discussed three basic forms of conflict management: integrative (collaborators), distributive (battlers), and avoidance (avoiders). Integrative conflict occurs when two people attempt a win-win situation where the conflict parties strive to find a mutually beneficial solution to a problem. Distributive conflict occurs when one or both conflict parties desire a win-lose orientation where they will win and the other person will lose. Lastly, we have avoidance, which occurs when an individual either tries to avoid a conflict altogether or leaves the conflict field.
    • Dudley Cahn and Ruth Anna Abigail’s STLC method for communication is very helpful when working through conflict with others. STLC stands for stop, think, listening, and communicate. Stop and time to be present within the conflict itself and prepare. Think through the real reasons for the conflict and what you want as an outcome for the conflict. Listen to what the other person says and try to understand the conflict from their point-of-view. Communicate in a manner that is assertive, constructive, and aware of your overall message.
    1. Think of a time when a simple disagreement escalated to a conflict. What happened? Why did this escalation occur?
    2. During conflict, do you think it’s appropriate to use all three forms of conflict management? Why?
    3. Think of a recent interpersonal conflict that you had that went badly. How could you have implemented the STLC Model of Conflict to improve what happened during that conflict?

    This page titled 9.4: Conflict Management Strategies is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.