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Master Conflict Styles for Effective Communication in Leadership

Even with effective communication in leadership, you're going to run into conflict.Graphic Showing Wearing Gloves Ready to Fight The word "conflict" alone stirs up negative feelings, apprehension and the involuntary donning of a self-protective shield.

Effective Communication in Leadership Isn't Just Trying to Smooth Things Over

We forget that conflict can be healthy and productive. Complete agreement in every situation isn’t a realistic goal for the workplace or in our personal relationships. It’s not only unrealistic but would also be a recipe for disaster – without any dissension or debate, bad decisions would be left unchallenged and progressive change would be stymied.

Nevertheless, we think of conflict in negative terms. We do not value conflict and those who seem to stir it up earn negative reputations. This is due, in part, to the way conflict is often handled. We take it personally. We go on the attack and make it personal. We don’t fight fair.

Ideally, Effective Communication in Leadership Would Encourage Conflict

In an ideal situation, we’d do just the opposite. We’d mine for conflict to be sure we were looking at all the angles. We’d value the contributions of others who had opinions that were different from our own. We’d agree to disagree at times, all for the sake of keeping a healthy dialogue and to ensure that we had good representation of diverse thinking.

To make that happen, we’d need to depersonalize the conflict and keep it focused on the situation rather than making judgments about people who think differently than we do. We’d also need to understand that different people view conflict in different ways.

Effective Communication in Leadership Means Understanding Conflict Styles

Each of us has a preferred conflict mode or style. It’s the one we lapse into when we feel threatened or feel a need to protect our own interests. The preferred style affects the behavior choices we make during a time of real or perceived conflict. According to researchers Ralph Kilmann and Ken Thomas, there are five distinct conflict modes. Understanding your own preferred style and being able to recognize others’ styles will help you depersonalize conflicts, avoid judgments, and reach more productive outcomes when conflict occurs.

Although each individual has a preferred style, we are all capable of becoming more versatile and using any of these five styles to match the situation we are experiencing. These styles and their associated behavior choices represent how assertive we are in getting our needs met while also representing how cooperative we are in looking to meet the needs of the other party. The five styles, then, are:


High assertiveness and low cooperativeness. This can be perceived as a “winner takes all” approach to conflict. It may not be effective in preserving relationships because it feels like a one-sided and self-centered approach. However, there are some things that are not negotiable and in these situations there may be cause to hold a hard line in the conflict. 


Low assertiveness and low cooperativeness. This can be perceived as dodging the conflict or withdrawing from the discussion. It may not be effective in preserving relationships because it feels like disinterest and disdain. However, there are some times when a conflict of any type is not going to be productive and avoiding may allow for a “cooling off” period.


Low assertiveness and high cooperativeness. This can be perceived as being manipulative or as being a pushover. It may make others uncomfortable if you readily acquiesce to their viewpoints or requests because they will feel indebted to you and/or feel you did not contribute your own ideas to the discussion. However, there are times when it makes sense to accommodate others, particularly when something matters greatly to them and little to you.


Medium assertiveness and medium cooperativeness. This is a common outcome of conflict. It is positively viewed and getting to a compromise is touted as success. However, there is an inherent problem with a compromise. Both parties have given something up in order to meet in the middle. This means that neither party is fully satisfied. That dissatisfaction may linger if it remains unresolved and become the source of additional conflict.


High assertiveness and high cooperativeness. With collaboration, the conflict is resolved in a way that fully satisfies both parties. Usually, this requires expanding the conversation and looking at a bigger picture. Being vulnerable and able to trust the other party makes it easier to expand the dialogue and get to this stage. It does, however, take time and effort to collaborate. That’s why we don’t always choose this mode of conflict resolution.

Using These Styles for Effective Communication in Leadership

It’s worth noting that each of these styles serves a purpose. It would be inaccurate to say that you should never use or should always use one of these styles. The circumstances of the conflict situation and the behaviors of the other party should be taken into account when determining which style will be most effective for you. That’s why it’s helpful to be aware of these styles and to become more versatile in using all five of them.

Also worth noting is that we think others aren’t fighting fair when they use a style that doesn’t complement our own. We want to collaborate, but they are pushing for a compromise. We try to accommodate, but they keep pressing for more in a competitive mode. We draw the line about something that is a core value, using competing mode because it matters that much, and they end up avoiding the conversation and stalling a resolution. This isn't effective communication in leadership.

It’s not that people wish to be unfair in a conflict. It’s just that there is something in the way. That something is usually a lack of understanding about the conflict itself. So break those barriers down. Talk about the conflict as a healthy, productive means to a mutually desirable end. Depersonalize. Be versatile. Then you will be fighting fair and teaching others to do the same.

Next Step for Effective Communication in Leadership

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CONNECT 2 Lead graphic smalDeb Calvert is a certified Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker, Certified Master with The Leadership Challenge® and Trainer. She is the founder of People First Productivity Solutions, building organizational strength by putting people first since 2006.