Why Are Conflict Modes Important to Healthy Relationships?
You've probably heard about love languages, or the ways we show and receive love meaningfully. The five love languages include acts of service, gifts, physical touch, quality time and words of affirmation.
It's possible you have even heard about lust languages, or your erotic blueprint. It's what turns you on and includes sensual, sexual, energetic, kinky and shape-shifter personalities.
There is another language of sorts to add to the list: conflict modes.
Like with love and lust languages, knowing your conflict mode and your partner's style aims to help you avoid miscommunications, remember each other's needs and even understand yourself.
The 5 conflict modes and the psychology behind them
First, each of the five modes is on a spectrum between assertive or not assertive and cooperative or not cooperative. Additionally, depending on the situation, they can all be helpful and unhelpful (though some more than others).
One 2022 survey found that 50 percent of respondents in a serious relationship claim they lack a healthy style of arguing. Knowing that, figuring out how you handle conflict could help you improve your relationship.
"Understanding your own conflict mode can help you build insight into, first, how you argue, and second, how you want to argue," said Allison Lieberman, L.M.F.T., a licensed marriage and family therapist with Choosing Therapy in Los Angeles. "Understanding your partner's conflict mode can allow you to not take their reactions personally."
It might help change the way you communicate.
"Rather, you can see that they have defaulted to their comfort zone as a result of feeling overwhelmed by the conversation and can take that information to stop the conflict and revisit when you are both in a better place," Lieberman said.
Following are the five types of conflict-handling modes, according to Thomas and Kilman, and what kinds of people might typically respond each way.
Assertive and uncooperative, the competing approach is used when someone's main aim is to get what they want.
"A person using this style tends to be driven by a need for power or control," said Danielle Dellaquila, L.M.S.W., a licensed master social worker and a senior associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions in New York City.
This need may stem from not having a sense of control as a child.
"This person likely needed to prove that their point was accurate as a child," Lieberman added. "They likely were not believed or were blamed for things outside of their control."
While it's understandable, this style can hurt your partner when used too often or at the wrong times.
"It might help you get what you want, but it can cause the other person to feel controlled or unheard in the relationship when used consistently," Dellaquila said.
For better or worse, this mode can help give you insight into your partner's values to some extent.
"Competing also has the opportunity to make it clear how much each partner cares about the possible resolution or lack of resolution to the problem," added Kara Kays, L.M.F.T., a therapist and regional clinic director with Thriveworks in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
However, it's not always a "bad" choice. According to Dellaquila, it can be helpful if you have a hard boundary you need your partner to respect, such as talking to you with respect or not having sex at certain times.
Accommodating—unassertive and cooperative—is the opposite of competing. It's about choosing to sacrifice your concerns. You relinquish your control to the other person.
"These individuals were likely made to believe their thoughts, feelings and opinions were not important in a conversation and do not matter," Lieberman said. "To end the conflict, they likely agree with the other person to move on."
It's not always "bad," either. If the argument is over something that doesn't matter that much to you that night—what you eat for dinner or which movie you watch—this style can come in handy, according to Dellaquila.
However, if a partner is constantly accommodating, or accommodating when they don't want to, resentment can develop, said Kays, who specializes in relationships, self-esteem, family dynamics and couples counseling.
Avoiding style is what it sounds like: stepping away from the problem. It's both unassertive and uncooperative. According to Lieberman, people who are afraid of conflict or don't know how to address it the "right" way may be in this mode more often—and there's no shame in that.
"Conflict can be a challenge, especially if someone doesn't believe their wants and needs are valued, respected or understood," Kays said.
Ideally, it's best used momentarily and to avoid intensifying the situation. An example Lieberman mentioned is when you feel your safety is at risk.
"Choosing to disengage can be a helpful tool when needed," she said.
"[It can be helpful if] you are at an event or in the middle of something important, and conflict comes up that could cause greater problems and distress if addressed immediately," Dellaquila added.
However, if this continues over time or is never addressed, it can cause resentment to build as it blocks communication, she continued.
The opposite of avoiding is collaborating, or working toward a solution with your partner. It's both assertive and cooperative.
"Collaborating is extremely important in healthy relationships when working towards a solution to a problem that feels important to both partners," Kays said.
Dellaquila said it goes to the root of the issue for both partners and is great for larger arguments. It does require a lot of insight and empathy and validation, though.
People who use this style probably grew up learning "that conflict is healthy and can be discussed in a way that each person can understand and create empathy for each other," Lieberman said. It's a solution that fully satisfies both parties in the conflict.
However, it can be tedious. If this style were used in a minor disagreement, it could over-complicate simple issues. It involves trust and open communication while everyone shares their point of view.
Compromising is all about finding a solution you're both OK with. It's moderately assertive and moderately cooperative. It's the middle ground of the five styles of conflict management.
"These individuals likely were taught that disappointment is an emotion we all feel, and we can still advocate for our needs respectfully," Lieberman noted.
Try to see it as a win-win.
"Compromise is not a bad word," Kays said, recommending compromise if you don't have time to collaborate with your partner.
However, she and Dellaquila encouraged being mindful of your use of it.
"Resentment could build up over time if quick compromises continue without going deeper into the problems," Dellaquila said.
In other words, don't use the compromising style to avoid conflict.
Do people have a go-to conflict style?
The short answer: yes. Some of these conflict resolution styles will feel more second nature than others. Kays said this could be based on your personality, past experiences and learning environments. Dellaquila pointed to the context and the person you're in conflict with.
Another interesting tidbit: You may think you're more likely to exhibit one style when in actuality, your actions look different, according to Kays.
Maybe you want to think you're more likely to compromise, but because you're tired of compromising so much, you end up competing.
Is one of the conflict modes the 'gold standard'?
With all the discussion about how to fight fair, you may wonder if one of these modes is the healthiest or most effective way to attempt to work out an issue. According to Kays, there's no true "best way" for every situation.
"Each style can be beneficial in different settings and with different emotional commitments to resolving an issue," she said.
Dellaquila recommended leaning on collaborating and compromising most often and bringing in the other styles when the situation calls for it. Lieberman added that collaborating and compromising typically require a few things from each partner:
- A willingness to engage
- Emotional intelligence
- Emotional regulation skills
- A calm situation
Final advice for healthy arguments
With so many ways to argue and so many situations in which different modes are helpful (or not helpful), is there any general advice that can help us long-term?
Yes, according to Kays.
"It is helpful for you to recognize your own level of engagement with the problem and your willingness to engage in finding a solution," she said. "Each style is common for a reason: There has been a time it has worked. However, if you find yourself reverting back to a style that doesn't work with your partner, it's OK to try a different approach."
If you find that your conflict mode isn't helping your relationship—either with yourself or with your partner—Lieberman has a recommendation for you, depending on your mode:
- Competing. Pick your battles, knowing when to set boundaries. "You do not have to win everything to be heard," she said.
- Accommodating. Stand up for yourself when your needs aren't being met—even (and maybe especially) when it's uncomfortable. Even if people get mad at you, it is OK.
- Avoiding. Pushing conflict down often means it grows, not goes away.
- Collaborating. While this is typically a great option, it's not one that everyone is always capable of doing.
- Compromising. Walking away with a peaceful resolution is a helpful tool in a relationship—as long as it doesn't lead to resentment.
The bottom line
Dealing with your conflict mode and your partner's will probably always be something to address, though hopefully less often as the relationship continues. Ultimately, it's about doing your best every day to work with your partner and apologizing (in their love language, of course) when needed.