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The Five Choices We Make in Conflict Resolution

Conflict abounds in the church. Because no two individuals have exactly the same expectations, needs, perspectives and desires, conflict is a natural part of our daily interactions.

Research shows that most ministers spend several hours a week addressing some form of conflict. In the majority of cases, the outcomes are unsatisfactory and lead to personal fall-outs, pain, disharmony, and distractions from the mission of the church. That’s why models of conflict resolution, such as the Thomas-Kilmann model, are vital to learning how to manage conflict in the church more effectively.

The Five Modes For Conflict Resolution

The Thomas-Kilmann model has two dimensions. The first dimension, the vertical axis, is concerned with conflict responses based on our attempt to get what we want. Thomas and Kilmann call these the Assertiveness options. The other dimension, the horizontal axis, is concerned with responses based on helping others get what they want. Thomas and Kilmann call these the Co-operativeness options. This creates 5 basic types, or modes of response.

1. Competing, or “might makes right” means you take an assertive and uncooperative approach to resolving the conflict. When competing an individual pursues his own concerns regardless of how it affects the other party. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position. Competing often means standing up for your rights, defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win. Outcome: I win, you lose.

Examples of Appropriate Use:

1)     When a quick decision is required.

2)     When safety and security are at stake.

3)     When securing a contract or bid.

2. Accommodating, or “kill them with kindness” means you take an unassertive and cooperative approach to resolving the conflict, the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual acts selflessly and is willing to forego his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person. Accommodating might take the form of obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to or yielding to another’s point of view. Outcome: I lose, you win.

Examples of Appropriate Use:

1)     When maintaining harmony or a relationship is of utmost importance.

2)     When you know there is little chance of getting what you want.

3)     When the issue is of low importance and is “not a hill to die on.”

3. Avoiding, or “leave well enough alone” means you take an unassertive and uncooperative approach to resolving the conflict. You don’t want to deal with the conflict so you stall or ignore the issue. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing addressing an issue until a better time, or withdrawing from a potentially threatening situation. Outcome: I lose, you lose.

Examples of Appropriate Use:

1)     When costs outweigh the benefits.

2)     When time is needed to calm down or consider alternatives.

3)     When the issue is trivial.

4. Collaborating, or “two or more heads are better than one” is an assertive and cooperative approach to resolving the conflict. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find a solution or “third alternative” that fully satisfies both sides. Collaborating requires highly developed conflict resolution skills based on mutual respect, a willingness to listen to others perspectives, and creativity in finding solutions. Outcome: I win, you win.

Examples of Appropriate Use:

1)     When buy-in and commitment are required.

2)     When looking for long term solutions.

3)     When the issue impacts all aspects of the organization.

5. Compromising, or “split the difference” is a moderately assertive and cooperative approach to resolving the conflict. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. Both sides get something, but not everything. It falls in the middle ground between competing and accommodating, giving up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. Compromising might mean some give and take, exchanging concessions or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

Examples of Appropriate Use:

1)     When the decision is temporary or stop-gap.

2)     When expediency is required.

3)     When preserving relationships is important.

The Thomas-Kilmann studies show that each of us is capable of using all five conflict-handling modes. None of us can be characterized as having only a single rigid approach or style of dealing with conflict. Your natural conflict resolution style(s) is a result of your personal hardwiring, past experience and the requirements of the situation in which you find yourself. In reality each of us use some of the five modes more effectively than others and, therefore, tend to rely on those modes more heavily than others.

You will discover that all five modes are useful in some situations. The effectiveness of a given conflict-handling mode depends on the requirements of the specific situation and the skill with which you exercise that mode. To be an effective spiritual and organizational leader it is important to develop your ability to choose the right mode and increase your level of comfort with all five modes.

The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI) is an online self-scoring assessment designed to measure this mix of conflict-handling modes. Interpretation and feedback materials are provided to help you learn about the most appropriate uses for each conflict-handling mode.


Posted on July 12, 2016

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5