Handling Conflict

Common Approaches

Given the normalcy of conflict, many of us are still surprised and unsure of how to handle conflict when it arises - and it generally arises at some point. The natural tendencies for handling conflict are not always healthy options. Rather, learning how to clearly communicate perceptions of the situation and finding a mutually-beneficial solution are preferred ways to manage conflict.

Conflict is not exclusive to the VISTA or the working world. Every person comes in contact with conflict in different aspects of our lives, and we have developed our own natural response to conflict. Natural responses can usually be described as being passive, aggressive, or assertive in nature, as seen in the graph below.

diagram of conflict types

Adapted from Elemental Truths by Reginald Adkins

Passive responses are those that ignore or downplay one’s own desires, wants, or ideas in favor of another’s. This is usually done because someone believes that their own desires are less important than another’s – or not more important than maintaining peace. However, a person taking a passive stance can ignore the importance of their own ideas, thoughts, or emotions. By putting too much emphasis on others, they do not respect the importance of their own worth.

Aggressive responses ignore the importance of another’s thoughts, desires, or feelings in favor of their own ideas and wishes. By putting themselves first, they do not respect the value in another’s ideas, viewpoints, emotions, or personal boundaries.

Assertive responses use a style of communication where individuals clearly state their opinion and feelings and advocate for their rights and needs without violating the rights and personal boundaries of others. Assertive responses respect not only one’s own wishes, but the importance of other’s thoughts and ideas.

To find out whether you respond to conflict in a passive, aggressive, or assertive manner, take this self-identifying survey created by David Johnson in 1990.

Passive Responses


When conflict occurs, a person who uses the avoiding response withdraws from the conflict altogether, preferring to ignore that conflict exists rather than to resolve it.
Advantages: Can help maintain relationships that would be hurt by addressing conflict.
Disadvantages: Conflicts are not resolved, and the individual can be walked on by others by not standing up for themselves.

Appropriate times to use the Avoiding Response:

  • when the stakes are not high or issue is trivial
  • when confrontation will hurt a working relationship
  • when there is little chance of satisfying your wants
  • when disruption outweighs benefit of conflict resolution
  • when gathering information is more important than an immediate decision
  • when others can more effectively resolve the conflict
  • when time constraints demand a delay


When conflict occurs, a person who uses the accommodating response uses smoothing or accommodating styles to focus on the human relationship. They can ignore their own goals and resolve conflict by giving in to others. While this maintains the relationship, this can lead to a win-lose situation, where the accommodating individual is the loser.
Advantages: Accommodating maintains relationships.
Disadvantages: While the conflict is resolved, the needs of the individual have not been met. Continuous use of this style can lead to others taking advantage of the individual.

Appropriate times to use the Accommodating Response:

  • when maintaining that the relationship outweighs other considerations
  • when suggestions/changes are not important to the accommodator
  • when minimizing losses in situations where outmatched or losing
  • when time is limited or when harmony and stability are valued

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Aggressive Responses


When conflict occurs, a person who uses the competing response uses a forcing or competing conflict management style. Individuals who use this technique are often goal-oriented, with relationships taking a lower priority. They can be autocratic, authoritative, and uncooperative; threatening and intimidating. The goal is on winning, thus creating losers out of others.
Advantages: If the individual using this style is correct, a better decision without compromise can result.
Disadvantages: This style can breed hostility and resentment toward the person using it.

Appropriate times to use the Competing Response:

  • when conflict involves personal differences that are difficult to change
  • when fostering intimate or supportive relationships is not critical
  • when others are likely to take advantage of noncompetitive behavior
  • when conflict resolution is urgent; when decision is vital in crisis
  • when unpopular decisions need to be implemented

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Assertive Responses


When conflict occurs, a person who uses the compromising response concentrates, with concern for both goals and relationships, and is willing to sacrifice some of their goals while persuading others to give up part of theirs. They use assertive and cooperative language to find a middle ground, which is either win-lose or lose-lose since each side gives up part of what they were looking for.
Advantages: The conflict is removed while at the same time the relationships are maintained.
Disadvantages: Compromise may create a less than ideal outcome since both sides give up part of their goals. Also, game-playing can occur.

Appropriate times to use the Compromising Response:

  • when important/complex issues leave no clear or simple solutions
  • when all conflicting people are equal in power and have strong interests in different solutions
  • when there are no time constraints


When conflict occurs, a person who uses the collaborating response uses a collaborating or problem-confronting conflict management style valuing both goals and relationships. They view conflicts as problems to be solved finding solutions agreeable to all sides (win-win).
Advantages: Both sides get what they want and negative feelings are eliminated.
Disadvantages: Takes a great deal of time and effort.

Appropriate times to use Collaborating:

  • when maintaining relationships is important
  • when time is not a concern
  • when peer conflict is involved
  • when trying to gain commitment through consensus building
  • when learning and trying to merge differing perspectives

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