5 Ways We Respond to Interpersonal Conflict

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A benefit of my consulting work is that it requires me to learn on a regular basis. As I prepared for an upcoming workshop about organizational conflict I was revisiting some books to refresh my memory. While doing this, I re-encountered a wonderful model about the different ways we respond to interpersonal conflict (Rahim). Five different approaches to conflict are illustrated in this Johari window.


Response 1 – Avoid [low concern for self and low concern for others]

  • Avoid the topic or situation causing the conflict.
  • Example – An email is sent to your team informing them that there is one gourmet cupcake left in the kitchen. Since several of your team want it, you just avoid the conflict and keep working.

Response 2 – Oblige [low concern for self and high concern for others]

  • We give in to what others want when there is conflict.
  • Example – You reach for the final cupcake at the same time your colleague does. You graciously withdraw your hand and say ‘go ahead, you deserve it’.

Response 3 – Compromise [moderate concern for self and moderate concern for others]

  • Find a solution which is acceptable to both parties.
  • Example – Instead of giving the final cupcake to your colleague, you suggest that one person cut the cupcake in half and the other person choose their half first.

Response 4 – Dominate [high concern for self and low concern for others]

  • Attempt to dominate the conflict through power, coercion or force.
  • Example – You tell your colleague that you saw the cupcake first so you deserve it.

Response 5 – Integrate [high concern for self and high concern for others]

  • Find solutions which are acceptable to both parties.
  • Example – You discuss the problem with your colleague and decide that if you sell the sought after cupcake and split the proceeds, you can each buy a whole cupcake at another store on the way home.

This research also has significant cultural nuances to it. For example, cultures that highly value ‘saving face tend to use obliging or even avoidance styles as a means to accomplish this. Rahim’s model is a useful way to identify responses to conflict because it is so easy to remember. Specifically, I appreciate how it reminds us that conflict avoidance is usually a lose/lose situation. So how about you – what’s your go-to style?

Head Shot

Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email: jeff@jeffsuderman.com

Source: A. Rahim (1983). A measure of styles of handling interpersonal conflict. Academy of Management Journal.

Photo Source: FreeImages.com/LisaKong


  1. Aiste

    Made me smile as i, of course, have personal inclinations. On the other hand, i tried to recall of more complex situations (than cupcake) in the organizational context. And i realized that often it can really depend on your postion (e.g., sales, marketing, R&D etc.) and existing internal bonus system. For instance, we had one specific ingredient that sold well in the market for almost a decade. Naturally, the cycle was starting to go down. As a team we had to come up with a new plan, different strategic item on the goods list. Sales reps were extremely combative as this was the item contributing greatly to their salaries, marketing and R&D department were somewhere in the green block, meanwhile top management were somewhat ‘purple’ – after all there was this team of people employed to do their jobs. Unfortunately, no compromise was reached – the item ‘died’, some were fired..and hopefully, at least few lessons learnt.

    • Jeff Suderman

      Excellent example – thank you Aiste! I think this example occurred in the Baltic States which adds another unique element to your story.


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