A problem occurs between you and someone you know well. Your first instinct is to avoid talking about it, telling yourself that it will blow over. But the other person can’t rest and wants to work it out (their way). You feel pressured to engage when you would rather not. The other person is upset as well. The initial problem is no longer the only problem. The problem now has expanded to the secondary interaction which can cause intense emotions to swell forth.
Often people get derailed and think because there are acute emotions that any cooperative behavior is forestalled. That is not always the case.
Understanding different conflict styles and acknowledging that people instinctively default to certain conflict strategies can shed perspective on what has occurred and how to negotiate a solution without focusing on the emotional reactivity. (Why people have a particular default strategy is left for another day.)
Using the Thomas Kilmann schema as shown in the diagram* we see that conflict styles can be mapped along two axes: assertiveness (or concern for results based on your interest) and cooperativeness (or concern for people).
For example, highly assertive behavior with low motivation for cooperativeness would locate in “competing.” Competing behavior is focused on winning and preserving one’s point of view. It is often used when there is less interest in preserving a relationship but keen interest in the outcome.
Low cooperative behavior with low motivation for assertiveness would locate in “avoiding.” An avoider may have little concern about the outcome or deny there is a problem because it may be safer to postpone any attempts to address or resolve the problem.
The difference between an avoiding and competing style is that a person with a competing style stays focus on what he/she wants, whereas a person with an avoiding style tries to evade the problem all together and in doing so may suppress any attempts at interaction. When pressed, an avoider may use a variety of tactics including criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, anger or guilt. A competitor may feel like that such behaviors are an attack on the his/her identity. When that happens, it may in fact further provoke a competitor to either to resolve the issue and move on with little care about another's feelings.
Finishing off the cooperativeness axis, “avoiding” contrasts with “accommodating.” Accommodating involves highly cooperative behavior with a low concern for results, meaning that an accommodator is focused on the other’s interest and may yield or surrender to the needs of the other, whether from fear of asserting an interest or because of a high value on the relationship with less concern about outcome.
Similarly, highly assertive behavior and high motivation for cooperativeness locates in “collaborating”; meaning true collaboration demands the highest attention for a concern about the result and a concern about people. This is where a "win-win" solution, based on joint and active problem solving, can be found. Collaboration differs from “compromising” which is located in the middle of the grid. Compromising considers the results and the people but not at the highest level for each. In compromising there is a joint sharing of losses and gains whereas in collaborating there is an high effort to cooperate and get results that meets the needs of the people involved.
Asking people in the face of conflict not to be indifferent (avoiding) or to eclipse the other’s needs (competing) and use positive behaviors like interest-based joint problem solving (collaborating) requires each to significantly shift. Competing must be open to have a high degree of concern about the other and avoiding must develop a high degree of concern about the other and the result. It may require a skilled facilitator to help people make the shift.
*Conflict and Conflict Management by Kenneth Thomas in The Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, edited by Marvin Dunnette (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1976).