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We all observe these modes in action in our everyday lives. Some people come across as crushingly aggressive, some as pushovers, and others as disinterested and disengaged in how they handle conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann model provides a way to categorize and qualify this common experience.

Within a given environment, such as the workplace, each of us tends to gravitate toward one or two modes of conflict handling. Each person develops her preferred or default conflict style based on culture, family, organizations we belong to, and our own aptitudes, skills, and comfort zones.

In helping people understand how they tend to handle conflict and open their minds to the wider range of options available, it is helpful to begin by discussing the roots of how we develop our preferred conflict management style. Culture and family, for example, play a substantial role. Think about how, as a child growing up, you were allowed to handle conflict with siblings, parents, and peers. Were you respected when you stood up for yourself or was this discouraged? All these experiences shape our perspectives regarding what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Sondra Vansant, author of Wired for Conflict, asserts that our innate personality preferences also play a role in how we manage conflict. For example, if you tend to make decisions based on how you think they’ll affect people (“feeling,” as identified by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument), you may be more prone to handling conflict by accommodating. Alternately, if you tend to make decisions based on facts and logic (“thinking,” as identified by the MBTI instrument), you are more likely to choose competing to address conflict.

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