Different conflict management styles are incredibly easy to pinpoint when you’re in a relationship. You want to talk, the text thread goes dark. You’re trying to compromise, they’re insistent that everything’s fine.
The bright side? Conflict management is a key part of relationships, and navigating the differences between the ways you and your partner approach disagreements can help you get even closer. But to begin, you need to know what conflict management is and be able to find common ground discussing it.
What Is Conflict Management?
Broadly speaking, conflict management is the way that each of you handle a conflict. Conflict management is a term often thrown around in the workplace, and there are many theories that may categorize conflict management into different “types,” such as avoidant or collaborative.
But communication is ultimately at the heart of conflict management, and you don’t need to read any theories or learn any specific terms to learn how to talk to your partner more effectively, says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of LifeStance Health, an online mental health resource and teletherapy practice. “Learning about your partner’s communication style is something that will evolve over time, but I would encourage open and honest discussions early on in a relationship,” says Patel-Dunn. “Just as you would ask about your partner’s goals and values to better understand who they are as a person, you can ask questions about their communication preferences to clarify where you see eye to eye and where you may need to work together to meet in the middle.”
The way you handle conflict depends a lot on how you’ve grown up, as well as what other relationships — both romantic and platonic — have looked like in your life. You might be inclined to separate yourself and cool down after a fight, while your partner might be eager to move on five minutes after you’ve each said your piece. What matters isn’t that you approach conflict management in the exact same way. What is important is that you have self-awareness and flexibility to learn, adapt, and communicate.
Know Your Own Conflict Management Style
Getting better at navigating conflicts begins with knowing how you manage conflicts, shares Tammy Shaklee, a relationship expert and founder of H4M, an LGBTQ certified matchmaking agency. “One thing I ask my clients is to talk me through their last relationships. How was conflict handled?” This is an exercise you can do by yourself, too. Think of your relationships and friendships, as well as how conflict was managed in your family. When a disagreement comes up, are you ready to fight or do you want to hold back? The point isn’t to change anything; it’s just to understand where you’re coming from — which you can then share with your partner.
Talking through conflict management styles when you’re not in a fight can be a great way to get on the same page when tempers rise. If you’re the type who needs space, let your partner know, so that when a text thread goes dark, they don’t assume that you’re giving them the silent treatment. And ask them how they would like you to show up in conflict, too.
“This doesn’t mean you need to do something uncomfortable,” explains Shaklee. “For example, if they want to talk, you can give them the space to talk and share their point of view, but then let them know you need some time to reflect.”
Lose The Labels
While there are different conflict management styles — one popular assessment tool called the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument (TKI) labels them as collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising — the most important thing isn’t the conflict management style you or your partner fall into, it’s the awareness of patterns that may come up within your unique relationship.
Instead of labeling, it can be a good idea to get curious and dig into the why behind your partner’s POV. “Getting more insights on their worldview can also help you to gain more understanding on how and why they communicate the way they do,” shares Patel-Dunn. Over time, your communication style will shift toward one that reflects your unique relationship. And a relationship is always time to grow and evolve. That’s why leaning on communication with your partner, instead of using a label to justify any behavior, can help you both grow and adapt.
A Couples Therapist Can Help Navigate Different Conflict Management Styles
It may seem strange to go to couples therapy at the beginning of your partnership, but for some couples, this can make a huge difference — especially if you feel like you’re not on the same page when it comes to conflict. “Couples therapy is not just for those seeking to improve a troubled relationship. It’s an excellent tool for couples to strengthen their partnership and gain a better understanding of each other,” says Patel-Dunn. “Understanding the most effective communication strategies for your unique relationship dynamic ensures that when challenges do arise, both you and your partner are well-equipped to effectively navigate the situation together.”
But even if couples therapy isn’t in the cards, talking through conflict (when you’re calm) and potentially reading relationship books together can help ensure you’re both on the same page when conflicts do arise — and even in the healthiest of relationships, they will.
Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of LifeStance Health
Tammy Shaklee, relationship expert and founder of H4M