What Are the Different Conflict Resolution Theories?

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  • Written By: Pablo Garcia
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 April 2014
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Conflict resolution theories are structured around the type of dispute and the approaches to the conflict taken by the parties. Two central conflict resolution theories are the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) and the Interest Based Relational (IBR) Approach. The theory of TKI is that there are particular modes of dealing with conflict, and each is suited to different kinds of disputes. IBR puts forth a set of conflict resolution rules that should be used with any dispute.

Of the two conflict resolution theories, TKI places the most emphasis on the way in which the participants themselves handle conflict situations. It identifies five principal modes of approaching conflict. A mode that works in one type of conflict may not be suited to another type.

Competitive mode is evidenced by people who are operating from positions of power and have rank, expertise, and forceful personalities. This approach is most useful in emergencies, when quick decisions are required. It may cause resentments or be counterproductive in non-emergency situations. The collaborative mode attempts to find solutions that will satisfy all positions. It brings together all points of view and is most effective in longstanding disputes where tradeoffs are necessary.


Compromising mode seeks solutions that give at least partial satisfaction to all the disputants. Everyone must also give something up. It is most suited to avoiding litigation, where the cost of conflict is higher than that of the sacrifice. Accommodating mode meets the needs of others at the expense of one’s own. It is not thought the most effective conflict resolution approach, but may be adopted where peace between the parties in a volatile situation where there is little at stake but “winning.”

Avoiding mode seeks to escape conflict entirely, delegating controversial decisions. It is only useful where the dispute is minor, or another person should be solving the conflict. Understanding the different modes can aid in deciding how to approach a dispute.

Between the two types of conflict resolution theories, the IBR approach focuses on the application of six rules applied equally to all participants in the dispute. The primary rule is that all participants behave civilly and be understanding of the other party’s positions. Keeping people and problems separate is a rule that must be followed even when there are personality clashes between the disputants. Paying attention to the interest being presented by each of the parties is a key rule for effectively resolving the conflict.

Listening carefully is required of all the parties, as it is considered the best way to understand why another person has taken a particular position. This can yield insights into what that person really feels the dispute is about. Objective factual matters not in dispute must be established and kept separate from any emotions about those facts. Finally, options must be explored together by all the participants, as joint solution is the optimal way to resolve the conflict.


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