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The Use and Misuse of an Avoiding Style in Conflict Management

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, available from Consulting Psychologist Press identifies five conflict styles – competing, compromising, collaborating, avoiding, and accommodating – and provides guidelines regarding when each is appropriate in conflict situations. The conflict style profiles developed by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann portray “avoiding” as being low in assertiveness and low in cooperativeness. When using this conflict mode a person knows there is a conflict but decides not to deal with it by ignoring, sidestepping, being non-committal or withdrawing from the issue or interaction. It puts parties in a lose/lose relationship where a choice is made not to address the feelings, views or goals of either party. Efforts are made to evade or delay the confrontation, problem or disagreement rather than deal with it. The goal is to avoid the conflict, at least for the moment.

Developmental Perspectives

From a developmental standpoint, a person who consistently takes an avoiding approach to dealing with disagreements has likely experienced life events which reinforced the notion that conflict is bad. This may have started in childhood with a domineering family member who, perhaps, had a problem with substance abuse or difficulty managing anger and violence. Expressions of disagreement may have been chastised and a sense of fear of retribution created. Family values that discourage arguing or displays of disapproval may also impact an individual’s willingness to assert themselves when they have a differing perspective. A person’s role or position of power in a family or organization can influence their willingness to speak up in opposition with the belief that it is not appropriate, or safe, to disagree with a person in authority. Also, despite advancements in this regard, sex role stereotypes still cause some females to be less willing to confront males over a difference of beliefs or perceptions. Individuals who see conflict as bad, threatening, or as a necessary evil, will likely avoid it physically and psychologically whenever possible. Alternatively, young people who grow up with opportunities to weigh options and constructively express their thoughts and feelings learn that dealing with differences can be healthy and rewarding. The development of assertiveness skills has both social and practical benefits. Courage to face the fear and stress inherent in the dynamics of conflict is gained through experiences in which managing disagreements is supported and encouraged.

When incorporated into family or organizational life the ability to know when and how to address differences results in better decisions and more productive outcomes. Learning to use good judgment in choosing what actions to take in response to conflict is an important key to success. Routinely challenging the decisions of others can cause unnecessary problems but selective disagreement, when handled appropriately, has the potential to generate benefits.

When is Avoiding Appropriate?

Avoiding conflict can be an appropriate choice, depending on the circumstances. According to Thomas-Kilmann avoiding is an appropriate form of dealing with conflict when used in the following situations:

  • When an issue is trivial and other issues are more important or pressing – use time and effort where it will be most productive.
  • When there is no opportunity to constructively address the concern – attempts to deal with the problem will likely result in futility and may make matters worse. It may not be the right time or place.
  • When the potential cost of confronting the conflict outweighs the benefits in addressing it – this requires assessment and judgment.
  • To buy time and give angry people an opportunity to “cool down” so that tensions can be reduced – it is important for parties to take a break to regain perspective and composure when the situation becomes heated.
  • To refrain from making a rushed decision and allow time to obtain more information or support – well planned and prepared decisions are usually the best decisions.
  • When it is more appropriate for others to resolve the conflict – resist getting in the middle of conflicts that are better dealt with by other people.
  • When the issue at hand is tangential or a “smoke screen” for the real problem that needs to be addressed – look for the core of the problem and not just the symptoms.

Avoiding Conflict and Myers-Briggs Type

Research using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® shows that individuals who consistently, and perhaps inappropriately, prefer to avoid conflict tend to be introverted rather than extroverted and are more likely to have a feeling preference rather than a thinking preference. Introverted people are more inclined to observe a situation and “hold in” their thoughts and feelings until they are sure of their position and are compelled to act on it. They are less inclined to spontaneously react to a conflict, or to provoke one, unless it is very meaningful to them. Introverts with a feeling orientation will be sensitive to the impact that the disagreement is having on the parties involved and will likely make decisions on that basis rather than based on facts or logic. Introverts who make efforts to avoid conflict may be seen as “passive” or “weak” but may also have the advantage of not engaging in conflict until the situation is right and they are prepared.

Working with Conflict Avoidant Individuals

It is clear that the use of avoiding to deal with conflicts and differences can have both positive and negative implications. When working with individuals as a supervisor, mediator, or friend it is helpful to get them to consider the pros and cons of avoiding conflict. Developing a strategy or plan requires that conflict avoidant individuals at least consider their options.

Choosing a conflict mode other than avoiding may be understood by conflict avoidant people as a better option but acting on this choice can still be very difficult. Ensure that emotions are under control so that the facts, beliefs, and goals regarding the disagreement can be clarified and understood as objectively as possible. Excessive fear can be emotionally paralyzing. Acting out of anger will likely cause impulsive behavior that can be damaging. However the energy derived from strong emotions is often the impetus needed for taking action.

Role playing or writing out a plan of action can give a conflict avoidant person the confidence they need to deal with the conflict. Assertiveness coaching may also help. These preparatory approaches allow individuals to express their thoughts and feelings in a manner that is typically less stressful than talking about them spontaneously.

It is possible that one party will be in a relative power position over another, such as a boss vs. employee. In these situations involve a person in a mediator role who can be neutral yet balance the power relationship so that the weaker party will develop the courage to address their concerns. When this is not possible the weaker party may need to include another person as a third party advocate or observer to help give them some support.


Most of us would like to avoid conflict as much as possible. In some cases efforts to avoid conflict are fitting and effective. In other cases avoiding conflict only contributes to the problem and prevents it from being resolved. Knowing the appropriate uses of avoiding as a conflict management mode, and understanding how personality dynamics influence this choice, will enable us to deal with conflict more successfully.


Dale Eilerman

Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance.  He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation.  Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning… MORE >

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