Are You a Conflict Avoider or Seeker?

by Marcianne Kuethen
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Are you a conflict avoider or seeker at work? Understanding your approach to conflict can enhance your workplace interactions–and your career.

Amy Gallo, author of The HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, says that most of us have one style or the other. Occasionally, we may switch it up, depending on the situation or the history of a relationship. But most of us have a default or natural tendency, and we should pay attention to it in order to get what we need and want in the workplace.

A friend of ours is extremely conflict-avoidant. As a leader, we’ve seen this quality both help and hurt him. On the one hand, it helps him handle customer relationships really well. Yet he has trouble managing employees who disagree with or confront him, and has lost some good ones because of it. Perhaps you can relate…or not!

Is one approach better than the other? No, says Gallo. Conflict seekers may get their way more often by nature of their higher level of assertiveness, while avoiders enjoy harmonious relationships. Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s an overview of both approaches:

Conflict Avoiders

  • Avoid conflict, shy away from disagreements
  • Value harmony and relationships, team cohesion, getting along with coworkers
  • Want to be liked
  • Are willing to sacrifice directness and honesty to ensure that relationships stay intact
  • Choose not to engage in difficult conversations
  • May let things go that are conflict-causing
  • Tend to physically shrink away, fidget with hands, turn red

There are some drawbacks to being a conflict avoider. You may not get your needs met. You may say yes to things you should say no to. And there may be conversations you actually need to step into. But you’ll also force yourself to develop and find yourself in new situations because you wouldn’t say no!

Conflict Seekers

  • Value directness and honestly over harmony and relationships
  • Seek out or escalate conflict
  • Are willing to tell you exactly what they think
  • Don’t care if things get heated
  • Can become fixed on their own version of the truth
  • Tend to physically lean into conflict, raise voice, be ready to engage

There are drawbacks to being a conflict seeker. You will probably be seen as a bully. You may say things you don’t mean, in order to win. But you will probably get what you want and need in your career.

Are you a conflict avoider or seeker?

Now that you’ve read the basic qualities that define both approaches, which do you think you use the most? Is your approach achieving what you want? If it’s not, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help you have more productive conversations, suggests Gallo.

For conflict avoiders, ask yourself, Am I doing this because I’m afraid of the conflict or because it’s best for the situation? Could I be letting more of this go? What is my goal in this situation? Does avoiding this conflict serve the project or discussion or relationship? What do I actually want and need from a disagreement or work situation? Is the true goal here for me to be liked, or is it to produce the best product we can?

As a conflict avoider, consider the conflict seeker’s need for an efficient conversation that accomplishes the common goal. Gallo suggests acknowledging this to your coworker and getting right down to solving the problem.

If you’re a conflict seeker, ask yourself, Am I leaping into this because I’m a seeker, or because this really needs to be resolved? Are there other ways to explain what’s happening here? What else could be going on for the other person? In what ways am I contributing to the problem here? What is the other person’s goal? What’s the rationale for what they’ve put forward so far? Try to understand where they’re coming from so you can resolve the conflict and ideally get what you need from the situation.

As a conflict seeker, consider the avoider’s need to be liked. Affirm that your relationship with the avoider is not in jeopardy and focus on what your mutual disagreement is actually about.

Of course, not all conflicts are between a conflict avoider and a seeker. Some may occur between two avoiders–and then you’re both in a stalemate unless one of you steps up your game and chooses a more direct approach. Gallo suggests asking permission, expressing what you’d like to do and asking the other avoider, Are you okay with that?

Of course, some conflicts may occur between two seekers–and then the whole office will probably hear about it! Remember, your goal is not to win or be right but to solve the problem, so focus on finding a solution that works for both of you.

With either style, Gallo warns, the conversation could escalate. Making accusations will only make the other person more defensive. Focus on what the other person is saying, not the tone with which he or she is saying it. If things get heated, take a break and set a time to reapproach the issue when you’ve both had time to cool down.

Your Company Culture

One last thing to consider is the context of your organizational culture. Is your company culture conflict-avoidant, or conflict-seeking? Depending on its approach, you may need to adjust yours. It will be hard to thrive in a place that relies on a direct, confrontational approach if you’re a conflict avoider, and vice versa.

Tips for Dealing with Workplace Conflict

Are you a conflict avoider or seeker? Either way, know that conflict in the workplace is likely to happen. According to Mediate.com, 85% of employees have to deal with conflict at some point. Research shows that 49% of workplace conflict can be attributed to personality clashes. Katherine Graham, a professional mediator, gives these 5 tips for dealing with conflict at work:

  • Be positive. If you want a positive work environment, contribute to it by being positive yourself.
  • Be aware of personality clashes. Don’t become involved in others’ disputes. Make it a point to value working well with every team member.
  • Communicate respectfully. Be especially careful with email exchanges since people can’t read your body language. And in person, don’t give instructions as much as seek coworkers’ cooperation.
  • Don’t get involved in emotional manipulation. If an exchange gets tearful, walk away and reapproach the conversation when everyone is more calm.
  • Know what’s important. Don’t make mountains out of molehills. Choose your battles!

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