Recognizing Your Conflict Style | Counseling | Therapy

Recognizing Your Conflict Style

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Conflict is one of the experiences that everyone has to go through, especially in relationships. According to Dr. John Gottman, couples’ therapist and researcher, the majority of conflicts happen due to differing personalities. Disagreements are simply inevitable. However, conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being able to process issues can be extremely healthy and necessary for all types of relationships. However, this healthy process can be difficult when you can’t recognize your conflict style. If you’re someone who has been struggling with handling disagreements, whether they’re big or small, this article is for you. When trying to solve a problem, it’s first important to know what the problem is, correct? Recognizing your conflict style grants you that clarity.

Why Recognizing Your Conflict Style is Important

Conflict is simply part of the human condition. People are social creatures with unique, intricate personalities. Therefore, it’s impossible to be completely in synch with everyone; disagreements are bound to happen. How a person deals with these disagreements come from their conflict style. This results in two main problems. One, a person’s conflict style isn’t always the most adaptive or healthy. Two, everyone has different conflict styles, with some being at odds with each other. This can be a little confusing, so here’s a closer examination.

A person’s conflict style is how they manage arguments, disagreements, and everyday issues. Though their conflict style may change depending on how big the problem is, people tend to stay consistent. However, simply because their conflict style is consistent, it doesn’t make it healthy. Imagine the person who yells during arguments, or punches a wall when upset. That way of handling an issue isn’t the healthiest for them, or the people around them. Though this is an extreme example, there are other conflict styles that aren’t the most productive. This becomes tricky when they interact with other conflict styles. A fine example of a poor combination is the distancer-pursuer dynamic. One person handles conflict by leaving the problem, while the other person chases the issue. Recognizing your conflict style makes these dynamics clear, which grants you the knowledge to make a change.

Examples of Conflict Styles

Before going into concrete ways to recognize your conflict style, it is important to first go over common examples of them. Once again, people are very complex, so keep in mind that the following examples aren’t exhaustive. Additionally, people can exhibit a combination of styles (e.g., a pursuer becomes a distancer after being shut down repeatedly).

Passive- These individuals don’t do well with conflict. Whether they don’t feel comfortable expressing their opposing views or whether they’re just apathetic, people with a passive conflict style tend to acquiesce when there’s a disagreement. These people often default to the other person’s needs in an earnest manner, or they stay silent despite having much to say. Regardless, the conflict usually ends with the other person getting what they want. In certain situations, this conflict style may have benefits. For example, in domineering relationships, being passive may be a safer alternative to vocalizing one’s needs. In less severe scenarios, being passive may be a quick and easy way to circumvent conflict.

Passive-aggressive- This conflict style is similar to the passive one. Though the passive-aggressive person still struggles with being direct, they still express their discomfort in smaller ways. For instance, they may agree to wash the dishes more often, but they’ll also give subtle criticisms while doing so. People with this conflict style aren’t happy with ignoring their needs, but aren’t completely comfortable with expressing them either. Furthermore, being passive-aggressive allows the person to express anger in a way that isn’t overly hostile. This can be especially beneficial for people who were taught that expressing anger is wrong.

Distancer- During conflicts, this person needs space from the source of the problem. There nervous system is usually elevated (e.g, increased heart rate, blood pressure), so they try to self soothe by taking distance from the issue. Essentially, they usually need time to cool down and re-engage with the conflict. Additionally, people who distance tend to assume that the other person also needs space. This creates a problem because the distancer is operating from their worldview, not the other person’s. While some people with this conflict style earnestly want to solve the issue in time, others want to distance indefinitely. In other words, some people always want to avoid conflict, while others simply need time to properly address the conflict. Distinguishing between the two is crucial.

Pursuer- Opposite to the distancer, the pursuer needs the conflict settled immediately. It’s uncomfortable sitting with the issue, so they take action until the problem is solved. This response can be quite natural. Biologically, the nervous system becomes activated when a person sees their loved one in distress. Continuing the conversation becomes a way to re-establish the connection, even if it leads to more fighting. After all, there’s the idea that negative attention is better than none at all. The pursuer ultimately wants to maintain a connection to the other person by finding a way to resolve the issue.

Direct- People with a direct conflict style get straight to the point. If there is an issue, they aren’t afraid to discuss it. These individuals are often open with their wants and needs. However, this candidness does not always equal tact and sensitivity. Some direct individuals say how they feel, regardless of the person on the receiving end. This can lead to communication that’s laden with aggression, which then perpetuates conflict. Though open communication has its benefits, the delivery of the message is especially important.

Reflect on Past Conflicts

One way to recognize your conflict style is to reflect on your last argument. Start by grabbing a sheet of paper and a pen. After you have thought of your last conflict, write down exactly what happened. Following that, delineate how you handled it. What was your emotional reaction, and how did you handle the conflict? Try to be as honest and objective as you can. Bending the truth would only make it harder to recognize your conflict style. To make everything clearer, here’s how the activity could look.

What Happened: My partner disclosed to me that he dated his co-worker before meeting me. They still work together.

How I Handled It: I felt insecure and jealous. I was afraid that they would get back together. However, I didn’t express any of this; I just pretended that everything was okay. My partner thinks that I’m really cool for not letting the situation bother me, even though it secretly does. Our relationship has been going well, so I’ve been too afraid to say something and rock the boat.

In this scenario, it’s likely that the person has a passive conflict style. Though there’s a clear conflict, the person would rather pretend that everything is okay. By reflecting on their past conflict and writing down how they handled it, the person’s passive tendencies may now be more obvious. The same can happen with you. Though it can be uncomfortable, reflecting on your past gives you the knowledge to change the present.

Reflect on Your Parents’ Conflict Style

Now that you have an idea of what conflict styles are, here’s an activity that’ll help you ascertain how you deal with conflict. Grab a sheet a paper and create three rows. After you’ve done that, think back to your childhood and teenage years. Reflect on the people who raised you (e.g., parents, grandparents, guardians), while focusing specifically on their conflict style. For the first row, write down the person’s name, their perceived conflict style, and evidence that they possessed that conflict style. Think of a different person for the second row, and simply repeat the previous steps. After you’ve done that, reflect on the traits that you may have taken from your guardians. In the third row, write down the similarities between how you and your guardians deal with conflict. Reflecting on conflict styles can be difficult, so here are some questions to help guide you.

  • How did your guardian handle arguments growing up?
  • What did you do during your last conflict (e.g., shut down, pursued the issue, accepted all the blame)?
  • When you did something you weren’t supposed to do (e.g., come home late, ditch school, drink alcohol, etc.), how would your guardian approach the problem?
  • What are you most comfortable doing during an argument?
  • How did your guardian manage conflict with others?
  • How would you know that your guardian was upset about something?
  • What have people said about the way you manage conflict?

Even with guiding questions, this can all be confusing, so here’s an example.

Person: Mother

Conflict Style: Direct

-Would never sugar coat things -Problems weren’t swept under the rug

-Conversations were to the point -I never had to second-guess things with her


Person: Step-Dad

Conflict Style: Passive-aggressive

-Struggled to express himself -Would subtly complain about issues

-Extremely sarcastic -Would act annoyed, but say things are fine


How I’m Like My Parents

-I can be sarcastic -I’m usually the one to bring up issues

-I don’t beat around the bush -My affect and words don’t always match


In this example, you can see that the person doing the activity shares some traits with their parents, especially their mother. This usually happens because people model their behavior on what they see. A parent’s conflict style is so influential because it sets the norm for the children. To be clear, a person’s conflict style can be independent of those who raised them. However, examining the conflict styles of one’s childhood is still a good indication of how the person currently deals with conflict.

Everyone has ways that they manage arguments, disagreements, and issues. That’s their conflict style. However, a person’s conflict style can sometimes do more harm than good. If that’s the case for you, a change may be beneficial. Before you attempt this, however, recognizing your conflict style is the crucial first step. Reflect on how your parents dealt with conflict, as well as your last experience with it. If those activities are insufficient in recognizing your conflict style, seeing a therapist could help. Schedule an appointment online at

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