Managing conflict is an important skill you can learn in graduate school before entering the workforce. Mastering this skill is definitely useful to help you develop competency in interpersonal and communication skills. In addition, by establishing this skill, you create a framework for dealing with future conflict that may come your way.

As a graduate student, you try as much as possible to avoid any conflicts with a fellow student, a lab manager, and most importantly, your advisor. However, as time goes by, you find out that conflicts are unavoidable. Conflict is a normal part of any relationships and it can happen naturally between people who work together.

A conflict could be easy to resolve, for example a disagreement occurring between two students about cleaning up the clutter in the shared area of the lab. However, it could also be a tricky one, involving a graduate student and a Ph.D. advisor.

It could start when an advisor demands her graduate student perform more experiments, instead of supporting her efforts to graduate. It creates a tension between them, especially if the graduate student has finished all of the required experiments and has received an offer of a new job.

In this matter, as a graduate student, you might choose to sacrifice your personal needs and obey the supervisor’s demands instead. After all, a good relationship with a supervisor serves a crucial role in the successful career path of a graduate student. But is that really the best decision?

Skills in managing conflict help you to address your personal needs without burning any bridges with people whom you have to work with for a long time both during and after graduate school.

What is a Conflict?

By its definition, a conflict is ‘to fail to be in agreement’. However, a conflict can be more than a disagreement between two or more individuals.

In fact, it can also happen when an individual fails to meet needs and expectations of another individual. In graduate school, conflicts commonly occur between a graduate student and a supervisor. The sources of conflicts could be lack of information, lack of useful feedback, lack of time supervising, excessive control by a supervisor, lack of openness and honesty, and discrimination (Adrian-Taylor et al., 2007).

Why is Conflict Management Important?

Whether you like it or not, conflict is inevitable. Depending on how you manage conflicts, it can bring negative consequences or positive outcomes for you.

When you keep ignoring conflicts, they can grow bigger over time. It can also transform into negative emotions, such as stress, anger, resentment, and indifference, and deteriorate your relationship with the person with whom you have an unresolved conflict. Like a volcano—someday it can erupt.

On the other hand, when managed properly, conflicts can be constructive for improving interpersonal relationships between all parties involved.

What are Conflict Management Strategies?

According to Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, there are five strategies to manage conflict:

1.Competing (a Shark)

To make an analogy with an animal behavior, the way a competing style works is similar to how a shark attacks a prey. When dealing with a conflict, a person who uses this style is highly assertive and uncooperative. The approach is a ‘win-lose’ approach’, so this person must win at all cost without considering the concerns of the other person. In other words, this individual uses ‘my way or the highway’ tendency. The downside of this approach is losing a good relationship with the other party.

2.Avoiding (a Turtle)

Avoiding style is unassertive and uncooperative. Instead of dealing with a conflict, this individual avoids it as much as possible and silently withdraws. This approach is similar to a turtle hides in its shell when danger strikes, otherwise known as ‘no way’ approach. There is no action to resolve the conflict.

Conflict management, conflict management strategies, conflict

3.Accommodating (a Teddy Bear)

Accommodating style is a complete opposite of competing. The approach used in this style is cooperative, but unassertive. When dealing with a conflict, this individual tends to accommodate to the concerns of the other person or ‘your way’ approach, sacrificing his or her own concerns in the process. The analogy for this individual is a teddy bear. This approach usually minimizes the damage on the relationship between the conflicting parties.

4.Collaborating (an Owl)

Collaborating style is both assertive and cooperative. The approach of this style is ‘our way’ approach, so it helps to mend and improve the relationship among the conflicting parties. It requires discussing the issues, listening to all concerns of both parties, and discussing a constructive solution together. However, it takes more energy and time to solve the conflict with this approach.

5.Compromising (a Fox)

Compromising is a midpoint between assertiveness and cooperativeness or ‘halfway’. The analogy for this style is a fox. When managing a conflict, an individual tends to pursue acceptable and mutual solution for both parties. Nobody totally wins or loses with this approach, so the outcome tends to be unsatisfactory for both parties.

How to Handle a Conflict

Depending on your personality, each of us has his or her own way to handle a conflict. What commonly happens is that a particular conflict management style becomes the dominant response.

For example, someone, who always want to have a good relationship with other people, is more likely to choose avoiding or accommodating style when facing a conflict. The problem is this individual must keep sacrificing his or her needs and concerns. As a result, in term of avoiding style, the conflict may never get resolved.

Instead of choosing one particular style, it’s better to consider and match a suitable management style to handle each of your conflict and address your concerns.

Conflict management, conflict

Some factors could help you determine on how you match a management style with a conflict:


When dealing with a conflict, consider how much time you have to solve it. If your time is limited, collaborating style may not be the best approach. If you need to get the resolution quickly and your relationship with the other party is not important, you can choose competing style.


When you need to maintain a good relationship with the other party, avoid using competing style to manage your conflict and consider using collaborating style.


If you don’t have much time to manage the conflict and the outcome is not important, avoid the collaborating style and choose the accommodating strategy. However, when both relationship and the outcome is important, collaboration style is the best approach, particularly if time is on your side.


Consider how much power the other party have over you when facing a conflict. For example, when you have a conflict with your advisor, using a competing strategy to address your needs can risk your path to obtain your degree. If possible, use a compromising strategy.

How can Mediation Help Resolve Conflict?

If your initial conflict management strategy has met a dead end and there is no possibilities to resolve a conflict and communicate your concerns with the other person, it’s time to reach out for a mediation.

Mediation is a process to resolve a conflict with an assistance of a mediator. The function of a mediator in this matter is to facilitate a discussion between the parties, to resolve their different point of views between the parties, and to assist them on reaching a mutual agreement. However, a mediator typically has no power to make a decision on the outcome.

In the case of a conflict between a graduate student and an advisor, many universities have set up guidelines about a common procedure. For example, if they fail to reach an agreement between themselves, the first step can be seeking a mediation from the department chair or another faculty member.

Managing conflict can be an opportunity for a graduate student to improve intrapersonal and communication skill. When managed properly, conflicts can be constructive and bring positive outcomes for the conflicting parties.


Adrian-Taylor, S. R., Noels, K. A., & Tischler, K. (2007). Conflict Between International Graduate Students and Faculty Supervisors: Toward Effective Conflict Prevention and Management Strategies. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(1), 90–117.

An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) A long-term collaboration by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann - Kilmann Diagnostics. (2019, June 3). Kilmann Diagnostics.

Conflicts with Advisor | UW Graduate School. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2020, from

Conflict Mediation Guidelines. (2019). Stanford.Edu.

Dealing with Student-Faculty Conflicts: The Graduate School - Northwestern University. (n.d.). Www.Tgs.Northwestern.Edu. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from

Definition of CONFLICT. (2009). Merriam-Webster.Com.

Fiske, P., Apr. 24, 1998, & Am, 8:00. (1998, April 24). Dysfunctional Advisee-Adviser Relationships: Methods for Negotiating Beyond Conflict. Science | AAAS.

Mossanen, M., Johnston, S. S., Green, J., & Joyner, B. D. (2014). A Practical Approach to Conflict Management for Program Directors. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 6(2), 345–346.

Enam, T. (2020). Negotiating conflicts in graduate school. Apa.Org.