Develop Students' Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are directly related to team success. Students who have not had a lot of team experience may be in particular need of skill development.  Fortunately, these skills are easily learned and everyone benefits from participating because we all have room to improve. Below are five skills areas to consider. An overview of each skill area (which can be used in the classroom) is provided, followed by one or more classroom activities.  The activities have all been used by Professor Janine Bowen at Goucher College. Feel free to contact her for more information or assistance.

Understanding Personality Differences

Individuals are unique in terms of their skills, abilities, personalities, perceptions, attitudes, emotions and ethics. Personality differences, in particular, often play a major role in group dynamics because personalities different from our own can be easily misinterpreted.   Unless you are teaching a course in Psychology, a thorough study of personality theories is likely unfeasible.  However, providing students an hour (in class or out of class) to reflect on their own personality and how it interacts with others is fruitful preparation for group work.  If there is time for an experiential activity, all the better.  Below is a brief overview of personality differences and tools to consider.

Trait theory asserts that we each have a set of observable traits and the combination of those traits form an individual’s personality.  Thousands of traits have been identified.  The so-called “Big Five” traits are Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability (or Neuroticism), and Openness to experience. 

Extroversion describes a person’s inclination to seek stimulation from the outside world, especially in the form of attention from other people. Extroverts engage actively with others to earn friendship, admiration, power, status, excitement, and romance. Introverts, on the other hand, conserve their energy, and do not work as hard to earn these social rewards.  Agreeableness describes a person’s tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others. People who are high in Agreeableness experience a great deal of empathy and tend to get pleasure out of serving and taking care of others. They are usually trusting and forgiving.  Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to exercise self-discipline and control in order to pursue their goals. High scorers are organized and determined, and are able to forego immediate gratification for the sake of long-term achievement. Low scorers are impulsive and easily sidetracked.  Neuroticism describes a person’s tendency to experience negative emotions, including fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame. While everyone experiences these emotions from time to time, some people are more prone to them than others.  This trait can be thought of as an alarm system. People experience negative emotions as a sign that something is wrong in the world. Openness describes a person’s tendency to think in abstract, complex ways. High scorers tend to be creative, adventurous, and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences. Low scorers tend to be practical, conventional, and focused on the concrete. They tend to avoid the unknown and follow traditional ways.

These traits have been extensively studied in groups and organizational settings.  For example, introverted and conscientious students are less likely to be absent from group meetings. Individuals with high agreeableness tend to rate others more leniently on peer evaluations, while those with high conscientiousness tend to be tougher raters.  Conscientious people also tend to be more motivated and perform better than others. 

There are many free online tools for self-assessment of the big five traits.  One example can be found at:

Perhaps the most widely used personality test or instrument is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  It measures individual differences advocated by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.  Today’s MBTI uses four scale dichotomies in type theory: extraversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving.  The extraversion/introversion preference represents where we find energy.  The sensing/intuition preference represents perception or information gathering.  The thinking/feeling preference describes the way we prefer to make decisions.  And the judging/perceiving dichotomy reflects one’s orientation to the world (e.g., living a planned, organized life and making decisions versus preferring a flexible and spontaneous life and keeping options open). 

At Goucher College, several members of the Career Exploration Office are certified to administer the MBTI.  They are also available to lead classroom sessions that allow students to experience where and how personality differences may clash or misunderstand each other.  There is, however, a cost per student for the MBTI.  A free alternative is called 16 Personalities and can be found at:  Contact the CEO for more information.


Nelson, Debra L. Quick, James, “Personality, Perception and Attribution.”  ORGB 4. Cengage Learning.  Stamford, CT, 2015, 36-52.

Costa, P T. & McCrae, R. (1992) Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five Factor Model (NEO-FFI) Professional manual. Odesa, FL; Psychological Assessment Center

Wilkins, A.L., Ouchi, W.G., “Efficient Cultures: Exploring the Relationship between Culture and Organizational Performance,” Administrative Science Quarterly 28 (1983): 468-481.

Ketz de Vries, M.R., Miller, D., “Personality Culture, and Organization,” Academy of Management Review 11 (1986):266-279.

March, J.G., Simon, H.A., Organizations (New York: Wiley, 1958).



Similar to the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, this exercise uses a set of preferences that relate not to individual but to group behaviors, helping us to understand how preferences affect our group work.

Note: See the third page, Compass Points Explanations Expanded, for additional descriptions of the 4 preferences.


  1. The room is set up with 4 signs on each wall — North, South, East, and West.

North Acting — “Let’s do it”; likes to act, try things, plunge in

West Paying attention to detail — likes to know the who, what, when, where and why before acting

East Speculating — likes to look at the big picture and the possibilities before acting

South Caring — likes to know that everyone’s feelings have been taken into consideration and that their voices have been heard before acting

  1. Participants are invited to go to the direction of their choice. No one is only one direction, but everyone can choose one as their predominant one.
  2. Each direction group answers the 5 questions (see below) on a sheet of newsprint. When complete, they report back to the whole group.

                What are the strengths of your style? (4 adjectives)

                What are the limitations of your style? (4 adjectives)

                What style do you find most difficult to work with and why?

What do people from other directions or styles need to know about you so you can work together effectively?

What do you value about the other 3 styles?

  1. Processing can include:
  • Note the distribution among the directions: what might it mean?
  • What is the best combination for a group to have? Does it matter?
  • How can you avoid being driven crazy by another direction?
  • How might you use this exercise with others? Students?

Handout or Project on Screen

Compass Points Explanation Expanded

Developed by Sue Horan, June, 2007.


  • You take charge.
  • You run the daily operation.
  • You have lists of things to do and you need to get started and get them done.
  • You get assignments in early.
  • You don’t have to ask questions to begin your work or assignment.
  • You drive the work and get it done.
  • You will stitch the mosaic together and do the work.


  • You have the big picture, the frame that needs to be filled in.
  • You need to see the final product and will work with the end in mind.
  • You believe in working backwards, understanding by design.
  • You don’t get a project started until you are clear about the final product.
  • You know what the mosaic looks like in the end.


  • You ask the hard questions.
  • You live by inquiry.
  • You challenge us to identify the details.
  • You don’t start a project until you are clear about the details.
  • You make our picture more complete.
  • You lead by inquiry and engage in thoughtful discourse.
  • You fill in the details of the mosaic.


  • You take in the information, slow us down, and make sure everyone has voice and is heard.
  • You include everyone, and make sure the human side is nurtured.
  • You take care of us and bring up our affective domain.
  • You make sure the emotional side of our work is heard.
  • You make sure we are all included.
  • You add beauty to the mosaic, make sure everyone participates in the creation, and keep us all comfortable.
Source: School Reform Initiative:

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening is a critical communication skill that helps ensure people understand and are understood.  Its components are intuitively sound and deceptively simple. Regular use, however, requires intention and effort.

At its most basic level, reflective listening involves carefully listening to a message and immediately repeating or paraphrasing it back to the speaker.  This allows the speaker to clarify the intended message and correct misunderstandings.

More advanced reflective listening includes affirming contact, paraphrasing the expressed, clarifying the implicit, reflecting core feelings, silence, and eye contact.

Affirming contact is done by making periodic statements such as “I see,” “Okay,” and “Yes, I understand.”  The purpose is to communicate attentiveness, not necessarily agreement.  It reassures the speaker.

Paraphrasing the expressed tells the speaker what the receiver heard and what the receiver thinks or feels about what was heard.  Paraphrasing may begin as, “What I hear you say is…,” or “If I understand you correctly…,” or “The message I’m getting is…”  This provides an opportunity for the speaker to fill-in missing information and/or to correct inaccuracies or misunderstandings.  Paraphrasing also helps the speaker and receiver develop greater empathy and openness. 

Clarifying the implicit means acknowledging what the receiver understood from the speaker, even though it wasn’t expressed explicitly.  For example, if the speaker says, “Our team member was absent from the meeting and we are behind schedule.”  The receiver might say, “It sounds like you’re saying the team member’s absence is the reason we are behind schedule.  Is that correct?”  This again provides an opportunity for the speaker to correct any inaccuracies.  Clarifying the implicit is particularly useful in addressing the emotional or affective component of the message.

Reflecting core feelings is a particularly important component of reflective listening.  Our messages contain emotions or affect as much as literal content.  Emotions are highly informative and should be clarified as much as the rest of the message to ensure true understanding.  From the example above, the receiver might add, “It sounds as though you are angry or frustrated with the situation.”  The speaker might see a misunderstanding and respond, “No, actually I am more worried than anything else.”  The receiver is then better equipped to problem solve and perhaps lessen the speaker’s worries.

Silence can make the speaker uncomfortable if it is prolonged.  But some silence is useful to show attention to the speaker.  It can also give the speaker more time to think through the message before speaking and to sort through the emotions involved.

Eye contact is a nonverbal behavior that also promotes openness.  Cultural and individual differences influence what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate eye contact.  In general, moderate eye contact provides affirmation to the speaker without causing discomfort.

Source: Nelson, Debra L. Quick, James “Communication.”  ORGB 4. Cengage Learning.  Stamford, CT, 2015, 120-35.


  1. ABC: This activity demonstrates distracted listening
    1. Organize students into pairs. Let them designate who is A and who is B.
    2. Write a conversation prompt on the board. The topic should be something the speaker will care about.  For example, “What do you most admire in people and why?  What do you most abhor in people in why? Where did those attitudes or values come from?”  Another option is, “What people have influenced you the most and how might your life be different without them?”
    3. While A is contemplating what to say on the topic above, give B an instruction sheet that reads as follows:



As your partner is talking, keep track of the total number of words he or she uses that begin with “a,” “b,” and “c.”  Do not include the articles “a” and “an” or the conjunction “and.”  Do not tell your partner what you are doing.  You can take part in the conversation, but be sure to keep an accurate score while your partner is talking.

  1. Give partners 5 minutes for the exercise before discussing as a class.
  1. NL: This activity demonstrates not listening
    1. Keeping the same pairs as above, write a second prompt on the board. This time B will be the speaker on the given topic.
    2. While B is contemplating what to say on the topic, give A an instruction sheet that reads as follows:



The “NL” in the title stands for “Not Listening.”  While your partner is talking, your task is to not listen.  You may attempt to not listen in any way you like, as long as you stay in your seat.  You may occasionally say something, but it need not relate to what your partner has been saying.  Although your partner may realize you are not being attentive, do not tell him or her that you are not deliberately not listening.

  1. Give partners 5 minutes for the exercise before discussing as a class.
  1. Reflective Listening: This activity demonstrates the value of reflective listening when it is the hardest – that is, when people disagree.
    1. Conversation topics for the exercise may be provided at the start of the exercise, or may be provided in the previous class period to allow students to prepare.
    2. List at least three issues on the board that are likely to spark disagreement.
      • Examples: Social media companies SHOULD (NOT) be responsible for censoring content
      • There ARE (NOT) religious/moral grounds by which services can reasonably be denied to people based on their identity.
      • Gun laws SHOULD (NOT) be loosened.
      • Abortion laws SHOULD (NOT) be stricter.
    3. Organize students into trios. Let them designate who is A, B, and C.
    4. Round 1: A picks the topic. B picks the position (pro/con).  A will therefore take the opposite position.  C is the rule keeper.
    5. Round 2: B picks the topic. C picks the position.  A is the rule keeper.
    6. Round 3: C picks the topic. A picks the position.  B is the rule keeper.
    7. If the group is not divisible by 3, have two pairs and let them work as a group of 4 in Round 3.
    8. Remind them of the elements of reflective listening (affirming contact, paraphrasing the expressed, clarifying the implicit, reflecting core feelings, silence, eye contact).
    9. Explain the rules of the exercise as follows: If A begins the conversation, before B responds, B must paraphrase what A said first.  After B speaks, A must paraphrase what B said before responding.  And so on.  At any point that A or B speaks without first paraphrasing, C must pause the conversation and get them back on track.
    10. Suggest “bonus points” for going beyond paraphrasing and adding clarification of the implicit and reflection of core feelings.
    11. Allow 8-10 minutes for each round before discussing as a class.

Non-defensive and Nonverbal Communication Skills

In work teams, defensive language creates barriers to effective communication.  When we behave defensively, we are not open to genuinely understanding the other party and/or being fully understood ourselves.  Consciously or unconsciously we put the other person off.  If we do it consciously we are not likely to admit it in the moment.  Defensive communication can lead to a wide range of problems, including hurt feelings, alienation, and retaliatory behaviors.  Learning about our defensive tendencies may make the behavior less likely to occur at the unconscious level and/or may make us more likely to admit it sooner and thus begin repair of any damage done.

There are two basic patterns of defensiveness: subordinate defensiveness and dominant defensiveness.  Subordinate defensiveness is sometimes referred to as “passive aggression.”  Engaging in subordinate defensiveness means not acknowledging or asserting our authentic thoughts and feelings.  Often we will verbally indicate, “You are right, and I am wrong.”  But it is not what we really mean.  More importantly, the other party will not likely believe it is what we really mean because our nonverbal communication is louder than our words.  While our words may say, “fine, no problem, we’ll go with your idea,” our body posture, tone of voice, and/or lack of eye contact may yell, “I’m unhappy with you, I disagree with you, but I’m not willing to admit it and I don’t want to be honest with you right now.”  In fact, most of a message’s meaning (an estimated 65-90 percent) is conveyed through nonverbal communication.

Students are generally familiar with subordinate defensiveness and will often admit to engaging in it on a somewhat regular basis.  Consider asking them to demonstrate the behavior, in pairs or in front of the class.  (Or mix things up and let yourself be the one to demonstrate the behavior.)  Select or let them select a familiar scenario and have someone demonstrate a passive aggressive response to the scenario.  During or after the demonstration, point out specific elements of the nonverbal communication that were most communicative.  For example, proxemics is how we use our territorial space.  Subordinate defenders tend to avoid entering an intimate or social space with the other party but rather stay an extra foot or two away.  Kinesics is how we use the body and posture.  A subordinate defender is likely to keep the body closed with folded arms and legs and generally makes him/herself smaller rather than larger.  Facial and eye behavior is another rich source of nonverbal communication.  The subordinate defender may keep the face and/or eyes turned away from the other party.  Finally, paralanguage is how we communicate with variations in speech, such as pitch, loudness, tempo, and tone.  The subordinate defender may speak with a quiet monotone voice and may speak quickly – signaling a desire to end the conversation.

The second form of defensive communication, dominant defensiveness, is characterized by overtly aggressive and domineering behavior.  It is offensive in nature, sometimes culminating in verbal or physical harassment.  Nonverbal components of the communication may include entering the other party’s personal space, making the body larger with a wider stance and/or outspread arms, looking directly at the other person with an angry face, and speaking loudly.

Students can be encouraged to reflect on which type of defensiveness they engage in more frequently by completing a short survey, What Kind of Defender Are You?  The survey only takes about 5 minutes and can be assigned before class or at the start of class.

Non-defensive communication, in contrast, is assertive, direct and powerful. Assertiveness may be misinterpreted as aggression but is very different.  Being assertive means communicating what you genuinely think and feel without imposing it on another.  It is a show of strength through honesty that does not require submission from or acquiescence by the other.  Non-defensive communication provides a positive and productive basis for asserting and defending oneself against aggression without further damaging the relationship and/or for opening up the subordinate defender to more honest communication and problem solving.  Consider demonstrating the distinction with another role play of the same scenario used before.  This time, use reflective listening techniques combined with a change in nonverbal communication such as standing or sitting at a close but respectful distance, holding arms at the side and legs uncrossed, maintaining a friendly face and eye contact, and using a calm or upbeat voice.


Nelson, Debra L. Quick, James, “Personality, Perception and Attribution.”  ORGB 4. Cengage Learning.  Stamford, CT, 2015, 127-131.

M.L. Knapp, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction.  New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978.


There are many nonverbal activities for classroom use available on the internet and are easily customized for your particular subject area.  Sample sites include:

If you only have 5-15 minutes, there are also videos available online, such as “How Nonverbal Communication Works” (6 minutes) or “The Nonverbal Advantage” (6 minutes).

If you can devote more time and/or would like a more serious exploration of the topic, consider Barnga.


If you have an entire class period available (50 minutes or more), Barnga is a simulation game that not only features the power of nonverbal communication but can also be used to address cross-cultural communication and the assumptions and attitudes formed when we misunderstand people.  Barnga was created by a USAID employee while working in Liberia.  It relies on a card game (similar to Euchre if you’re from the OH/WV area) played by several small student groups.  Each group has a slightly different set of instructions.  Players rotate between groups but are not allowed to communicate verbally.   An instruction manual is available in print from Amazon.  You may alternatively refer to the University of Michigan’s Inclusive Teaching webpage:  There you can find a full set of instructions, a lesson plan, and a video to see it in action.

Emotion Skills

The role of emotion skills in effective teamwork and leadership, referred to by some as emotional intelligence, hit popular consciousness in the 1990s.  Debates continue about definitional issues, measurement instruments, and matters of mutability but interest has not waned.  Educators take particular note of studies showing correlations between emotion skills and academic success, including team performance.  There is also empirical evidence that emotion skills can be taught.  Increasingly there are calls to incorporate emotion skills into university curricula, from first-year seminars to disciplinary requirements, including business, computing studies, conflict management, counselor education, dentistry, engineering, health care management, law, and leadership education.

While there are many theories and definitions of emotion, terminology for most classrooms can be kept at a general level.  Briefly, emotions are focused on a specific target or cause, are generally realized by the perceiver of the emotion, are relatively intense, and are very short-lived. After initial intensity, they can sometimes transform into a mood. Examples include love, anger, hate, fear, jealousy, happiness, sadness, grief, rage, aggravation, ecstasy, affection, joy, envy, and fright. Moods generally take the form of a global positive or negative feeling, tend to be diffuse (not focused on a specific cause), and often are not realized by the perceiver of the mood. They are of medium duration (from a few moments to as long as a few weeks or more). Examples include feeling good, bad, negative, positive, cheerful, down, pleasant, irritable, and so on. A dispositional (trait) affect is an overall personality tendency to respond to situations in stable, predictable ways. It is a person’s affective lens on the world. For example, “No matter what, he’s always in the same mood.”

On the topic of emotion in teams, most research centers on the dynamics between leaders and followers and the phenomenon of emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the process by which people influence the emotions of others by displaying their own emotions and behaviors, consciously or unconsciously.  In the early 1990s, researchers focused on the ways people mimic facial, vocal and postural expressions, the varying abilities people have to infect others, and their varying levels of susceptibility.  More recent findings include that team emotion is promulgated through emotional contagion; team leaders communicate emotional states to their followers; positive emotion is as contagious as negative emotion; leader-member exchange relationships impact team-member exchange relationships; team members’ emotional states affect their leaders’ affective states and effectiveness; contagions are strongest between people who are more than acquaintances; and teams with leaders in a positive mood exhibit more coordination and are more productive than teams with leaders in a negative mood.  All of this is highly relevant to any course that uses team projects.

While the concept of emotional contagion is intuitively familiar and easily understood by students, demonstrating and measuring it can be a powerful way to raise awareness of how their emotions and moods affect teammates and team performance.  The following classroom exercise, Emotional Contagion, requires only 15 minutes of class time and a follow-up discussion of 15-20 minutes.


Bowen, J.L. (2014). Emotion in the Classroom: An Update.  To Improve the Academy, Volume 33: pp. 196-219.   doi: 10.1002/tia2.20012

Bowen, J.L. (2014). Emotion in Organizations: Resources for Business Educators.  Journal of Management Education.  Volume 38, 1: pp. 114-142. 



It is recommended that this activity be used before any discussion of how emotions affect groups or teams.

Step 1: Pre-activity Assessment and Instructions (10 minutes).  Organize students into small groups of 4-6.  Pass out an affect pre-activity assessment.  Collect the assessments after a couple of minutes and tell the class they will complete a small group activity.  Ask for a leader from each group to speak out in the hallway, ostensibly to give instructions on the activity.  (If possible, it works better to speak with leaders confidentially the day before class so they have more time to prepare for their role.  Then make it appear as though you have selected them spontaneously during the activity.)  Inform the leaders what emotional contagion is and how emotions spread, then let them know that they will be given a logic puzzle to figure out within their groups.  Each leader decides whether he/she will be extremely negative while working with the group or extremely positive.  The goal of the exercise is to demonstrate the ease at which emotions, both negative and positive, can spread throughout a group.  Give leaders advice about how to communicate their emotional displays to ensure their displays are perceived by group members.  Let them know that if they are performing their role correctly, they will probably feel they are faking emotions or being really obvious, and that is okay. 

Step 2 Small Group Activity (5 minutes).  Leaders go back to their groups.  There should immediately be shouting, really positive and negative instructions as the leaders enter the room and introduce the logic puzzle to their groups.  Groups have 5 minutes to complete the puzzle.  When the five minutes are up, distribute the affect post-activity assessment before discussion begins.

Step 3: Debrief (15-20 Minutes).  After collecting the post-activity assessment,  debriefing begins with sharing the puzzle solution.  Next, groups get a chance to comment on leader behaviors.  Explain to groups that leaders were asked to behave in a particular manner.  Finally the class is guided through a discussion of emotional contagion and the role it plays in team performance.

Step 4: Outside of class time.  Organize pre- and post-activity assessments by group.  Calculate average group scores (excluding the leader) for positive and negative emotions before and after the puzzle activity.  Calculate average perceptions of leader emotions.  Finally calculate average positive and negative emotions before and after the activity for the leader.  Make notes on whether each group accurately perceived the emotions displayed by the leader and whether the group, on average, became more positive or more negative after only 5 minutes.

Step 5: Announce Results.  Even when students perceived their leader was faking or exaggerating emotions, contagion almost always happens across the group.  Entertaining discussion of the details include just how positive or negative they perceived their leader’s emotions, which of the groups emotions grew stronger and why, and whether the leader him/herself became more positive or negative by the end of the activity. 

Source: Bull Schaefer, R. A., & Palanski, M. E. (2014). Emotional Contagion at Work: An In-Class Experiential Activity. Journal of Management Education, 38(4), 533–559.

Conflict Management

Adapted from: Nelson, Debra L. Quick, James, “Conflict and Negotiation.”  ORGB 4. Cengage Learning.  Stamford, CT, 2015, 204-219.

Team members benefit from understanding two things about conflict:  First, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Second, there isn’t one best way to handle conflict. 

Functional and Dysfunctional Conflict

Conflict is defined as any situation in which incompatible goals, attitudes, emotions or behaviors lead to disagreement or opposition between two or more parties (Hellriegel, et. al., 1992).  The chances of conflict are increased if team members have different personalities, values, attitudes, perceptions, and/or cultures.  Fortunately, disagreement between team members in the classroom may lead to new ideas, learning and growth, i.e., functional conflict.  This type of conflict is healthy, constructive disagreement between two or more people.  It can improve working relationships because parties work through disagreements and feel they have accomplished something together.   In fact, a team that never experiences disagreement may not produce its best work.  If, however, team members shift the focus of the conflict from the work itself to the parties involved, it can become unhealthy and destructive, i.e., dysfunctional.  A key to recognizing dysfunctional conflict is that its origin is often emotional or behavioral.  For example, a team member may experience personalized anger and resentment towards another member rather than just disagreeing with her ideas.  Team members engaged in dysfunctional conflict tend to act before thinking and may rely on threats, deception and/or verbal abuse to communicate.

Conflict Diagnosis

Before addressing the conflict, students may benefit from diagnosing the cause or source.  In general, causes can be classified as structural or personal.  Structural factors include specialization (e.g., students specialize in different aspects of the project due to their expertise but don’t fully understand the work done by others), interdependence (whereby students must depend on one another to accomplish their goal), common resources (requiring students to feel they must compete for time in a meeting or for space in the project or for number of people assigned to a task), goal differences (such as the student who wants the project to be bold and innovative while another wants to minimize risk), authority relationships (which could be perceived between seniors and first-year students as an example), and jurisdictional ambiguities (when it’s unclear who is responsible for what).  Structural factors make disagreements likely regardless of whom the team members are.  Knowing this may help students keep the conflict focused on the work itself (i.e., functional) because they know they are not personally the cause.  Of course not all conflicts arise out of structural factors.  Some arise out of differences among individuals.  These include differences in skills and abilities, personalities, perceptions, values and ethics, emotions, and cultures.  Here again, encouraging students to reflect on the initial source or cause of the conflict may help them clarify matters for themselves and the other party and thus know better how to achieve resolution.  It is also helpful to refer them back to any interpersonal skill development that has already been covered in the course (e.g., understanding personality differencesreflective listeningnon-defensive communication and emotion skills).

Conflict Management Styles

Team members have a variety of conflict management styles at their disposal: avoiding, accommodating, competing compromising and collaborating.

Source: K.W. Thomas, “Conflict and Conflict Management,” in M.D. Dunnette, Handbook of Industrial Organizational Psychology (Chicago, Rand McNally, 1976).

Each style may be appropriate, depending on the situation. 


Appropriate Situation


When quick, decisive action is vital (e.g., emergencies).

On important issues for which unpopular actions need implementing.

On issues vital team welfare when you know you are right.

Against people who take advantage of noncompetitive behavior.


To find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised.

When your objective is to learn.

To merge insights from people with different perspectives.

To gain commitment by incorporating concerns into a consensus.

To work through feelings that have interfered with a relationship.


When goals are important but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes.

When opponents with equal power are committed to mutually exclusive goals.

To achieve temporary settlements to complex issues.

To arrive at expedient solutions under time pressure.

As a backup when collaboration or competition are unsuccessful.


When an issue is trivial or more important issues are pressing.

When you perceive no chance of satisfying your concerns.

When potential disruption outweighs the benefits of resolution.

To let people cool down and regain perspective.

When gathering information supersedes immediate decision.

When others can resolve the conflict more effectively.

When issues seem tangential or symptomatic of other issues.


When you find you are wrong – to allow a better position to be heard, to learn, and to show your reasonableness.

When issues are more important to others than to yourself – to satisfy others and maintain cooperation.

To build social credits for later issues.

To minimize loss when you are outmatched and losing.

When harmony and stability are especially important.

To allow employees to develop by learning from mistakes.


Source: K.W. Thomas, “Toward Multidimentional Values in Teaching: The Example of Conflict Behaviors,” Academy of Management Review 2 (1977)

Research on conflict management indicates that most people favor a certain style.  If there is time outside of class, here is an assignment (Conflict Style Survey) for students to discover their preferred style.  After sharing a summary of the results (e.g., what percentage of the class prefers what style), consider discussing why they have those preferences.  Often, students will prefer the Collaborative style because they feel it is the “right” answer.  This is an opportunity to emphasize that no single style is best in all situations and that each style is useful.  Fortunately research also shows that most people have the capacity to change styles, as the situation demands, particularly with training and intention.

If you are able to devote an hour of class time, consider an exercise with Conflict Management Scenarios. The scenarios can be re-written to fit the subject or discipline of the course.  Each option represents one of the five conflict management styles.  After completing the form (as homework or at the start of class), student groups of 4-5 discuss their answers and try to achieve consensus on the group’s decision, which is a form of conflict management in and of itself.  Record each group’s decision on the board.  While they move on to the second scenario, convert their decisions from a number to the name of the style (e.g., avoiding, accommodating, etc.) it represents.  When all decisions are on the board, allow groups to debate or discuss why one approach is better than another for a given scenario.  Record what criteria were most relevant in their decision-making (e.g., how critical the issue is to the protagonist versus the other party; what is the relative power of the two parties; does there seem to be any aggressive intent involved).  Conclude the discussion by pointing out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach but also that not all styles are equally appropriate for a given situation.  Rather there are key factors or criteria to consider before deciding how to handle a conflict.  If students previously completed the Conflict Style Survey, point out that while each of them has a preferred style, he/she is able to change style as the situation dictates and that thoughtfully selecting a style based on situational factors (rather than acting impulsively) is a skill learned through practice.