The skills, philosophies and techniques I’ve written about so far focus on collaborative strategies for addressing conflicts. While I lean toward collaborative approaches, I recognize that they may not always be desirable, appropriate or sufficient. Competitive strategies, also known as distributive negotiation, is sometimes the best match for a particular situation or with certain people. Occasionally, you will choose to use both types of approaches in a conflict as the process unfolds. The table below compares and contrasts  competitive and collaborative strategies to help you choose which approach best serves your needs at a given time.


Competitive Strategies

Collaborative Strategies

  • Brief, limited, immediate
  • Task oriented
  • Adversarial
  • Considered of Lower value
  • On-going, long-term likely
  • Task and social oriented
  • Cooperative
  • Considered of Higher value
  • Limited resources available
  • Only one side  can have/use resources (either/or not both)
  • Possible to expand resources
  • Possible to find creative ways to share resources
  • I win all; I win more
  • Substance
  • We all/both win
  • Substance and Relationship
Focus Position  Wants, Needs and Interests
  • Protective, selective, withholding
  • Conceal and distort intentions, resources, goals
  • Use threats, confrontations, arguments, forceful speaking
  • Open and disclosing of relevant information
  • Share to enable learning
  • Use questions, suggestions, alternatives, calm speaking
Trust Irrelevant or low High and necessary
Rules and Procedures
  • Determined by external structures or most powerful person/entity
  • Based on competitive principles
  • May be overt or covert



  • Determined by parties involved or with professional mediator
  • Based on collaboration principles
  • Include agreements on the process
  • Include behavioral and communication ground rules
Power Controlled, autocratic Shared, participatory
Tactics (samples)
  • Rigid, confrontational
  • Seek leverage to weaken other party
  • Discover and influence the other party’s resistance points
  • High opening demands
  • Make slow, progressive concessions and exaggerate their value
  • Resist persuasion
  • Drive a hard bargain without using deceptive practices
  • Flexible, supportive
  • Seek leverage to solve problem
  • Search for mutual gain solutions
  • Discuss interests
  • Make the problem, not the people, the opponent
  • Remain open to persuasion
  • Assertively argue to meet your top priority needs while seeking to meet the other party’s high priority needs
  • You might win on the substance
  • May achieve resolution more quickly
  • You and the other party might win on the substance
  • All involved have a chance to learn from each other
  • Preserves relationships
  • If needed, you can shift to a competitive strategy
  • You might lose on the substance
  • Hurts relationships and breeds mistrust
  • Confrontational approach may lead to impasse
  • Once trust is compromised, it is difficult to switch to a collaborative strategy
  • You open yourself up to manipulation by someone using a competitive strategy
  • You risk compromising more than is wise
  • Inability to find mutually acceptable solutions may lead to impasse

By reading through the summary comparisons in the table, you can deduce that interpersonal relationships at work or at home benefit most from a collaborative approach. Transactional relationships, such as when making one-time purchases, benefit most from a competitive approach. All other situations depend on many factors, including what the other party’s default strategy is and whether you can persuade him/her to shift to your preferred approach. 

As you can probably tell from the descriptions, it is important for both parties to use the same strategy. If you wish to use a collaborative strategy and aren’t sure the other party would, then begin by talking about the principles and ground rules for how to proceed. 

Most of us have a default or preferred strategy for handling conflicts. What is yours? Tell me about a time when your preferred strategy worked for you and a time when it didn’t.