Students within a graduate program will share research interests, goals, and dreams. By nature, graduate students share the qualities of motivation, diligence, persistence, and focus. We share accomplishments as well as setbacks. We also share supervisors, textbooks, friends, and Netflix accounts. Yet, despite these commonalities, graduate students within one program can be vastly different.

Remember The Breakfast Club? The Brain, the Athlete, the Basket Case, the Princess, and the Criminal had nothing in common other than the fact that they were in detention. Yet by the end of the movie they learned to connect with one another and bonded despite their differences. Graduate school is a lot like The Breakfast Club; it is full of unique personalities that come together for survival, but often results in strong personal and professional relationships that last a lifetime.

Conflict is common when a group of individuals is working toward a shared goal while simultaneously trying to meet their own needs. Needless to say, graduate school is full of conflict. It’s an environment where you willingly compete with those you are closest to, allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who evaluate you, all while trying to develop and maintain your identity as a professional.

Although conflict is often viewed negatively, it is not always a bad thing. When managed appropriately, conflict helps us to achieve our goals, express our opinions, learn new ideas and points of view, and strengthen our relationships. Essentially, conflict can help us to grow both personally and professionally.

Although conflict can often be beneficial, many people remain uncomfortable with the mere idea of it. Due to the inevitable conflict of graduate school and the common discomfort surrounding it, students are often left wondering, “How do I best navigate this diplomatic environment, achieve personal and professional goals, all while building and maintaining professional and personal relationships?”

The Managerial Grid Model of Conflict

In the 1960s, Blake and Mouton developed a model of leadership known as the Managerial Grid Model. Based on this model, the degree of concern that a leader has for both people and results can be used to determine their leadership style [1]. A decade later, Thomas and Kilmann adapted this model while developing a conflict style instrument.

The assessment presents hypothetical conflicts, requires the individual to select a response to the conflict, and then measures the degree of cooperativeness and assertiveness displayed in the response [2,3]. These two constructs are used to identify one of five conflict styles that best reflects the individual’s responses.


The Five Conflict Styles

The five conflict styles can be represented on a grid that is very similar to the Managerial Grid, in which the axes are assertiveness and cooperativeness. Then, David W. Johnson, a researcher of conflict resolution and the developer of peer mediation programs for elementary-college students [4], studied the five conflict styles even further [5]. Johnson likened each style to an animal, which makes the styles more fun and easier to remember. The evolution of the Grid Model, in combination with the five easy-to-remember conflict resolution styles, helps explain why we act the way we do in different conflicts and can help guide our behavior in future conflicts.


Accommodating (The Teddy Bear)

What goals would a teddy bear have other than cuddling with the one they love most?

For the teddy bear, the goal is not really important, but the stability of the relationship is very important. Maybe the conflict is with someone you care for deeply or with a coworker that you depend on daily. Your good friend asks you for a small, but inconvenient, favor. A colleague doesn’t meet the deadline you set together.

The tendency is to accommodate the other person and abandon your goal in order to maintain the relationship. This is an act of putting the other person’s needs before your own or preemptively giving up your goals in an attempt to maintain stability in the relationship.


Avoiding (The Turtle)

The turtle would rather retreat to his shell than deal with a conflict.

For the turtle, the goal is not really that important, but neither is the relationship. The barista gets your latte order wrong. Someone cuts in front of you in a line.

If neither the goal nor relationship is of priority, the tendency is to simply do whatever is easiest to avoid the conflict and stress associated with it.


Compromising (The Fox)

The fox is smart, cunning, and sly, but he would rather be in small family groups or alone than in large packs.

For the fox, both the goal and the relationship are important, but neither is especially important.

Working on a group project for a class when every member has a different idea. Negotiating a salary when you would be happy with the lesser amount. In these situations, the parties can negotiate so that they each win a little and lose a little. You might push a little to reach that goal, but not too hard.


Collaborating (The Owl)

The owl is wise and approaches situations with keen focus. For the owl, both the goal and the relationship are really, really important. It may even be impossible to decide which one is more important.

You find out your closest friend is also applying to your dream internship. Your advisor wants you to focus your dissertation on a topic you have no interest in.

In these situations, the use of a problem-solving approach can help all parties to reach an agreement that satisfies everyone.


Competing (The Shark)

The shark has his eye on the prize and will not let anyone or anything stand in his way. The goal is of the utmost importance and the relationship is not, or at least not in comparison.

Your paycheck is half of what it should be. You are in a group interview for your dream job. You are asked to do something unethical by a supervisor.

In these cases, you often do what it takes to achieve your goal, despite the potential impact it may have on the relationship.

Reflecting on Past Conflict

By reflecting on the five conflict styles, you may be able to identify your “go-to” style.

Are you the kind of person who avoids conflict at all costs? Do you approach every conflict as a shark?

Reflection on past conflicts, and your default style, can help you gain insight into your natural responses to conflict. This insight can foster greater self-awareness and can help you take more control over conflicts in the future.

Managing Present and Future Conflict

One’s perception of a conflict is often based on their assumptions, values, and previous experiences. Due to such, this perception is not always objective.

A greater understanding of this model can help you approach future conflicts in the most effective and appropriate way, and it can help you to redirect your focus to more objective and salient elements of the conflict: your goals and your relationships.

Next time you find yourself in a commonplace graduate school conflict due to structural relationships and chains-of-command, impending deadlines, or passive-aggressive emails, take a step back and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What is my true goal?
  2. How important are the relationships that this conflict or outcome could affect?
  3. Which is more important to me… the goal, the relationship, or both?

Tailoring your Approach

The answer to the three questions above will not only help you identify the most appropriate conflict style for the current situation, but it can also help you tailor your approach by identifying the most effective balance between collaboration and competition.

Just reconceptualize the grid according to Thomas and Kilmann constructs. Now the x-axis represents assertiveness and the y-axis represents cooperativeness. This will help you to balance your cooperative and assertive intentions and behaviors.

If you are approaching the conflict as the shark, with a win-lose mentality, you will need to be highly assertive, but not very cooperative. If your approach is that of the fox, you will need to balance the two traits in order to effectively compromise. If your approach is that of the teddy bear, you will need to be as cooperative as you can.

Additional Tips for Handling Conflict:

  • Take a day to organize your thoughts and emotions. My grandfather taught me to not respond to a conflict the same day it arises, but rather to think about it, sleep on it, and address it the next day. This piece of advice has helped me tremendously in graduate school, especially when I receive emails that send me into a tailspin. It can be helpful to write your initial response and save it as a draft, then return to reread it the next day. You’ll often be glad you did. It can also be helpful to journal about the conflict or talk it through with an unbiased party. You can even write the other party a letter with all of the things you wish you could say, and then throw it away. These tasks can help you to identify your feelings and articulate your thoughts privately so that you skillfully deliver your case.
  • Do not criticize that which cannot be changed. You should avoid condemning one’s personality traits, and rather keep the focus on things that can be changed, such as behaviors and ideas. Comments such as, “you’re so perfectionistic” can be far less helpful than something like, “I have a difficult time meeting your expectations.”
  • Use “I statements.” Take ownership over your thoughts and feelings. As opposed to telling someone what they have done to upset you, try reframing to “I feel _______ when you _______.” For example, instead of making an accusatory statement such as, “You always change deadlines on me and it’s really frustrating!” You could say, “I feel really frustrated when you change my deadlines.” This helps to clarify your position and lowers the other party’s defensive response.

Graduate school can sometimes feel like a petri dish for breeding conflict.

Just remember that when managed effectively, conflict leads to positive results. Conflict helps you to accomplish your goals, meet your needs, strengthen your relationships, learn various perspectives, and can help to provide insight into your true values and goals.

Also remember that conflict is natural, inevitable, and necessary. Especially when you are trying to survive your program alongside the Brain, the Athlete, the Basket Case, the Princess, and the Criminal.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated.


[1] Blake, R.; Mouton, J. (1964). The Managerial Grid: The Key to Leadership Excellence. Houston: Gulf Publishing Co.

[2] Thomas, K. W., & Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Mountain View, CA: Xicom, a subsidiary of CPP, Inc.

[3] CPP (2009). History and Validity of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). Retrieved from

[4] Johnson, D. W. (1981). Reaching out Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self Actualization. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

[5] Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, R. T. (1991) Teaching students to be peacemakers. Edina, Minnesota: Interaction Book Company.

Paige Blankenship
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