Managing Internal Conflict

Posted by Ralph H. Kilmann

Managing Internal Conflict

Ralph H. Kilmann, co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI)

I’d like to explore a rather atypical application of the TKI model, one that often gets overlooked. Indeed, we have a tendency to focus on conflict “out there” (interpersonal or workplace conflict), but not conflict “in here” (intrapersonal conflict or what has been called inter-psychic conflict). But those same five conflict modes can be used to examine how a person addresses incompatible needs and goals of different parts of the inner self. Your TKI results, in fact, will likely tell you how you’ve been addressing your internal conflicts — and not just your interpersonal and workplace conflicts. Perhaps even more to the point: How you resolve your internal conflicts says much about how you address your external conflicts!


Internal and External Conflict


To challenge your thinking (and beliefs) on this topic, let me introduce the classic distinction between your EGO (or mind) and your SOUL (or heart), which, I have found, gets at the root of most internal conflicts. 

Usually, your ego wants stability, security, safety, achievement, success, glory, and lots of attention. Meanwhile, your soul wants to discover its true reason for being, the essence of why you were created in the first place, your ultimate destiny, and how you can best serve others with passion. If these descriptions of ego and soul sound very different, it’s because they are — and that’s why such a discussion usually generates conflict and insight.

If you write down what your ego and soul are asking of you (a most illuminating exercise), you’ll likely discover some significant GAPS — usually between living your life to feel safe and secure versus living your life to explore your destiny and passion. 

Now for the key question: How do you resolve these internal gaps?


Internal Conflict


Using the TKI conflict model, you can avoid the discussion altogether and live your life with unresolved internal conflict, which will continue to drain your energy as well as cloud your mind. 

Living in this manner may eventually result in a “mid-life crisis” or a “spiritual emergency.” But you won’t be a happy camper.

You can also use competing to have your ego win out over your soul and thus have your soul accommodate to the needs of the ego…or vice versa. Regarding these two approaches on the distributive dimension, your conflict resolution will then sacrifice either your soul’s purpose or your ego’s needs: One wins, the other loses — also not a happy outcome in the long run. 

You can also use the compromising mode, which is developing a marginal, middle ground solution, whereby both ego and soul are partially satisfied, but unfulfilled in all other ways. For example, you’ll work at a job for fifty hours a week to earn a living, but your work is boring and unfulfilling. As a compromise, you’ll devote your weekends to doing things that feel good, like expensive hobbies or trips. But once again, this is not a happy outcome for a lifetime of long workweeks and short weekends. 

Under the right conditions, however, and with awareness, training, and practice, you can use the collaborating mode to resolve the classic conflict between ego and soul: What approach to life (attitude, behavior, work, relationships, and so forth) will allow both your ego and soul to be on the same path? In fact, what you first thought was an insolvable problem of EITHER/OR can thus result in a creative synthesis of BOTH ego and soul working together with the same voice in the same direction. 

For example, perhaps you’ll realize that extra dollars are no substitute for meaningful work: You’ll then find a job you love with less pay — but you’ll no longer need to spend lots of money on weekend hobbies or getaways.

I have found that how you approach your internal conflicts (particularly, the ego/soul conflicts), has a huge impact on the symptom patterns that you experience in life (using one disease label or another, whether physical or emotional). As a result, a powerful modality for long-term wellness is to make sure your internal conflicts are identified and then resolved by using an integrative approach…so you don’t wind up competing with yourself or living a mediocre compromise, let alone avoiding those internal conflicts altogether. 


Kilmann Diagnostics offers a series of eleven recorded online courses and nine assessment tools on the four timeless topics: conflict management, change management, consciousness, and transformation. By taking these courses and passing the Final Exams, you can earn your Certification in Conflict and Change Management with the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI). For the most up-to-date and comprehensive discussion of Dr. Kilmann’s theories and methods, see his 2021 Legacy Book: Creating a Quantum Organization: The Whys & Hows of Implementing Eight Tracks for Long-term success.