The Eight Key Attributes of a Conflict Situation: When to Use Each Conflict-Handling Mode Most Effectively

Posted by Ralph H. Kilmann

The Eight Key Attributes of a Conflict Situation: When to Use Each Conflict-Handling Mode Most Effectively

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


Conflict in Groups

Regarding ANY conflict with ANY other person, group, or team, choose the particular conflict-handling mode (competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating) that best matches the key attributes of the situation. Therefore, do NOT use any conflict mode simply out of habit or based only on your personal preferences. Instead, choose—and use—one or more of the five conflict modes based exclusively on how you would answer these eight questions:

The Eight Key Attributes of a Conflict Situation

  1. Is there overwhelming stress?
  2. Is the conflict simple or complex?
  3. How important is the topic to each person in the situation?
  4. Is there time to discuss the issues?
  5. Is there sufficient trust to openly share needs and concerns?
  6. Do people have good listening and communication skills?
  7. Does the culture and reward system actively encourage people to share their true needs and concerns?
  8. How important are relationships to each person in the situation?


Depending on the state of these eight attributes, members should choose the conflict mode that has the best chance of satisfying not only their most important needs but also the most important needs of the other person(s), the group, the organization, and other key internal and external stakeholders.

The figure below shows the TKI Conflict Model, which graphically reveals the relationship among the five conflict modes, as based on the particular combination of those two underlying dimensions: Assertiveness (the extent to which I try to get MY needs met in a conflict situation) and Cooperativeness (the extent to which I try to get the OTHER person’s needs met in that same situation).


The TKI Conflict Model

The TKI Conflict Model and the Five Modes

Below are five listings that summarize when it is best to use each of the five conflict modes, depending on the particular quality and nature of those eight key attributes of a conflict situation. Note: Each numbered item on these lists (1, 2, 3, etc.) corresponds to the same numbered attribute that appears on the above list of eight key attributes.


When to Use Competing

  1. Stress is high or moderate
  2. Problem is simple: unidimensional
  3. Problem is more important to you than to others
  4. There is little time for discussion
  5. Low or moderate levels of trust exist
  6. People can communicate their views
  7. The culture and reward system support members who argue their positions in a win/lose manner
  8. People are not concerned with sustaining their relationships


When to Use Collaborating

  1. Stress is stimulating
  2. Problem is complex: multidimensional
  3. Problem is equally important to all
  4. There is much time for discussion
  5. High levels of trust exist
  6. Interactions are effective
  7. The culture and the reward system actively encourage exploration, cooperation, and teamwork
  8. People want their relationships to last


When to Use Compromising

  1. Stress is high or moderate
  2. Problem is simple: unidimensional
  3. Problem is moderately important to all
  4. There is little time for discussion
  5. Moderate or low levels of trust exist
  6. Interactions are respectful
  7. The culture and reward system encourage quick fixes
  8. People are indifferent about their relationships


When to Use Avoiding

  1. Stress is overwhelming
  2. Problem is simple: unidimensional
  3. Problem is not important
  4. There is little time for discussion
  5. Low levels of trust exist
  6. Interactions are ineffective
  7. The culture and reward system discourage confrontation
  8. People don’t particularly care about their relationships


When to Use Accommodating

  1. Stress is moderate or high
  2. Problem is simple: unidimensional
  3. Problem is more important to others
  4. There is little time for discussion
  5. Moderate or low levels of trust exist
  6. Interactions are ineffective
  7. The culture and reward system encourage compliance
  8. People are eager to please others to maintain their relationships


With regard to the first key attribute of a conflict situation, I always begin by determining the relative level of stress among the participants. Is it high, medium, or low? If I sense that the stress is overwhelming, I already know that the several people in the conflict situation can’t possibly use the collaborating mode. It might even be difficult for the parties to use the compromising mode, which requires some back-and-forth dialogue in order to propose a middle-group resolution.

Let’s take a look at the other three conflict modes, competing, avoiding, and accommodating, which are feasible options when there is low or moderate stress. But when there’s overwhelming stress, competing, avoiding, and accommodating immediately morph into fight, flight, and freeze. Specifically, when there is overwhelming stress, competing turns into fight, avoiding turns into flight, and accommodating turns into freeze.

Technically speaking, a fight, flight, or freeze reaction is the sympathetic nervous system’s automatic way of protecting the person from possible harm or death. Thus, overwhelming stress makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to be conscious about anything, so it’s usually best to postpone the conversation regarding the conflict until the people in the situation can regain their composure, are no longer stressed out, and therefore are no longer prone to react in a defensive, protective, or dysfunctional manner, whether at home or at work.

The second key attribute of a conflict situation concerns this question: Is the conflict simple or complex? By that distinction, I mean: Is the conflict on one dimension (as in unidimensional), or are there several aspects or numerous issues involved that also pertain to the conflict in question (as in multidimensional)?

Here’s an example. If two people are trying to decide when to hold a meeting, one might say, “Let’s meet at three o’clock in the afternoon.” The other person might say: Let’s meet at five o’clock.“

This discussion begins as a very simple conflict to resolve. Both people may then realize that they’re likely to choose a starting time for their meeting somewhere between three and five in the afternoon. A great example of compromise is when they quickly split the difference: “Let’s meet at four o’clock.” Although that middle-ground solution does not satisfy either person very well, at least they have come up with an acceptable compromise. That can happen when the conflict is rather simple, in this case, the starting time for a meeting with no other issues or concerns involved in that particular conflict—at least for the time being.

But if the conflict is complex, or purposely expanded to bemire complex, everyone has more options available to consider and then resolve. So let’s say that one person wants to meet at three in the afternoon while the other person wants to meet at five o’clock. But they expand the conflict into something larger when one person asks these additional questions: “What will we discuss during our meeting? Where should we meet? Should we invite other people to attend our meeting? Who will supply the food and beverages?”

These kinds of questions expand the conflict from the initial focus that was only about agreeing on the starting time for their meeting to now include these additional subjects: the location of the meeting, the agenda for the meeting, other attendees for the meeting, and, very importantly, who should bring the food and beverages to the meeting. The initial conflict was only about the meeting time (which is strictly unidimensional and therefore would be rather simple to address). But by asking several more questions, the initial conflict has been expanded into additional dimensions for the meeting—which then makes the expanded conflict multidimensional and thus more complex, rather than only having to agree on a starting time.

As a result of expanding the conflict from one dimension to several matters to consider, thus transforming a simple conflict into a more complex one, it’s now possible to pick a synergistic resolution by making use of the collaborating mode, whereby the two participants now have the opportunity to come up with a multifaceted resolution that satisfies everyone in the situation, in one way or another. In the case of just two people, one person might say: “I wanted to begin the meeting at three in one of our offices, so we would be done by dinner time. “The other person then says, “If you come to my home at five o’clock, I’ll have a delicious dinner already prepared for us, so wean thoroughly enjoy ourselves while we get our work done. “Next, they can now consider what particular issues should be discussed during their meeting. Indeed, perhaps one or both of them realize that by being removed from their everyday work environment, they can now discuss some challenging issues that have concerned them in the past, but they haven’t yet been able to address them back in the workplace where there’s usually too much stress, competing demands for their attention, and limited time.

Ironically, when they finally come up with a multifaceted resolution, they may find that their initial conflict concerning when to start their meeting turns out to be quite elementary. In fact, the problem of agreeing on the meeting time has become a rather trivial conflict as compared to what topics would actually be discussed at the meeting and who else should attend.

The third key attribute of a conflict situation concerns the relative importance of the topic, relative to everything else that needs to be addressed by the persons in the situation—whether it is personal or work related. This third attribute, just like the others, helps you to choose—and use—one or several of the five conflict modes in order tore solve the current situation. For example, if the topic is crucial to both people, all things being equal, the collaborating mode has the best opportunity of satisfying both people’s needs, so long as the other key attributes to effectively use the collaborating mode are also present in the situation: such as low to moderate levels of stress, sufficient trust for the parties to share their true needs, sufficient time to discuss the issues, and so forth.

However, if the topic is much more important to one person than it is to the other, that’s when a combination of competing and accommodating can effectively be used, so the person who’s most concerned about that topic gets their needs satisfied when they assert themselves—while the other individual, who is notes affected by the outcome, graciously accommodates. But if the conflict is, at most, only of moderate importance tooth persons, then choosing and using the compromising modes recommended, so both people can at least get some of their needs met, even though the issue is not of prime importance to either of them. When the subject isn’t important to either person, however, then the use of the avoiding mode is clearly suggested, so both people can move on to address a much more important conflict or problem.

The fourth key attribute of a conflict situation concerns this question: Is there sufficient time to have a probing discussion on this issue? As I have suggested previously, the collaborating mode can take a lot of time for each person to share and discuss what they really need and want. And then, it usually takes even more time to generate and discuss different possible resolutions to the conflict, which would then allow the participants to create an integrated—synergistic—resolution that effectively addresses all the multifaceted aspects of their complex conflict. If sufficient time is not available for a thorough, probing discussion, then it’s best to use one of the other conflict modes. Nonetheless, even using the compromising mode can take little time for people to discuss several middle-ground solutions and then to select or negotiate a workable resolution for both parties.

If there’s very limited time, however, then one of the two persons, the boss, for example, might use the competing mode and thereby assert, hence officially announce, their resolution of the conflict and then expect the other members to accommodate and fully accept that decision. If an executive uses the competing mode to authoritatively determine the final resolution to the conflict, such an approach usually takes very little time, and may be completely acceptable in certain situations, so long as the most important needs and concerns of the group members are not being ignored during other conflicts. Naturally, if there is little or no time for even brief interaction of the competing and accommodating modes, then the avoiding mode might be the best choice in the situation until the parties have the necessary time (or make the time) for amore engaging discussion.

The fifth key attribute of a conflict situation has to do with trust. If people don’t trust one another and thus have trouble entrusting the other person’s words or intentions, you can forget about using the collaborating mode. People will not share what they really need and want if they believe what they share might be used against them sometime in the future. And when there ‘slow trust, people won’t engage in a creative, open, and candid dialogue to develop a synergistic solution to a complex conflict. Instead, with fairly low levels of trust, all conversations will be guarded, as people deliberately withhold vital information and withhold their true feelings in order to protect themselves from actual or perceived harm. But if there IS sufficient trust among the participants in the conflict, then the use of the collaborating mode is now possible, so long as the other key attributes of the situation also support the effective use of the collaborating mode.

The sixth key attribute of the conflict situation concerns the quality of the interactions among the key participants in the conflict. If their interactions produce defensiveness (because of blaming or judging behavior, let alone mean-spirited behavior), and if there’s hardly any listening going on (since the parties are only interested in expressing their own needs without a genuine desire to learn what others need), then trying to use the conflict modes that require quality interaction will simply not work—namely collaborating and, to a lesser extent, compromising. Basically, when the interactions among the participants in the conflict are ineffective or even demeaning (that is, when there is defensive-producing behavior combined with no listening, only the competing-accommodating combination of conflict modes Isa viable choice in such a situation. Nevertheless, if you choose to use the competing mode, you still have to clearly—and convincingly—express what you need and want, and why it is so important to you, so the other person has the best chance to understand and also accept your position. Naturally, choose the avoiding mode when people’s interactions are dysfunctional or mean-spirited.

The seventh key attribute of a conflict situation concerns all those surrounding systems that affect how conflicts are addressed. In particular, we can ask this question: Do the cultural norms in the group, department, or organization encourage members to express their true needs and concerns? So often, the surrounding culture compels members to use the avoiding mode by expecting them to follow these silent cultural norms: “Keep your opinions to yourself since you have to play it safe around here.” Similar cultural norms that support avoiding behavior might be expressed as follows: “Don’t step on the toes of senior management; don’t rock the boat; don’t make waves; let the other fool take the chance of openly expressing new ideas and alternative solutions during group meetings.“

Essentially, regardless of what your personal preferences are with respect to using one conflict mode or another, the usually implicit—but highly influential—cultural norms may have something else to say about what conflict mode is safe to use in your organization. And never ignore the potential impact of the reward system on how conflicts are being addressed in your group or department. You may, in fact, get seriously penalized when it’s time for your annual performance appraisal if you’ve openly confronted other members, let alone your boss or other managers, about certain topics, which nobody really wanted to discuss. If you stir up trouble and bad feelings, as other members or managers experience your continued efforts to openly discuss certain sensitive conflicts, you might later be the recipient of negative performance appraisal. In most organizations, it’s quite evident which members receive bonuses, raises, and promotions, and whether those fortunate persons have actually played it safer, instead, have openly expressed their opinions on one conflict or another.

As members notice the relationship between playing it safe and later getting rewarded for such protective behavior, the reward system becomes one more attribute that may limit the use of the more assertive conflict modes, such as competing, collaborating, and compromising.

The eighth key attribute of a conflict situation considers how important the relationship is to both people and if they want their relationship to last. It has become quite apparent that unless each person in the setting gets some of their most important needs met over an extended period of time, they will either disengage from the situation and only do the minimum to get by—or they’ll leave the situation altogether. As such, if, over time, the avoiding mode is used again and again, or if some members are expected to regularly accommodate others, many members will gradually disengage from work and, at some later time, simply take another job somewhere else.

Even if all or most conflicts are resolved by using the compromising mode, people in the situation will only be partially satisfied—which does NOT lead to an engaged, enthusiastic, and empowered workforce. Always remember this principle: If it’s important to you to stay on good terms with the other people in the situation, then over a period of time, you have to make sure that those others will get their most important needs met. This principle means that all members in the family, group, or organization must begin to use the more assertive conflict modes of competing and collaborating from time to time, which must, of course, also be supported by the other key attributes of a conflict situation.


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.