Two Sides of a Coin: Different Ways to Use Each Conflict Mode

Posted by Ralph H. Kilmann

Two Sides of a Coin: Different Ways to Use Each Conflict Mode

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

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) assesses your tendency to use one or more of the five conflict-handling modes—competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating—in a conflict situation. After taking the TKI assessment, most people become aware they’ve been using, out of habit, one or more of the modes too much—choosing to use one they are comfortable with when another might have resulted in more satisfying outcomes. At the same time, people usually discover they’ve also been using one or more modes too little, not realizing that an underutilized mode could have saved the day.

The typical TKI lesson is learning to choose when to use each conflict mode, depending on the key characteristics of the conflict situation—for example, the amount of stress involved, the time available for resolution, the relative importance of the issue to each person, and the conflict’s complexity. Yet rarely discussed are the two very different ways that each mode can, in practice, be used, and which result in different outcomes. In fact, even if you select the right mode for a given situation, how you actually use that mode can lead to either good or bad results.

Work Group



Take the avoiding mode. One person might try to avoid a conflict situation by expressing himself this way: “I’ve had enough of this nonsense! I’m not going to waste any more of my time. I’m out of here.” Another person may take this approach: “I’ve just realized that I need more time to think about this topic and to discuss these issues with my colleagues. It’s starting to overwhelm me.  Let’s set up another meeting for next week. By then, I’ll be ready to address the matter.”

In the first instance of avoiding, the person would probably come across as insensitive, condescending, and even demeaning. Because of the manner in which he left the situation, the other people involved might feel rejected or abandoned.

In the second instance, the person shows regard for the other people in the conflict situation. Although he is still withdrawing, it’s more likely that everyone concerned will have an easier time understanding and accepting his avoiding behavior because the reasons for it have been explained to them.


Now let’s look at the collaborating mode, which for many people seems to be the ideal approach for managing conflict with another person. Of course, collaborating only works well when: (1) the topic is very important to both people, (2) there is time available (or time taken) to discuss the deeper issues, (3) the topic is multidimensional and allows both parties to get their needs met with creatively packaged solutions, and (4) both people want their relationship to last.

One person may choose to express her desire for collaboration this way: “We have to discuss these issues! You have no choice! I’m tired of superficial solutions that aren’t based on our joint needs. If you don’t sit down and share your deepest concerns with me, I’ll no longer support your priorities in the workplace.”

Another person may express herself like this: “I really need your help. I’ve been very frustrated with our previous decisions, which haven’t seemed to address our most important needs. I’d like to share with you what matters most to me. And then, if you are willing, I’d really like to hear your most important concerns. Maybe we can figure out how to change the situation for both our sakes. Let’s give it a try.”

Based on basic definitions from the TKI, both individuals are in the collaborating mode. In the first instance, the collaboration will likely come across as bullying, followed by an ultimatum. Perhaps this is not the best way to elicit an open and candid dialogue about important, complex issues. In the second instance, collaboration is used in an open, inviting, reciprocating manner—one that is more likely to engender mutual respect and a genuine exchange of ideas. In the end, the second approach will surely lead to a more creative solution, while the first approach will probably put the other person on the defensive and shut down a conversation that is sorely needed.


As for the competing mode, imagine a person approaching conflict with someone holding an opposing idea like this: “I’m going to get my way no matter what you do. If I have to, I’ll get other people involved to support my position. If you don’t go along with my decision, I’ll make life difficult for you.”

Harsh Competing Behavior

Then imagine a person using the competing mode to resolve a conflict along these lines: “This matter is of utmost importance to me. It will be very difficult for me to achieve my objectives unless you can see and support my point of view. Let me share why I need you to go along with my decision. Perhaps you can then see why I’ve been so insistent on my position.”

As we saw with the avoiding and collaborating modes, the words and tone you express can make a big difference when you’re applying a mode in a conflict situation. With competing, you can assert yourself by trying to intimidate or threaten others as a way of getting them to accept your decision. Alternatively, you can explain to others why a particular issue is so important to you and, therefore, why you want them to concede. Indeed, when competing is used with respect—recognizing that others may need to understand your situation before they’ll comply—it’s more likely you’ll get what you want. But if you treat them as if they don’t deserve to know your reasons and motives, you are more likely to face resistance.


Bottom line: It’s one thing to choose the right mode in a conflict situation, but it’s another to implement it effectively so the potential use of that mode is fully realized. If the avoiding mode is the best choice, then avoid in a way that makes others feel valued, appreciated, and respected, and also tell them why you’re leaving the situation (and perhaps when you’ll be back). If the collaborating mode is the right choice, then collaborate in a way that encourages a mutually respectful dialogue in return. And if competing is the right mode to use, then use it in a manner that helps others understand and accept your strong position. Naturally, these same principles are relevant to the other modes, compromising and accommodating. In each case, choosing a mode wisely, but also using that mode in the most constructive manner possible, will go far in producing well-being and effective resolutions of conflict, rather than bad feelings and a potential worsening of the 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.