TKI: Understanding Conflict Styles

Conflict is a normal part of any workplace. It can lead to absenteeism, lost productivity, and mental health issues. At the same time, conflict can be a motivator that generates new ideas and innovation, increased flexibility and a better understanding of working relationships. However, conflict needs to be effectively managed in order to contribute to success. A critical competency for today’s professionals is to understand that we each have our own way of dealing with conflict. At UC Hastings and Berkeley Law, we taught the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to gain insight into the various conflict modes. The TKI is the world’s most used conflict-management tool for the workplace.
The TKI begins by identifying the two basic dimensions of conflict behavior:

  • Assertiveness:The degree to which you try to satisfy your own concerns during a conflict. This is related to how you might try to meet your needs or receive support for your ideas.
  • Cooperativeness:The degree to which you try to satisfy the other individuals’  It is related to how you might try to help the other individual meet his or her needs or how you can be receptive to the other individuals’ ideas (Thomas 3-4).

The TKI assessment applies these to the five conflict-handling modes listed below. By applying the basic two dimensions of Assertiveness and Cooperativeness to the five conflict-handling modes, you create the five major combinations possible in a conflict situation.

  • Competing:Is assertive and uncooperative. In this mode, you try to satisfy your own concerns at the other person’s expense.
  • Collaborating:Is both assertive and cooperative. In this mode, you try to find a win-win solution that completely satisfies the concerns of both individuals involved.
  • CompromisingIs intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. In this mode, you try to find an acceptable solution that only partially satisfies both individual’s concerns.
  • Avoiding:Is both unassertive and uncooperative. In this mode, you work to sidestep the conflict without attempting to satisfy either individual’s concerns.
  • Accommodating: Is unassertive and cooperative. In this mode, you try to satisfy the other person’s concerns at the expense of your own concerns.

So which mode is best? All of them! All modes are useful and effective, depending on the context and the conflict style of the other party. There is no single best way to handle every conflict. Each of the five conflict-handling modes has its own sets of benefits and costs. Each can be highly effective if used properly in the right circumstance. To be a truly effective negotiator, you will be familiar with your own natural conflict mode and learn the flexibility to adopt other modes to suit a situation (while always remaining true to yourself).
The full TKI is available at cost to individuals and groups, but you can see an abridged adaptation of the assessment tool here.

Those who know Pactum Factum Principal Lucia Kanter St. Amour will not be surprised to learn that her TKI mode is co-dominant in Collaborating and Competing.

Cognitive Traps in Negotiation Series, Part 1: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in the way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, leading to statistical (and strategic) errors. When people would like a certain idea to be true, they end up believing it to be true. Confirmation bias is particularly problematic because it does not allow a person’s perspective to change, even based on evidence. It enables people with opposing beliefs to dig their heels in further rather than to adapt their mindset to the surroundings.

For example, an attorney preparing for a trial will certainly conduct research into case law that supports their theory of the case so that they can persuade a judge or jury, but will be committing a risky error if only notice examples that conform to their theory of the case.  It is critical that the attorney also research cases that challenge their theory of the case so that they can prepare rebuttals and avoid being caught off guard.
Consider the person in a workplace personality conflict. Rather than talking to those people who might disabuse them of their negative impressions of the co-worker (e.g. the co-worker’s close friends and associates) they usually gripe to people most likely to agree with them. As a result, their negative impressions become amplified in an echo chamber of agreement. The chorus they hear most is, “Wow, she is awful to treat you that way.” The complainer’s blamelessness rises while the image of the adversary is demoted further in to someone really unsavory.
This is yet another area where the art of negotiation meets science. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will tell you the same thing: question your hypothesis. More important than proving it right, try every possible way to prove it wrong before deciding it’s right.

Related to Confirmation bias is Overconfidence Effect: this is when we systematically overestimate our knowledge and our ability to predict. Overconfidence measures the difference between what people really know and what they think they know (it turns out the experts suffer even more from the overconfidence effect than laypeople do). Studies have found that over 90% of US drivers rate themselves above average, 68% of professors consider themselves in the top 25 percent for teaching ability, and 84% of Frenchmen believe they are above-average lovers.

Take-away: In preparing for a negotiation, be proactive in seeking out information that does not conform to your preconceived notions, rather than just information that boosts your position in an effort to convince the other party. While this is terribly difficult to do, it is also a terribly important step in the preparation process.

Background on our Cognitive Traps series (not our own original research): Social and cognitive psychologists have been interested for decades in how the brain processes information and what that produces in the outside world in terms of behavior.  In the 1970’s, two psychologists from Stanford University (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) started to study aspects of decision-making: does the rational person made decisions based on innate cost-benefit economic analysis? Their work (called Prospect Theory) created a new discipline of science known as Behavioral Economics, which earned them the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 (Tversky had died in 1996, so technically the prize only went to Kahneman at the time it was bestowed).  According to behavioral economics, the Rational Person theory doesn’t take into account all the reasons people behave the way they do. People make decisions relative to a reference point, and that reference point is the status quo – “where I am now.” Kahneman and Tversky categorized their work into a set of common heuristics: shortcuts that the brain takes so that it can make decisions in fast-moving everyday life.  But many of these heuristics can also act as cognitive traps in a negotiation, if you aren’t aware of them. Confirmation Bias is one of them.


Everyone lies. It doesn’t make you a bad person. People generally lie about three things: facts, opinions and emotions. Lying is common in life and in negotiation. But why? Understanding the reasons can increase empathy and elevate communication to a deeper level of understanding in negotiation and mediation.

Read more here what the most world-renowned expert on lying has to say about why people lie.

As mentioned in the above article, an important pre-cursor in detecting deception is learning to spot micro expressions, which often reveal hidden emotions (note: it is impossible for people to control micro expressions. Thus, if you learn to observe when they happen, they can offer insight. The important thing to remember is that noticing a micro expression does not necessarily provide the reason behind the emotion, and does not necessarily mean the person is lying).

Fun Fact: It is a little-known fact that Pactum Factum Principal Lucia Kanter St. Amour pre-tested (meaning before she even started the 40-hour training in Dr. Paul Ekman’s micro expression and lie detection training) in the top 5% of the population for natural ability to read micro expressions.

“My last word. I won’t take a penny less or strike me dead.” The Haggle: an Introductory Negotiation Exercise.

Pactum Factum principal Lucia Kanter St. Amour truly enjoys negotiating (in fact, her challenge is to refrain from doing so in situations that do not call for it). But for many people, negotiation causes angst and heartburn. If you don’t believe us, Watch this clip from “The Life of Brian.”

But we can help. Negotiation is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger you get.  An exercise to get you started is a simple haggle (for a Craigslist item, at the flea market, etc.).  As a first step, take a minute to build some basic rapport with the merchant/seller (even if just to make eye contact, flash a genuine smile, and ask how their day is going. If making an inquiry via email, you can accomplish this with some brief and friendly “small talk.”). Show interest in the item with specific comments (“I appreciate the craftsmanship of this knit scarf. My grandmother used to crochet a similar pattern.”). You can ask a (strategically loaded) open-ended question, such as “How flexible are you on price?” and then observe closely how they answer. At that point, you are well on your way! As a first step (if even this is too daunting) try this: the next time you are checking out of the store, ask simply (with a friendly smile), “Are there any other discounts or offers that apply to my purchase today?” If the answer is no, you are in no worse position than you started and you haven’t lost any face. But you may be surprised at how often the answer is “yes.”

How Mediation Doesn’t Work

Worthwhile endeavors take time. Mediation is no exception. If you go into a mediation with the attitude that it will be a quick and easy fix, you may be setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment, not to mention poor use of resources (time, money). For an example of how mediation, and quick “creative” compromise doesn’t work, watch this.

While “creative” is the hailed descriptor for negotiated solutions, they also need to be practical and durable. As for easy compromise to save time and effort (e.g. “split the difference,” which has its place in simple transactions, e.g. on Craigslist for the purchase of household items), these results tend to be unprincipled and can lead to buyer’s remorse in more complex disputes.

Prepare for your mediation thoughtfully, and be ready to give it the time it deserves: be prepared to tell your story; also be prepared to listen to the other side’s story. Think about what outcomes would be acceptable to you and what concessions you can offer the other party. Think beyond your “position” to why it matters to you. What interests are at stake? If you cannot resolve the dispute through mediation, what are your alternatives, and what impact do those alternatives have on your life? Be prepared to share information and evidence with the mediator so that she can help evaluate options. Although mediators do not give legal advice, they do provide information and can offer mediator proposals. But the parties need to be in the mental state of mind to meaningfully participate in the process.

Lessons from The Godfather

What movies can teach us about negotiation, including: communication style, the pitfalls of a quick and easy solution, the way you treat the other party, and the benefits of taking time to cool down from a highly emotional state:
Read the article here