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Conflict and challenge (The Thomas Kilmann Model)



Conflict and challenge (The Thomas Kilmann Model)

Are people who are more comfortable with conflict more able to challenge?

I had an interesting conversation about conflict and the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a model of conflict, describing conflict as the condition in which people’s concerns are incomparable. If the things which two people care about are opposed, then there is conflict.

The word ‘conflict’ has a natural negative association of battling, shouting, blaming and arguing. This makes conflict seem like something to be avoided at all costs. However, conflict has a very positive side of debating, questioning and challenging the status quo. If conflict is viewed as a simple incompatibility of concerns, then it is a rational matter of choosing an approach in a given situation. So we can control conflict through our choice of approach.

According to the model we each have a natural approach to managing conflict. I immediately connected this to challenging coaching and how we each feel about challenging our coachees. Maybe we have a natural orientation to challenge like we do to conflict.

The TKI model identifies two dimensions when choosing a course of action in a conflict situation, these are assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness is the degree to which you try to satisfy your own needs. Cooperativeness is the degree to which you try to satisfy the other person’s concerns. From this come five conflict handling modes:

  • Avoiding = sidestepping the conflict
  • Accommodating = trying to satisfy the other person’s concerns at expense of your own
  • Compromising = trying to find an acceptable settlement that only partially satisfies both people’s concerns
  • Competing = trying to satisfy your concerns at the expense of others
  • Collaborating = trying to find a win-win solution which completely satisfies both people’s concerns

These conflict handling modes are intentions; you aim to resolve the conflict in this way, this does not refer to skill level or actual displayed behaviour.

The TKI questionnaire assesses your natural or typical conflict handling mode.

When we are challenging a coachee it could be said that we are in a conflict situation and so may also have a natural approach. The difference when coaching is the ‘concerns’ of the coach are minimal. There are the coachee’s needs and concerns, and those of the sponsoring organisation and stakeholders. If as a coach we represent the interests of the sponsoring company and absent stakeholders there is the potential to be at odds with the concerns of the coachee.

However, if we do not challenge our coachee, are we accommodating their concerns at the expense of the sponsor and stakeholders?

The sweet spot is the collaborating zone, so the needs of the coachee, sponsor and stakeholders are fully and equally met. This is achieved through a balance of support and challenge, and an adult-adult conversation.

You may find it interesting to reflect on your typical conflict handing mode and consider if this is connected to your view of challenge when coaching.

The great thing about the Thomas Kilmann model is that it states that conflict handling modes are developable, and so not fixed. Through awareness and focus it is a dynamic and flexible model. The same can said about challenging coaching. Value it, develop it, and apply it.

Ian Day is co-author along with John Blakey of "Challenging Coaching: going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS" published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. For more information visit


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