Thomas-Kilmann Model (Reprised): When Compromise and Collaboration Are Difficult


How Do You Deal with Conflict? Use of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory in Mediation

I’ve posted a couple of times before about the Thomas-Kilmann model depicting five modes of handling conflict (see here and here). All of us gravitate to one or two of the  five conflict management styles.

As mediators, many of us are trained to use a compromising conflict resolution style—the style in the middle of the matrix, with moderate levels of assertiveness and cooperation. Many mediators also aspire to use a collaborative style—high in both assertiveness and cooperation.

As I reflected on the various styles of managing conflict recently, it occurred to me that there are two factors which often make using either compromise or collaboration very difficult during a dispute. These two factors are (1) lack of trust and (2) demonization of the other party.

1. Lack of Trust Means the Parties Feel They Are Likely To Be Abused

In order either to compromise with another party in which each side gives up something, or to find a win-win solution (the essence of collaboration), you have to see some parity between what you are giving up or gaining and what the other side is. Without trust, it is difficult to feel that you are not giving up more than the other side or that you are gaining as much as the other side.

If there is a history between the parties which one of them believes shows bad faith by the other, then trust is minimal or nonexistent. Past inequity in the relationship makes one or both parties feel that they will probably be mistreated again.

In these situations, the mediator needs to do a lot of ground work before getting to the core issues in the dispute. Perhaps little compromises can be reached or little collaborations on minor issues can build trust, but it is likely to take time.

2. Demonizing the Other Party Destroys Incentives to Work Together

Unfortunately, in too many disputes, one or both parties views the other as evil incarnate. This might be because of the history between the parties, or it might be because their dispute involves an issue that one or both of them perceives as a moral issue (such as abortion, or restrictions on guns in schools, or the death penalty). But even economic issues can take on a moral lens (e.g., drug companies and other for-profit healthcare businesses should never make more than a minimal profit, or lawyers fees are too high, or no employee should get a larger raise than anyone else).

Once values and perceptions of morality and immorality have entered the equation, it is difficult to compromise or collaborate. The “other” becomes an evil person or entity, and ceding any ground or granting them any favors becomes repugnant.

In these situations also, the mediator must work slowly. It might take a long time to dig deep enough to find the common ground between the parties. (For example, the importance of school safety, or the need for some incentives to drug companies to encourage research into new drugs.) Discovering common values is the only way to dispel the demonization of the other party.

* * * * *

I have seen many situations where lack of trust and/or vilification of the other party’s character and intent have sabotaged a mediation. These are difficult cases. Sometimes I’ve been successful in getting the parties to come to some rational place where they can compromise, but sometimes their biases go too deep and settlement (at least for that day) is impossible.

Moreover, moving beyond compromise to collaboration is even more difficult. Only rarely do parties start at a point where they despise each other and reach a resolution where everyone wins. I think I’ve seen it happen once.

What has your experience been when mediating situations involving lack of trust or demonization of the other party?

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