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People often ask me to spell out the difference between accommodating and avoiding. Or, as some say, “Isn’t accommodating also an easy way to avoid, since you can quickly remove yourself from the situation by giving in to the other person? What’s the difference?”
The key distinction for me is to assess whose needs get met, and to what extent, as a result of using a particular conflict mode. In particular, if your behavior results in the other person getting his needs met while you don’t, that’s an unambiguous definition of accommodating (high in cooperativeness and low in assertiveness). True, you may quickly escape the situation after you let the other person have his way, but the fact is that the other person did get what he wanted. However, if you behave in a way that prevents both of you from getting your needs met, which may or may not be the best approach in that situation, your conflict mode is defined as avoiding (low in both assertiveness and cooperativeness).
By making this distinction between different possible outcomes of the conflict (regarding whose needs got met and to what extent), it’s easiest to sort out the five modes—clearly easier than making the more complex argument that you can remove yourself from a situation by accommodating, compromising, or competing. In the latter case, strangely enough, if you know that competitive behavior will turn the other person off and thus allow you to avoid the situation by competing, you could view competing as an avoidance strategy. But, again, I find it more straightforward and convenient to say that competing is evident when you get all of your needs met (high in assertiveness for you) and the other person gets none of his needs met (high in cooperativeness for him).
In essence, I am distinguishing between—and prioritizing—such concepts as intention, behavior, and outcome, and suggesting that each of these “perspectives” can lead to a slightly different interpretation of which conflict mode is being used and for what purpose. Intention is often elusive in the mind of the actor (whether conscious or not). Indeed, sometimes the intention is justified or rationalized only after the encounter has taken place. Sometimes, in fact, people don’t know their intention until they’ve had time to think about their motives.
Behavior is subject to different interpretations, especially when complex, sequential strategies are involved. But when each person in the situation can be asked, after the fact, to what extent his needs have been met, it is more obvious which modes have had the ultimate impact on the outcome of that conflict situation.
Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh—which was his professional home for thirty years. He earned both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University (1970) and a Ph.D. degree in management from the University of California, Los Angeles (1972).
Ralph is an internationally recognized authority on systems change. He has consulted for numerous corporations throughout the United States and Europe, including AT&T, Kodak, IBM, Ford, General Electric, Lockheed, Olivetti, Philips, TRW, Wolseley, and Xerox. He has also consulted for numerous health-care, financial, and government organizations, including the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the Office of the President. His professional biography is profiled in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World.
Ralph has published more than twenty books and one hundred articles on such subjects as conflict management, organizational design, problem management, change management, and quantum organizations. He is the developer of the MAPS Design® Technology and coauthor of several diagnostic instruments, including the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and theKilmann-Saxton Culture-Gap® Survey.
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