Learning Conflict Management Methods Direct From Their Creator

Ever since mid-March 2020, when the first U.S. lockdowns took effect as the coronavirus began ravaging the globe, the shift from in-person learning to online platforms began has been rapidly accelerating. In fact, soon after those initial mandated lockdowns took effect, live training programs in organizations and face-to-face interactions in colleges and universities were abruptly cancelled. For the next few months, companies and colleges were struggling with how to shift from their previous utilization of in-person programs in one physical location to some type of online virtual technology on the World Wide Web. In a relatively short period of time, several virtual meeting platforms, such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, replaced many or most of the previous in-person venues for all kinds of degree and non-degree programs.

Since the initial year of the pandemic (2020), the switch from in-person to virtual meetings has continued to accelerate as most students in universities and most employees in organizations have learned to appreciate the comfort and convenience of holding group meetings and taking educational programs right from their own home office, kitchen, or living room — thus substantially reducing travel time, transportation costs, and the additional expense of maintaining (or renting) physical facilities (such as office spaces and conference rooms).

Eventually, when the pandemic fades into the background of our daily lives, I don’t believe that educational programs will revert back to the previous levels of in-person facilities for universities and companies. Online education is here to stay in a big way, even though the extensive use of online meetings will surely be supported with a return to “some” in-person programs. The latter venue works best when in-person interactions in the same physical space are essential for achieving the educational objectives at hand (e.g., developing better interpersonal skills and not just acquiring more academic knowledge about the psychodynamics of interpersonal relationships). Nevertheless, the ratio of in-person to virtual programs will never return to what it was before the pandemic, now that so many people have become adept — and at ease — with learning through an online platform.

Although there are many educational objectives for which virtual meetings are much preferred to in-person workshops or classrooms (based on the time, cost, and convenience of scheduling and conducting such programs), there is one key advantage to online courses (particularly recorded online courses) that is rarely mentioned or discussed:

An online course can be delivered by the particular person or persons who originally created the material, which, if recorded (versus online live presentations) can then be experienced at any time, on any time zone, on any continent 24/7.

In sharp contrast, a trainer or instructor providing various concepts, theories, and methods to an in-person audience in one physical location usually presents material that has been developed by someone else. Or consider when a trainer or instructor has learned the material from another person who has previously learned the material from someone else (who also had nothing to do with developing the original material), so there might be many accumulated modifications to that material, which can be further misinterpreted, distorted or, in fact, can even be in conflict with what was originally presented by the author or coauthors of that material.

I’ll now remind you of a popular childhood game that beautifully illustrates the dangers of what can happen when the presentation of educational material is several steps removed from the person who originally created that material, as one person after another (neither of whom had anything to do with creating the material that they are presenting to an audience) adds his own perspective to the concepts or theories and then passes that unique interpretation to someone else — and this happens again and again. If you think back to your childhood, do you remember the “Telephone Game?”

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A row of people (children or adults) are standing or sitting side by side, just physically close enough so one person can easily whisper in the next person’s ear, but not so close that others can hear what one of the other persons in the row is whispering in another person’s ear.

The game begins when the first person in the row is provided with a written word or phrase (that is neither too simple nor too complex), which he/she then whispers into the next person’s ear. Based on what the latter person hears, he or she then whispers that “same” word or phrase into the next person’s ear, which continues one person after another until the next-to-last person in the row whispers that “same” passed-on word or phrase to the very last person in the Telephone Game.

When that last person in the row loudly announces what he just heard to the whole row of participants, there’s usually much surprise as well as much laughter. The reason for all the surprise and laughter is that everyone becomes immediately aware of how significantly the original word or phrase has been modified (distorted), just from being whispered from one person in the row to the next in line. Indeed, in many instances of playing the Telephone Game, the “final” word or phrase that the last person in the row announces to the others is not even on the same subject as the original word or phrase that was handed to the first person in the row! Obviously, something has significantly gotten “lost in translation,” which, depending on the topic, can have dire consequences for individuals and their organizations.

If such a huge distortion consistently takes place for a single word or short phrase, imagine just how much distortion is likely to occur when people are passing on their understanding of a highly complex topic to other people, as is usually the case for what is presented and discussed in a college classroom or a corporate training program. Naturally, the concepts, theories, and methods that one person has already created can be dramatically enhanced — and further improved — by other professors and trainers in the field. But it’s still worthwhile to begin with an accurate and thorough understanding of an original work before subsequent enhancements and improvements are purposely created and then disseminated to others.

Here, simply put, is the key lesson of this entire article: With online platforms, you may now have the opportunity to learn the material of interest directly from the person who actually created it (the first person in the row, so to speak)… not a university instructor or corporate trainer who is many steps removed from the original source of the material (the last person in the row, so to speak) and what the author of that material actually had in mind with his/her work and how it can be applied in an organization. The latter, based on the consistent results that unfold from playing the Telephone Game, typically results in huge distortions of how to interpret and then use the concepts, theories, and methods on any topic or problem.

Take the case of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (also known as the TKI), which I developed with Ken Thomas in the early 1970s. The TKI is, by far, the world’s leading self-report instrument for assessing the relative frequency that a person uses the five classic conflict-handling modes: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. As such, the TKI has been extensively presented and discussed across the globe in both university degree programs and corporate training programs.

In past decades, I was occasionally asked to attend a corporate trainer’s presentation to a large group of company employees about the meaning, purpose, and interpretation of the TKI assessment tool. At first, I was very flattered to be invited to these formal presentations for large, well-known companies — so I could see (and enjoy) the continuing fruits of my labors. However, in many of these opportunities to witness how others were presenting my work to a corporate audience, the flattery that I had initially experienced wore off very quickly when I realized that the presenter was seriously distorting and/or painfully misinterpreting the meaning, purpose, and utilization of my cherished instrument. On some occasions, I was even tempted to let the presenters know that they had badly misused and abused the TKI, which would surely prevent the members in the audience from improving how they resolve their most important conflicts and problems. But on some of those occasions, when asked explicitly, I did offer a few suggestions on the “alternative ways” that the TKI results could be presented and interpreted during the trainer’s next presentation to a corporate audience.

I remember one particular encounter with a corporate trainer and a large audience of middle managers that significantly broke my threshold of acceptability. That particular encounter was, in fact, one of the factors that led to my forming Kilmann Diagnostics and thereby creating online courses where I, myself, would explain the true meaning and effective use of the TKI assessment tool. As a result of having my recorded online courses available worldwide on an online platform, other professors, trainers, and consultants can now learn all about the TKI from one of its co-authors… and thus, they would no longer have to be subject to the dysfunctions of the “Telephone Game” while attempting to transmit that complex knowledge from one person to the next (as in “train-the-trainer” programs), which would leave any audience with a highly distorted word or phrase — let alone a highly distorted interpretation of what the TKI measures and how to interpret its results in order to improve conflict-handling behavior.

I also remember a time when I received an email from a customer who had just been certified in The TKI Package of our three TKI-based online courses (BASIC, GROUP, and ADVANCED Training in Conflict Management). The customer was so happy that he had the opportunity to learn this material directly from one of the co-authors, me, rather than through a corporate trainer who had only learned the material through a long chain of well-intentioned practitioners who were, in essence, playing the Telephone Game with my legacy.

I wrote back and thanked this customer for his feedback. In my response, I encouraged him to always investigate whether the creator of a concept, theory, or method had previously taken the time to record his own work so it would be accessible to a much larger audience on the Internet. Naturally, if a particular author did not have a website and had not (yet) recorded his material in an online course, the customer would have to hope that some other course or presentation was, at most, only a slight distortion of the original work. But I suggested that learners should always be cautious about taking courses, whether in-person or online, when the material has already passed through so many “minds and mouths” that it would be difficult to know if what was being presented in an accurate manner to the participants in any educational program.

Naturally, in many situations, participants might not have a choice in terms of selecting the instructor who will present the educational material to them in one setting or another. Nevertheless, a preliminary search may discover that the creator of the material has indeed recorded an online course that was never filtered by a slew of intermediaries who might have unknowingly misunderstood (and thereby misinterpreted) the original author’s intentions, theories, and methods.

author

Ralph Kilmann

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.… MORE

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