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Collaborating: The Most Complex and Least Understood Mode

The collaborating mode is positioned at the upper-right corner of the TKI
Conflict Model along the integrative dimension. Even though this mode
sounds ideal to most people, because it promises a win-win outcome,
it can be used successfully only under the right conditions. In fact, there
are more conditions that determine whether the collaborating mode will
achieve its potential than is the case with any other conflict mode.

To begin with, when
people are faced with
overwhelming stress, they
don’t have the mental
clarity to engage in a
productive dialogue about
each other’s underlying
concerns. As a result,
they tend to find one of
the other modes more
suited to the high-pressure
situation. Only if the stress is stimulating, inviting, and manageable can
the collaborating mode possibly result in a win-win outcome.
Moreover, overwhelming stress often creates the impression that there
is so much to do in so little time. With collaborating, however, it takes
time for people to explore and then express what they really want and
need. Thus, only use collaborating when you have the time (or can take
the time) for an engaging conversation.
If the apparent incompatibility between people is unidimensional—
such as a tug of war between the union and management concerning
whether the hourly wage should be $12 or $16—using the
collaborating mode may be a big waste of time. The whole debate
will surely hinge on whether one wage is more deserved, versus costeffective,
than another (somewhere between the $12 and $16 rate).

In the end, one position will be chosen over the other (with competing
and accommodating) or an in-between solution will partially satisfy
each party (with compromising).

Yet, if the single issue in a proposed wage agreement can be
expanded into something multidimensional—to include, for example,
working conditions, flexible work time, participation in the decisionmaking
process, and greater opportunities for taking educational
programs—using the collaborating mode has the best chance to create
a fully satisfying package for all concerned. An hourly wage on the
economical side of the debate—say, $13 an hour—may be more than
compensated, in the union’s eyes, by a specific and enforceable plan to
improve the quality of work life, which has features that mean a lot to
the workers. A creative package of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards,
due to its multidimensional nature, can therefore result in a win-win
agreement between the union and management.

Because collaborating requires an open, candid, and creative exchange
among people whose needs at first appear to be incompatible, the
relationships between them must be based on trust, which must
also be supported by a corporate culture that encourages the same.
Moreover, the organization’s reward system must have a history of
rewarding people for expressing their real concerns as opposed to a
legacy of critical incidents where employees have learned that people
who had challenged the status quo later received a poor performance
review—or even an abrupt dismissal. Using the collaborating mode
can be personally dangerous if it is not based on a trustworthy culture
and reward system.

Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, to use collaborating effectively,
people must communicate, verbally and nonverbally, in ways that fully
respect and honor one another. However, if people don’t have the
interpersonal skills to discuss differences in a manner that does not
produce defensiveness, any attempt at collaborating will likely fail.
Especially since full use of this mode may require people to share their
innermost feelings with one another (and actively listen when others
are sharing theirs), a higher level of interpersonal skills is needed with
collaborating than with any of the other conflict modes.

In the end, although traveling up the integrative dimension to the
collaborating mode has the potential to fully satisfy all persons
involved in a conflict, it is important to understand when and under
what conditions this ideal-sounding mode has the best chance to
realize its promise—win-win for all.


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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