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Tennis Balls, Hula Hoops & Conflict Modes

Tennis Balls, Hula Hoops & Conflict Modes

Written by Pamela Valencia, Solutions Consultant, CPP Professional Services

Identify your preferred TKI conflict mode(s), then identify whether these preferred modes are effective for you in most situations in your current environment. Are you getting the results you want?

A few years ago, TKI (Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) practitioner Lynne Brown shared with me an exercise she uses to introduce the TKI conflict-handling modes. The exercise demonstrates the conflict modes in action.

The exercise requires five hula hoops and 30–40 tennis balls. You arrange four hula hoops on the ground, one at each corner of an imaginary 25-foot square. Then place the fifth hoop in the middle of the square (imagine the dots on the “five” side of a die). Put all the tennis balls inside the middle hoop. Divide the participants into four teams as evenly as possible. Ask each team to choose  one of the outer hoops and go stand next to it. Explain the objective: The team that ends up with all the balls in its hoop wins. Go!

I have done this activity several times, and each time I have seen all five of the TKI conflict-handling modes played out in the groups. Here are examples of how the modes play out: Some individuals step away from the chaos that ensues after the game starts, not wanting to be involved (avoiding). Others attempt to hide tennis balls in their clothing, seeking to win (competing). Some attempt to create an alliance with another team, agreeing to share equal amounts of the balls (compromising). Some assist another team, believing that the other team has the best chance of winning (accommodating). Others try to form a strategy that allows everyone to win—by stacking the hula hoops on top of each other (collaborating).

The TKI assessment helps participants identify which conflict modes they use in the conflict situations they face. The conflict modes are wonderful in a sense because they are about skill and situation. You are not limited to one unless you limit yourself. Some people do limit themselves because they have had previous success using one conflict mode, or because of how they were raised and which mode was considered acceptable in their culture. Understanding all the conflict modes helps you add to your bag of tools and choose which tool or tools will be most effective (although not necessarily the most comfortable to use) in different situations.

The five TKI conflict-handling modes involve different levels of assertiveness (the degree to which you try to satisfy your own concerns) and cooperativeness (the degree to which you try to satisfy the concerns of another person). Competing is assertive and uncooperative, and typically the goal is to “win” (my direction is the right direction). Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the opposite of competing—and the goal is to “yield” (okay, we will do it your way). Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative, and the goal is to “delay” (it will go away, or it is not worth my time, or I will deal with it tomorrow). Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the opposite of avoiding—and the goal is to “find a win-win solution” (how can we both come out ahead?). Compromising is moderately assertive and moderately cooperative, and the goal is to “find middle ground” (you get half and I get half).

The conflict mode you use at any given time depends on your skill level and the requirements of the situation. All modes are “good” if used appropriately. However, when any conflict mode is overused or underused, unwanted situations develop. The key is in expanding your skill set and your ability to assess what is appropriate in each situation.


Learn more about the TKI? How about an introduction webinar?

This blog is one in a series of many about Relationships and Conflict:

Read the first blog post in the Relationships and Conflict series: Increasing Self-Awareness and Understanding Team

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Want an overview of the entire Relationships and Conflict series in a creative visual – yeah, we’ve got that too.

One Comment

  1. Pamela, Very helpful article. Loved the description of the very practical exercise. Thanks for sharing it!


  1. Conflict-Handling Intent & Behavior: Who’s the Bad Apple? | CPP Blog - [...] This is the second part in a series of three blog posts about the TKI. Read the first blog …

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