At the Corner of Assertiveness & Cooperation: Collaboration

© Copyright 2003-2010, Pfaff & Associates. All Rights Reserved.What do we meet at the corner of Assertiveness and Cooperation? The Thomas-Kilmann assessment suggests that it’s Collaboration.

Their assessment,  which is the basis for many others, explores different styles people use when handling conflict. For some of you this work may be familiar, but I only learned of it a few days ago from my sister, a professional mediator. Here is a free version which gives you a quick view of the five areas measured by the Thomas-Kilmann assessment.

It identifies five styles of handling conflict between two people: the Avoider, the Accommodater, the Compromiser, the Competitor and the Collaborator.

These types are arrayed in a graph with Assertiveness (defined as concern for the task, or as "thinks of self") on one axis, and Cooperation (defined as concern for people, or "thinks of others") on the other. In the lowest left hand corner is the Avoider, someone who’d rather not deal with conflict at all, and in the upper right hand corner, the corner where the highest level of Cooperation meets the highest level of Assertiveness, is the Collaborator. (Smack dab in the middle, as you’d expect, is the Compromiser, but we’ll save that for another day.)

What fascinated me about this model is the light it sheds on Collaboration: where its power comes from, and what distinguishes it from Compromise. Certainly, there are situations in which compromise is adequate and even worthwhile. I’d like to go out for dinner, you’d like to stay home. Taken a step further, I’d like not to cook tonight, and you’d like not to get dressed up or spend a lot of money. A compromise on a nearby casual restaurant fits the bill perfectly, and you and I probably don’t need to spend a minute more on a "conflict" like this. But a compromise is always a meeting in the middle, so each gets a little of what they want, and compromise often gets to a gray solution, not really satisfying to anyone but sort of appeasing everyone. In art, it’s mixing a lot of colors to get mud.

Collaboration gets its power because it uses the energy of Assertiveness–ideas and real points of view, championed by people who care–and the energy of Cooperation–a willingness to make things work for all involved. From collaboration comes the best result, the idea or solution which is fashioned from everyone’s input and is better than what any one person could have come up with on her or his own.

And a key point in all of this, a key ingredient in collaboration, is that it starts with conflict, but it doesn’t end there. It takes the energy of the conflict–opposing or differing views, needs and goals–and the attitude of collaboration–the willingness to reach the best solution for all concerned–to get somewhere we’ve never been before, and somewhere we couldn’t go alone.

I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"A leader isn’t a seeker of consensus, but a molder of consensus."

PS: If you love this kind of self-knowledge quiz, try our Trust Temperament assessment. Far cheaper and more revealing than a therapy session.

9 replies
  1. Julian Summerhayes
    Julian Summerhayes says:


    As a trained mediator and litigation lawyer, I think this is an excellent model to show to clients, my opposite number and the mediator (where I am not the mediator) in times of ‘stress’ in the mediation – normally just after lunch where people are getting restless with the lack of progress.

    The only issue that I would have is that the axis of collaboration turns on the principle of trust and even if there is a highly energised team looking for an exit on the best terms, if there is mistrust then there will be no or little possibility of a collaborative deal being done.

    Best wishes






  2. Kristin Keffeler
    Kristin Keffeler says:

    I’ve been a follower of your blog for a long time… in fact, I think yours is the FIRST blog I ever started following!  While I almost always get a great juicy tidbit from what you guys post, this one really knocked it out of the park for me.  Sandy, thank you for connecting some previously unconnected links in collaboration for me.  I’m in the process of collaboratively writing an article on Multigenerational Collaboration in Advisory Teams (talk about a great opportunity to do ‘the work’ of collaboration while also writing about it), and you’ve given me some new insights to bring to our article.  In fact… I’ve already seen one of my other collaborators forwarding on this blog post….  WELL DONE!!


  3. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Thanks for your insights.   I agree that trust is central (to almost everything!).  When trust is missing between the two parties, the spirit of cooperation is probably pretty weak because there’s so much self-protection which gets in the way.

    This raises an interesting question:  Can you (anyone) as a trusted mediator, fill in the gaps? 


  4. Ron Kraybill, PhD
    Ron Kraybill, PhD says:

    Thanks for a clear and insightful post.  I share your enthusiasm for the style Thomas and Kilmann call "Collaborating".   Skillfully used, it has potential to transform not only conflicts, but also  individuals, relationships, and teams.  

    But having started years ago with the Thomas Kilmann inventory and taught conflict styles for several decades, I’ve come to see that it is important to recognize – and teach – the limits of this style as well.

    Unwise or excessive use of Collaborating is likely to bring:
    –  Fatigue, time loss, distraction from more important tasks. Not all conflicts merit the intense time and effort required to Collaborate. Applied to too many trivial issues, Collaborating backfires, as people weary of "too much processing".
    –  Attempted without realistic awareness of the time and skills required, failure is likely and discouragement follows.
    –  A bad name for "conflict resolution", "dialogue", "peace processes", etc., can result if Collaborating is pursued too long with an opponent who takes an unyielding Forcing or Avoiding stance.    It is true that a Collaborating approach often brings out a Collaborating response in others, but it does not always do so.   If you persist anyway, you may damage the cause of peace by creating evidence it "doesn’t work".

    As with all the conflict styles, the key is to know the strengths and weaknesses to ensure wise use.

    Ron Kraybill

  5. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Thanks for your insights.  I do agree that "collaborating" on a simple issue like going out to dinner (or not) is fatiguing and unnecessary.  Sometimes the right answer is accommodating, compromising, or taking another action which is not even on the chart.  I’m also a fan of the occasional executive decision, or forcing/competing, as those who work with me will attest.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your work


  6. Chris Rodgers
    Chris Rodgers says:

    Hi Sandy,

    Your post provides a neat summary of the ways in which assertive and co-operative approaches can be brought to bear on conflict situations.
    Interestingly, the grid also makes visible the inherently paradoxical and socially complex nature of organizations.  To explain … 
    Two characteristics have been used to generate the different styles of response to conflict situations – assertiveness and co-operation.  As you illustrate, these are specific expressions of two underlying dynamics of people in relationship: concern for self , and concern for others.  And these latter two factors are themselves in tension with each other.  Importantly though, despite potentially pulling in opposite directions, neither of these can be eliminated if an organization is to function (i.e. if people are to go on together). 
    There are many more such tensions that are intrinsic to the dynamics of organizations.  For example, there is an ongoing need both to achieve results now and, at the same time, to change the business for a different future.  And again, say, if we want people to be innovative, this means accepting that some things will not work out and that there will be failures along the way.  However, at the same time, it is equally reasonable to want people to strive to avoid mistakes – often expressed as a “right first time” mentality.  Both conditions are valid.  Neither can be eliminated.  But they pull in opposite directions.  As a final example, people are often told “Be yourself and [at the same time] fit in”.  This is another of the many tensions (often viewed as mixed messages) that people have to cope with.  The list is endless.
    If we want to think of this in terms of your grid, it can be helpful to begin by labelling each of the axes from 0 to 10.  Recognizing the paradoxical nature of organizations then means managers being comfortable with operating in the zone approaching the 10-10 end.   In some work I did several years ago, when I was first exploring this notion of organizational paradox, I referred to this imaginary area as the “zone of paradox”.  Too often managers try to deal with these tensions in a once-and-for-all, either-or way (i.e. operating towards the 10-0 or 0-10 positions, depending on which of the factors they see as dominant).  So people in organizations have to suffer the perpetual ‘big dipper rides’ of moving between, for example, decentralization and centralization; or between a focus on individuality and a focus on team working.
    Embracing the inherently paradoxical nature of organizations (the notional 10-10 position) means giving up on some of the myths of certainty and control that the seemingly more decisive, either-or response (10-0, 0-10) or even compromise (the 5-5 position) brings.  And getting ‘there’ does require a willingness to embrace a sense of ‘not knowing’, which runs counter to most conventional management schooling.  Charles Hampden-Turner draws similar grids to explore what he calls “cultural dilemmas”.  He labels this ‘point of not knowing’ 8-8; calling it the “conflict position”.
    One other point I would make concerns the notion of “consensus”.  As in your Martin Luther Kinq quote, this term is usually used to describe the ideal, sought-after outcome – a position in which agreement has been reached and everyone is content with the result. I prefer to see this in Edward de Bono’s terms, as “a passive and lowest common denominator type of approach” (De Bono’s Thinking Course).  From this perspective, "consensus" tends to lead to a situation in which people agree on the less contentious points, whilst maintaining their own positions on matters that they consider to be more important.  This allows them to move on in a state of apparent agreement, but often with little of substance changing in practice.  As such, it presents a more subtle way of avoiding the issue.  As I recall, I positioned this as a sort of 4-4 (or was it 3-3?) on the grid. 
    All of the points in the ‘south-west triangle’ of the grid are seeking to reach resolution of some kind or other. Along the diagonal from 0-0 to 5-5 there is the search for agreement.  This ranges from avoidance or denial, by colluding with the view that there is no issue of contention at all 0-0; through lowest-common-denominator consensus (4-4) to compromise (5-5).  And, along the diagonal from 10-0 to 0-10, we have a ‘line of tension and conflict’, dealt with either through compromise at 5-5 or by remaining polarized at one or other of the extremes. 
    In contrast, ‘letting go’ (8-8) and embracing the paradoxical state of “both A and B at the same time” (10-10) recognizes the unavoidable tensions – and social complexity – of everyday organizational life.  It accepts that, as Ralph Stacey would say, paradox “cannot be resolved or harmonized, only endlessly transformed.”
    Cheers, Chris
  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Chris, I love your commentary: the zone of paradox, can’t be resolved or harmonized, only transformed.   So very right.

    And so much of our conventional linear, metricized, acccountability-ized, left-to-right, black and white intellectual models and processes drive us away from this dialectical, more accurate view of the world. 

    Very provocative thinking, and intuitively very right.  Thanks so much for contributing.

  8. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Add my thanks to Charlie"s for your thoughtful contribution.  One of the most interesting things to me is the paradoxical nature of most of the good stuff of life; and if we’re lucky, we are all always "endlessly transforming."

  9. Ron Kraybill
    Ron Kraybill says:

    Thanks for introducing the idea of paradox.  One of the more provocative – and useful –  books I’ve read as a practitioner is Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.  (Amherst, Mass : HRD Press, 1992).   He argues that many conflicts are polarities which actually should not be "resolved", rather they should be sustained.   Eg:  Law vs. grace, quantity vs. quality, individual freedom vs. accountability to others.   He identifies characteristics of a true paradox and offers quite a brilliant method for helping a group of people, literally, walk through the various elements of a paradox. 

    I’ve used Johnson’s method numerous times and found it often shifts a group to a new level of insight.   His book has the full story and belongs on any facilitator’s bookshelf.  For a summary of his method, my book "Cool Tools for Hot Topics" (Good Books, available via Amazon) is inexpensive and may be adequate.


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