In this series of blogs, I’m bringing together my career as a writer with my “proper job” as a management coach and facilitator; I work by day with classic personality models which, by night, I use to help create authentic characters. In my last blog, I looked at a psychometric model called the SDI and how it can help you with character motivation. This time, I’m going to use a classic behavioural theory to unpick another staple of every story – conflict.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory was developed in the early seventies by Kenneth Thomas and the appropriately named Ralph Kilmann. “Conflict” means any situation in which my needs, opinions, goals, differ from yours. Because what everyone wants in a conflict is to resolve it, I choose a “mode” – a strategy – that I believe will resolve the conflict most effectively in the immediate term. I could choose the most effective mode because I’m thoughtful and mature (great in life, useless in drama), or I could choose a mode which just makes things worse (hint: best choice for fictional characters).
There are five modes, plotted on two axes. The vertical axis asks to what extent it’s important to you in a conflict situation to get the outcome you want – this determines how “assertive” your approach is. The other axis asks how important it is to you that the other person gets the outcome they want; this determines how “cooperative” you will be. Think about a character you’re working on at the moment as we look at each mode in turn.
Competing is assertive and uncooperative; in other words, I focus on getting the outcome I want regardless of what you want. But don’t assume this mode always involves shouting, stabbing or blowing things up; a health and safety inspector from Health Canada Pharmacy who has found a breach of regulations in your office will adopt this mode in a quiet and reasonable way. And you don’t have to be powerful: the underdog’s refusal to be yoked is also Competing.
Accommodating is cooperative and unassertive. If I’m using this mode, I will agree to do things your way because what’s most important to me is you getting what you want. This isn’t necessarily because I’m a patsy; it depends on my long term goal. I might believe that conceding something now which isn’t so important to me will make me more likely to get what I want later.
Avoiding is neither assertive nor cooperative; I’m not focusing on the outcome at all. I’m delaying, parking, sidelining the conflict. It could be for good reasons (we need more information, or things are getting heated) or for bad (I don’t have the courage to say what I want, but I can’t bear to give in.)
These first three modes we can think of as primal and instinctive. Put in a corner, an animal will either fight (Competing), roll over (Accommodating) or run away (Avoiding), so it’s worth thinking about what your character’s default is, because it’ll almost certainly be one of these. (Note for loyal readers of this series: you can see how the SDI motivators Red, Blue and Green might fuel the choice of Competing, Accommodating and Avoiding respectively). The remaining two modes, then, are less instinctive because in using them, I have to focus on both what I want and what you want, which requires conscious effort. For this reason they are less inherently dramatic, but have their uses.
Compromising is an expedient mode: I get some of what I want, and you get some of what you want. We each give a bit, the conflict is not fully resolved, but enough to move on.
Collaborating has the aim of finding a resolution which fully meets the needs of both parties. As a result, it is a time consuming mode which requires lots of exploring of issues (i.e. talking), and this makes it problematic dramatically. Having said that, one character persuading another to collaborate rather than compete where the stakes are high can make for compelling drama.
So, what are your options? Well, if you like your scenes full of opposition, just have 90% of characters use the Competing mode. This is the basis of Game of Thrones, EastEnders and most action thrillers. Character development, though, is stymied by what is in effect a game of “yes it is/no it isn’t” (“You’re not my mother!” “Yes I am!!”). It’s when conflict modes shift over time that we get a sense of arc. Let’s look at a recent TV example, the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax.
Notice first how the premise carries conflict within it: a middle aged couple marry and unite two families. First, anything involving inheriting a step family means conflict; but also Alan and Celia are from different social classes, so conflict is hard wired in. Celia’s middle class family’s mode of choice is Competing, not because they are evil but because they are used to getting their own way. When Celia and Caroline square up to each other, we get an entertaining impasse (the lesbian wedding subplot of series three, leading to a bout of Avoiding). Meanwhile Caroline’s use of Competing is contrasted with her ex-husband John’s lack of assertiveness, which leads him to veer between Accommodating and Avoiding. Sally Wainwright gets drama from these less whizz-bang modes by making him try to assert himself (see his rambling proposal to Caroline that he move back in, which takes ages and leads to her simple “no”, which he Accommodates).
Gillian and her father Alan carry a working class sense of being at the bottom of the heap, and this is reflected in their tendency to work a triangle of modes between Accommodating, Avoiding and Compromising (Wainwright makes the latter mode dramatic in Series 3 by having Alan’s illegitimate son Gary make repeated demands of them; Alan’s final acceptance of the air tickets is a Compromise which we know can only be a partial resolution – tension results). Gillian dreams of Competing, but can never assert herself in the moment. In her we see the dramatic consequence of using Accommodating when you’d rather Compete: a series of passive-aggressive actions, like her fling with the ex-boyfriend. In her head she’s getting back at fiancé Robbie; but in practice she’s Avoiding – because it’s all behind his back. This stores up the tension which fuels the final episode in Series 3.
And that gives us a key to using these modes to give more depth and interest to your conflict: create a cause and effect chain. I’m in conflict with someone – I choose a mode without thinking – it doesn’t work – that makes me feel ((insert emotion here)) – so I change modes and try again. Like the textbook says, structure is character (unless you want to start a conflict about that…).
Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com