Remember that conflict last week? Which were you displaying: habit, preference or good old Amygdala Hijack?

It’s the end of January, and many of us are struggling to honour the resolutions we boldly made as part of the New Year celebrations.  If you still have a clean sheet and haven’t reverted to your previous (probably bad) habit, congratulations!  Go and pour yourself a large drink or eat a chocolate biscuit to celebrate!

Habits, defaults, preferences, whatever you want to call them, have been on my mind this week, and I realise I have been guilty of some lazy thinking on the subject (one of my bad habits, as it happens).

I recently made a video about Conflict Preferences, based on the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), about which I have blogged several times before.  The film attempts to portray each of the five Conflict Preferences we may have, and how the interaction between preferences can play out.

TKI_Table_smallHere’s the thing.  In the introduction to the video I recorded a short explanation of the five TKI Preferences.  I didn’t script it, just shot it in one take from the hip, as it were.  I found myself saying that your Conflict Preference is the one which will come out under pressure in a conflict situation.

This was wrong.  I have been misleading people by saying this for over 10 years now.  My apologies to all of you, and no, just to be clear, I am not issuing refunds or paying out compensation for my professional incompetence.

I stand corrected by a leading authority on this subject, namely the co-author himself, Ralph Kilmann.  I happened to show him a preview of the video and he picked me up on it, thankfully.  Here’s what he has to say on the matter:

Ralph_Kilmann When people are under “a lot” of pressure/stress, the five conflict modes collapse to fight, flight, and freeze.

The TKI is intended for mindful choices of conflict behaviour, or habitual choices, but not when there is either too much pressure/stress or too little pressure/stress (the latter may not motivate people to approach the conflict situation with any mode).”

This makes so much sense now.  I have been confusing habitual behaviour (or preferred behaviour) with stress reaction, which as Ralph says is a very different thing.  Habits and preferences are learned over time.  I read somewhere years ago that a habit takes 27 goes to form into an unconscious behaviour.  They evolve as well, so your preferences can change, often based on experience, or the way people around you behave.

My preferred (habitual) response to conflict is Accommodate, so I like to be helpful and co-operative.  My preference is to build a relationship with you, and be popular.  Ask me if you can borrow £20 because you left your wallet at home and I will habitually say yes.

My stress response is very different.  Ask me to borrow £2,000 because you crashed your car and had no insurance and I will probably be totally unco-operative and say you have only yourself to blame (Fight) or I’ll avoid you (Flight).

Ralph says the model describes “mindful choices” of behaviour.  This is the province of what some call the “Mammalian Brain” – using the thinking part of the brain, deploying the more recently developed neocortex.  When we become emotional the “Reptilian Brain” or the limbic system takes over.  It’s what Daniel Goleman calls the Amygdala Hijack in his 1996 book “Emotional Intelligence:  why it can matter more than IQ”, and it brings out the Fight, Flight or Freeze response.

People with well-developed Emotional Intelligence and self control have developed strategies for letting this moment wash over, so that they can go with their second, more considered or “mindful” response.  Strategies I recommend are pausing, playing back to the other person what they just said, or asking a question such as “that’s an interesting comment, do tell me more about why you think that.”

So: your preferences are very different to your stress reaction, which is likely to be unpredictable.  I guess you knew that.  So did I, it’s just that I forgot it when I was in fact under pressure (5 people and 3 cameras watching me, in a small room, expecting me to improvise a Thomas Kilmann introduction in one take).

Here’s the resulting video (edited to remove the offending “under pressures”).  This is a shortened version with just one scene: there are 4 altogether in the full version, which you can find on my video website,  Enjoy!

Thomas Kilmann profiles are available through CPP in the US and OPP in the UK. 

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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2 Responses to Remember that conflict last week? Which were you displaying: habit, preference or good old Amygdala Hijack?

  1. davidparksn says:

    I do wonder about the Mammalian BRIAN – I’ve not come across this evidently thoughtful exponent – but I’m always up for learning something new… 😉 😉


    • Thank you for eagle eyed proof reading, David! I know I can always rely on you for this support! Personally I prefer the newly named part of the brain called the BRIAN. It is more recent than the other part, the ERIC. Cheers! Michael


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