Communicate in Style: Know Your Negotiation Personality
Saturday, July 1, 2023
by: Jason Rosen, Rosen Resolution

Section: Spring 2023

Having been in your shoes, I know how hard you work, how rewarding your job can be, and some of the challenges you face.
Because the nature of litigation is inherently adversarial conflict is a constant. While everyone faces conflict to some degree, it is at the crux of what you do.
And how one manages conflict in the context of litigation—via negotiations with other stakeholders—has a significant impact on the matter, whether it be in the early stages, discovery, or trial. As one attorney/author tells us:
“If you have a good relationship, you are more likely to be able to exchange information informally, discuss issues candidly, readily agree on procedural matters, take reasonable negotiation positions that recognize both parties’ legitimate expectations, trust each other, take reasonable risks, resolve matters efficiently, satisfy your clients, and enjoy your work.
. . . .
On the other hand, if you have a bad relationship with opposing counsel, a case can become your own private hell.… The time and cost involved is likely to skyrocket. Once the spiral of conflict starts, it is very hard to stop. Even if you are able to eventually reach a cease-fire, you can’t recover the wasted time and money, and it is very hard to restore the trust that is needed to work well together in litigation or negotiation.”
— John Lande, Lawyering with Planned Early Negotiation, ABA Publishing, 52.
Surprisingly, most law school curriculums don’t include—or at least don’t highlight—classes on negotiation strategy. The emphasis is how to battle rather than how to problem-solve. But these days, when 95-98% of litigated cases resolve before trial, attorneys need more than battle skills to best serve their clients and the process. (Lawsuits, at a fundamental level, are just problems seeking solutions.)
One important skill is understanding how to best manage conflict situations. But everyone has an inherent ‘conflict communication style’ (aka ‘negotiation personality’) that tends to dictate their default actions, impacting (perhaps unconsciously and/or adversely) their circumstances. (These various inherent conflict styles include: competing, accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, and compromising.)
This concept is both fascinating and enlightening—analogous to the “love languages” that fuel people in romantic relationships—and vital to those in positions such as yours. (Knowing your conflict communication style, being able to identify your counterpart’s style, and understanding how to adjust when called for, can help optimize your negotiations.)
Fortunately, there are numerous resources to help one assess and interpret the various conflict communication styles. Let me introduce some.
First, the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) assessment tool, developed by Dr. Kenneth W. Thomas and Dr. Ralph H. Kilmann in the early 1970s. The assessment is available online and can be completed in about 15 minutes. ( The assessment consists of 30 questions in which one chooses between two corresponding statements. The responses indicate which of the five communication styles one tends to defer towards. As their summary of the assessment explains:
“The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument is designed to measure a person’s behavior in conflict situations. “Conflict situations” are those in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible.
In such conflict situations, we can describe an individual’s behavior along two dimensions: (1) assertiveness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy his own concerns, and (2) cooperativeness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns.
These two underlying dimensions of human behavior (assertiveness and cooperativeness) can then be used to define five different modes for responding to conflict situations: Competing, Accommodating, Avoiding, Collaborating, or Compromising.”
( Taking the TKI assessment (which costs $45) produces a customized ‘profile and interpretive report’ that provides additional information on the various styles and how to read your score in relation to others who have taken the TKI. The report also provides insights on the attributes of each style and tips to determine whether one might be over-using or under-using each.
Next, is the “Bargaining Styles Assessment Tool” designed by Professor G. Richard Shell, Director of the Wharton Executive Negotiation Workshop. The format of Shell’s assessment is similar to that of the TKI, but, as he explains, “the statements used in the Bargaining Styles Assessment (and the sequence in which they appear) differ from those used in the TKI and are more directly related to negotiation then are many of the TKI statements.” He encourages people to utilize both assessments and compare the approaches and results. Versions of the Bargaining Styles Assessment are available through several of Shell’s books as well as his website (
In “Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People”, Shell devotes significant attention to these conflict communication styles (including an appendix section dedicated to the topic and providing the assessment test). According to Shell, understanding your conflict communication style is important because it “affects everything about your negotiation practice.” A summary of some attributes of each bargaining style includes:
  • Someone inclined to compete “has a tendency to see more quickly than others how leverage can be gained in a given situation.”
  • “A person strongly inclined to accommodate will have tendencies to defer to other people’s needs, even when there are conflicts of interest. They will be more likely to focus on the interpersonal relationship aspects of interactions.”
  • The person inclined towards compromising “will often seek simple, fair methods of quickly reaching agreement.” E.g. taking turns or splitting the difference. 
  • People inclined to collaborate “will find themselves facilitating the process, asking lots of questions, and developing different ways of looking at the issues to meet as many needs as possible—including their own. They will enjoy complex, prolonged negotiations in a way someone predominantly inclined towards simple compromises will not.”
  • Avoiding is somewhat self-explanatory, but that is not to say it is any less significant or desirable. In fact, avoiding can be most beneficial in certain situations, such as when diplomacy is paramount or when any other approach might result in physical and/or emotional harm (think “bar fight”).
As Shell explains, adapting one’s style comes more naturally for some, while others may experience significant discomfort, anxiety, etc. when faced with situations that may require a style other than their default. However, simply being aware of these different styles and their attributes goes a long way in helping one adjust accordingly and with less difficulty.
He also discusses the two more basic personality types that underlie the five defined communication styles: cooperative and competitive. He cites studies of U.S. attorneys and English labor negotiators that suggest people who exhibit a cooperative style tend to be rated as “effective” negotiators more frequently than competitive personalities, bucking the common belief that an aggressive approach wins the day.
Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator, and author of “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It”, offers another variation to assessing one’s negotiation personality—suggesting there are only three broad types of negotiators: “Analysts”, “Accommodators”, and “Assertives.” (The best negotiators incorporate characteristics of each type into their strategy.)
According to Voss:
  • Analysts are methodical and diligent. They are not in a big rush. Instead, they believe that as long as they are working toward the best result in a thorough and systematic way, time is of little consequence. Their self-image is linked to minimizing mistakes. Their motto: As much time as it takes to get it right.”
  • The most important thing to an Accommodator “is the time spent building the relationship. Accommodators think as long as there is a free-flowing continuous exchange of information time is being well spent. As long as they’re communicating, they’re happy. Their goal is to be on great terms with their counterpart. They love the win-win.”
  • “The Assertive type believes time is money; every wasted minute is a wasted dollar. Their self-image is linked to how many things they can get accomplished in a period of time. For them, getting the solution perfect isn’t as important as getting it done.”
— Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss, Tahl Raz, 192-198.
Voss also cites the same study of U.S. attorneys discussed by Shell, echoing a similar conclusion: “Blunt assertion is actually counterproductive most of the time.”
The information I’ve highlighted only scratches the surface. But I hope it whets your appetite to learn more.
Like with any new concept, application can at first be clunky and will improve with practice and time. However, just being aware equips one to adjust. I suspect once you become more familiar with these different conflict communication styles, you will begin to have “a-ha!” moments, as I have, and find yourself getting better results from your conflict management.