Category Archives: Kraybill Table

Where peacebuilding, human transformation, and spirituality meet.

How to Lead with Less Anger

Do you use an angry voice to communicate or give instructions when a firm, even voice would do the job just as well?

I witness this most commonly in sports settings, where it seems to be accepted that coaches and trainers shout angrily at those they are training.  I’m not talking about raising the voice to be heard.  I mean shouting with angry inflections and body language, to convey authority and motivate.  

Sports isn’t the only place this happens.  Every parent and teacher – and I speak as a veteran of both roles – gets ticked off at the youngsters in our charge sometimes.   So do team leaders, managers, and supervisors of all sorts, working with all ages.   Frustration comes with the territory of leadership. 

Anger is a powerful tool for many good purposes, when used sparingly.  The volume and intensity of anger say “Listen up…!” and often people do.  When it’s exceptional, anger gets attention and underscores a message.

But used frequently, the positive effects of anger diminish.  Anger stresses people.  Eventually they tune out and turn inwards for relief from the bombardment.  Then you have to shout louder for the same effect.  

Worse,  your emotional outbursts trigger similar responses in others.  Drama and disrespect creep into many discussions and become normal.  All communication suffers, frustration spirals, and morale goes down. 

The Conflict Style Framework Offers Alternatives to Anger

In the conflict styles framework, frequent appearance of anger in negotiation or leadership reflects over-reliance on the Directing style of conflict response.  In the chart below, Directing is on the upper left and involves a high focus on task or agenda and low focus on relationship.  An angry person is focused on getting others to do what they want, not on the relationship or how people feel. 

Five Styles of Conflict

That doesn’t sound very nice.  But let’s be clear, that doesn’t mean this style is always a bad choice.  If you can’t use Directing effectively, you’re going to let others down in a serious way.  In order to protect youngsters from getting into danger, for example, every parent, every teacher, every youth leader needs to say “No!” at times and be ready to back it up with firm action.  The focus in such moments is not the relationship, it’s on protecting others or upholding principles, even when this causes angry feelings.

People in all kinds of roles have a duty to place principle and duty higher than feelings and relationships at times.  You don’t want the surgeon operating on you to negotiate with an assistant about procedures.  You want firm, competent control by an expert professional who brooks no nonsense in getting things done right.   They can patch up bad feelings later!

So hone your skills at this style.  You will need it.  But don’t make it a habit.  If you do, it will begin to have diminishing returns and you will weaken the web of kindness and responsiveness that make  organizations healthy.

Four Strategies to Reduce Reliance on Anger

If you recognize yourself in the category of over-use, you can take steps to get out of it.  

1) Treat problems as information gaps rather than conflicts.  As a mediator I am struck with how often big conflicts start out from simple misunderstandings.  Had they been managed as such from the beginning and dealt with in calm, non-confrontational ways, many conflicts could be avoided.  Things get polarize and escalate when you bring anger into the picture.

Treating problems as information gaps requires practice.  Old patterns may pull you back to needless deployment of anger.  To achieve the balance you seek develop these skills: 

  • Purpose statements.  Use of clear, non-confrontational statements of positive purpose makes it easier for others to work with you rather than against you, even in circumstances that could easily turn confrontational.  “I’m eager to get a good night’s sleep – would you mind keeping the noise down?” has a very different impact than “Do you have to be so loud?”  Similarly, “It’s important that we stay together so nobody gets lost,” calmly stated, has a different impact than shouting “Stop lagging behind!”  To create purpose statements you have to think through your underlying purpose and figure out ways to communicate it in positive terms.   Until you get the hang of it, you will have to prepare in advance of difficult moments to pull it off.
  • Clarifying questions help you interact with others in ways that invite and assist them to clarify their purpose and/or needs, without escalating an awkward moment into a conflict.  There’s no catch-all formula for this, but consider these examples: “Sorry,  what’s happening here is not what I was expecting.  Can you help me understand this?” “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s happening – can you clarify please what you’re trying to accomplish?” “Please say more about that, so I understand where you’re coming from….”

2) Expand your repertoire of skills for deploying influence and power.  A common rationale for anger is that it is necessary to caution or block others from unacceptable behavior.   But it’s not the only way to do that.   Thought and preparation can often position you with different responses that don’t require any anger.

In mediation and group facilitation training, for example, we teach mediators and facilitators to call out rude behavior kindly,  but firmly and early, as soon as it appears.  If facilitators wait until rude behavior has multiplied, confronting it kindly is harder, for the facilitator’s own emotions have now increased.  

With children, I learned that to achieve discipline without spanking or yelling I must lead by actively noticing and verbally appreciating good behavior as much as possible rather than only confronting the bad.  I must take care to back my words with actions, never giving an order or threatening consequences I am not prepared to enforce.  I must maintain on the tip of the tongue a series of clear and escalating responses to unacceptable behavior; my early responses must be small and simple enough that I don’t hesitate to use them.    

Hospitals are a setting surprisingly vulnerable to intense conflict and hospital staff report violence-related injuries at rates far higher than other professions.  To cope, many hospitals now train staff in de-escalation skills.  One of these, in the words of one trainer is “calmly and firmly asserting the rules while acknowledging the other person’s humanity.”  

Those examples aren’t comprehensive.  The point is: Commit to an active quest to be influential and authoritative in ways that don’t depend on a turbocharge of anger.  This takes time, thought, reading or discussion, and experimentation but the results can be transformative.   

3) Use the Cooperating style of conflict resolution instead of Directing

In the language of conflict styles, the skills above enable you to use Cooperating as a response in situations in which you previously might have relied on Directing.      

Directing and Cooperating are similar in that they share high commitment to Task.   In using them we bring an agenda to engagement with others.  We have a mission we feel is important to accomplish.  We are assertive.  This makes both Directing and Cooperating effective styles when we have a lot of work to get done, or a major responsibility we must fill.  

But Cooperating adds something not present in Directing: major commitment to a relationship with those we are engaging.   We pay attention to their feelings.  We send frequent signals that we value them and their goals. We back up these signals with actions.

There is however a key cost you must reckon with in using Cooperating:  settling on a solution takes longer and may demand more emotional energy than Directing.  Unlike in Directing, you’re not just insisting on your own agenda, you’re paying attention to others, their feelings and views. There will be back and forth and a period of uncertainty as you wrestle with finding solutions that keep everyone happy. 

It’s not realistic for leaders to use Cooperating on every issue.  But as others see that you use Cooperating whenever possible, they will be more accepting of those occasions when realities of time, budget, or other limitations require you to use Directing.

4) Circle back later, after moments when you have voiced your wrath, and take steps to signal care for the relationship.  If you were over the top, why not acknowledge it?   If the anger was appropriate, you can still signal care without compromising your principles by extending a gesture of warmth or appreciation.   

I think many people who overuse anger under-estimate the damage their anger inflicts on relationships.   Deploying anger has become so much a part of how they interact with others that they don’t see it as unusual or especially problematic.   

Others can in fact cope with surprising amounts of anger if the over-user regularly takes responsibility to tidy up the mess afterwards.  Just make sure it happens.  Chronic failure to do such tidy up is deeply damaging to depth and trust.  

My Style Matters conflict style inventory helps groups and teams engage in thoughtful discussion about their dynamics.  Check out this infographic on two easy ways to invite users to take the inventory.

 

Talking Stick Breaks Impasse

Big News – A Moment of Dialogue in Washington!

Divided Democrats and Republicans found a way to talk this week, and actually listened to each other, using a talking stick!talkingstick

The Washington Post on January 28, 2017 reports that Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, convened a bipartisan meeting in her office to explore ways to reopen the government during the recent shutdown.  Having succeeded at that, they’re now discussing a way forward on immigration issues.  They used a Masai talking stick to structure their conversation.

So What’s a Talking Stick?

A talking stick – this one borrowed from the renowned cattleherders of Kenya – is an object passed around as people talk, to provide a simple structure of respectful communication.  There’s one ground rule:  You can’t speak unless you’re holding the talking stick.   

How to Use a Talking Stick

The simplest of all tools for facilitating dialogue, the talking stick requires no great expertise or training.  No special equipment required.  Any simple object will do – a feather, a stone, a pencil, a paperweight.

Usually a talking stick is used with people sitting in a circle, and it’s simply passed around the circle, from one person to the next.  I’ve also had success with it in larger settings where people are not in a circle.  In this case it can be simply passed back through the group to those wanting to speak, or the facilitator can move around the room and reclaim it after each speaker. 

Two things to be careful about in facilitating with a talking stick:
1) Make sure the ground rule is clearly understood and supported by all.
2) Model and require respect for the stick.  Model giving full attention to the person holding it and do not interrupt.  Be alert to any violations of the ground rule.  When this happens, promptly repeat the ground rule and remind the group that keeping it is essential.  If you ignore violations without saying anything, they will multiply and the structure will be lost.

Cleanly facilitated, a talking stick quickly brings a tangible sense of order and deep listening into the room.  People hold forth and then a few seconds of spacious, uncontested quietness reigns as the object is passed to the next person.   As facilitator, you can invite such spaces by holding the object thoughtfully in your own hands for a few seconds of silence at well-chosen moments, such as just before you pass it to the first speaker.   

Limits of the Talking Stick

As a tool for structuring dialogue, the talking stick can be almost magical.  But recognize its limits.  It’s a dialogue tool  and unwieldy in moments of negotiation or decisionmaking.  Think through the purpose of the session.   If eventually you must go beyond dialogue – as usually you must at some point – think through options and how  to transition when the time arrives. 

You can easily find detailed guidance with a web search.  Or get my book Cool Tools for Hot Topics: Group Tools to Facilitate Meetings When Things are Hot, with more than twenty practical tools for facilitating dialogue in difficult settings, including the talking stick.  At $4.95 on Amazon it won’t break your piggy bank!

Teambuilding Exercises

Isolation and polarization are big threats today.  team-building-exercises2  We can’t take collegiality and community for granted.  We have to work steadily at renewing them.

Part of the requirement of leaders now is to recognize that times have changed.   We must strategically work to create these essentials that in times past seemed to come naturally.

So here’s a marvelous collection of blog posts on team building on Human Resources Today.  I particularly like this group of teambuilding exercises.

 

Pyramid of Conflict Resolution Skills

 

What is the connection between interpersonal conflict resolution tools like my Style Matters conflict style inventory or the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and big conflicts of our world, like ethnic and religious violence or threat of nuclear war?

The Pyramid of Competency shows the many layers of competence required for addressing the complex realities of human relationships.   I’ve used it throughout the world at the beginning of conflict resolution training to locate topics on a map of “the big picture”.  I also use it in helping individuals eager to pursue skill development to chart a pathway for learning.  

If you took my Style Matters conflict styles inventory or the Thomas Kilmann, you’ve already given some attention to the second level, “Interpersonal negotiation and conflict resolution”.

Ponder that diagram and you get some clues about why, despite all the progress humans have made, and all the institutions we’ve created, we’re still barely out of  the Dark Ages with conflict resolution.

Conflict Competency is a Continuum of Skills

One of the most important things the pyramid shows is that conflict resolution competencies are inter-connected.  To be consistently effective at any level, we need a foundation of skill at lower levels.  

When you get good at one level, it opens access to the next higher one.  I’ll illustrate this with my own career.

I spent early years after grad school establishing a new conflict resolution agency.   I had little training for this – almost none was available in the 70s – and little experience. But thanks to good modeling of parents and elders in my life – and maybe to being the fifth of seven children, I had above-average abilities in interpersonal negotiation and conflict resolution.  That was enough to get started.

Part of my job was mediating interpersonal conflicts.  Although I had zero training for this, I read the few resources available and used my existing interpersonal skills to avoid disaster in early mediations.   I was moving up the pyramid of competence!

As my mediation skills expanded I began to train other mediators. This gave lots of opportunities to develop skills in group facilitation skills.  Up another level.   

Gradually opportunities came to work with group conflicts.  Although this was totally new territory, I was pleasantly surprised by how useful my now thriving interpersonal mediation skills were in group settings.   I had mastered basics like starting off mediation with a strong beginning, setting a framework, listening well and getting input from those involved, asking good questions, reframing destructive comments, defining issues, exploring options, working out package agreements, etc.

Also, the long hours of leading training workshops had honed my generic group facilitation skills to a fine edge.

Facilitating group conflict processes required additional skills, for sure.  But the solid core of skills from interpersonal mediation and the group facilitation helped me get through difficult moments while learning new skills on the fly.  

I did early group work mostly in small group settings because my repertoire of skills in large group settings was quite limited.  But that changed as I figured out ways to adapt the techniques and skills I was mastering in small group facilitation to the high-wire of large group facilitation, and add new ones learned from reading and discussion with colleagues.

After 10 years I was ready for a change and was able to arrange a position in South Africa at one of the country’s oldest conflict resolution agencies.  My years of experience as a mediator, facilitator, and trainer in the US and Canada gave me skills desperately needed in a country entering a major peace process.  

Soon I was appointed Director of Training at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town and eventually as Training Advisor to the National Peace Accord, an organization mandated by the political parties to deal with the conflicts that  brewed continuously around the on-going negotiations.   Now I was drawing on and building skills across the entire span of the pyramid!

When Leaders Have Gaps in Competence the Cost is High

As in every peace process I’ve been close to, South Africa had plenty of people eager to assert leadership in its time of crisis.  But few were skilled in facilitating discussion, negotiation, and decision-making processes.   This made things vulnerable, like all peace processes, to one of the most poorly recognized dynamics of conflict resolution.

People think of peace processes as conflict resolution across a table between warring parties.  It is.  But it’s often conflicts behind the table that most endanger success.  In South Africa far more people died in fighting among the various factions of the black liberation groups as talks dragged on than between blacks and whites.  

Wherever there is a high energy initiative for change, whether a liberation struggle or reform of politics or institutions, there is conflict.  Not only across the table between the predictable antagonists, but behind it, brother vs. brother.  Just ask the Palestinians, the Syrian opposition, the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, or the US Republican party, to name but a few current examples!

Like leaders in every other sphere – whether business, religion, education, you name it – agents of change often have huge deficits in conflict resolution skills. 

These leaders may be highly effective in maneuvering in upper levels of the pyramid, for example, where brokering power deals is essential.  But for leading a staff meeting of colleagues, many don’t have a clue about facilitation practices, even basic ones that can be learned in a weekend workshop.   

Or they get into vicious fights with people within their own movement who challenge them.   They claim credit for things others have done, or opportunistically seize positions and power at the expense of their own colleagues.  

The result is chronic frustration and blockage of processes among people serving beneath them and with groups who could be powerful allies. 

Where such things happen it reflects the reality of gaps in competency in the lower levels of the pyramid, often the first three or four levels.  

The consequences can be devastating.   Movements of thousands or millions of people, constructed over decades, are sometimes shattered when organizations fall apart due to rivalries and resentments among key leaders.

My illustrations have been from the world of political change and conflict resolution, but it’s the same in most professions and sectors, whether education, religion, human services, or business.  People in leadership may be widely esteemed for certain competencies.   But many have huge gaps of competency in conflict resolution in levels beneath the one for which they are recognized.

Even Many “Peace Professionals” Have Big Gaps

A big reason why so many fires of conflict continue to burn unresolved throughout the world is because even in the structures of diplomacy and international conflict resolution, individuals with solid competencies in all the levels required are exceedingly rare.  

I’m appalled by how many people I met in my years in the UN who carried mandates to support peace processes affecting millions of people, who clearly had no mastery of basic mediation and facilitation processes.   Or who were driven by personal needs for recognition and control that deeply contradicted their professional effectiveness.

Expertise is Required at Every Level

Every family, neighborhood, institution, enterprise, community, region, and nation has to manage difficult issues.  Even if outright conflict is not present, people have to talk things through and make decisions with others.  People skilled in the competencies described in the pyramid are a tremendous asset in this. 

To be serious about peaceful resolution of conflict, we need to train people at every level of the pyramid.   Five hundred years ago the idea that everyone should be taught to read and write was laughable.  Yet today we take universal education for granted.  

Someday maybe it will be expected that everyone gets training in the basics of conflict resolution, and that portions of the populace will be trained in the higher levels of competency. 

Can you imagine how different a world it would be if governments, political parties, religious organizations, businesses, medical institutions, etc., were led by people skilled in all the competencies corresponding to their position?   When that day comes, we’ll remember today as the Dark Ages of conflict resolution!

Selfishness, envy, greed, ego, and other weaknesses will still be with us.  But at least we will have a chance of reducing the consequences of our deeply rooted shadows.

Back to Conflict Styles Training

So where does conflict styles training fit into all this?  As I pointed out in the beginning, it belongs with other rudimentary skills – like listening, basic conflict analysis, and effective confrontation – down there on the second tier.  Such skills in interpersonal conflict are foundational, required by everyone and essential to success in all the other levels.  If you’re not good at them, you’re going to perform inconsistently as a mediator, facilitator, leader, or president.  

Conflict styles training is a great way to get people started on learning that can become an epic journey of preparation for higher levels of conflict resolution leadership.  People learn about themselves in conflict styles training, but they also learn something else that is a new concept for many:  Anyone can significantly improve their skills and tools for resolving conflict.

This discovery is enough to launch many people on a journey of expanding competency that lasts for a lifetime.

About Personal Foundations 

The lowest level, personal foundations of self-knowledge, self-care, and integrity, is challenging.   It’s hard to describe, measure and teach these things.   They’re the product of a lifetime of struggle, reflection, and learning.  All of us are deeply challenged here.

The schools and institutions currently training conflict resolution experts for various sectors are largely silent about this level.   Little to nothing is said about the importance of inner maturity and wisdom.  Training or support to grow on this level?  Mostly zip. 

I came to see this competency as fundamental through painful life experience.  I was deeply disappointed by encounters with peacebuilders who were neither honest nor honorable.  I was disillusioned by the dawning realization that in many conflicts the inability of peacebuilders to practice what they preach and work cooperatively with other peacebuilders is as big a block to peace processes as the dynamics between disputants.  

I struggled with burnout and witnessed devoted colleagues severely handicapped by it.

So in designing a new Masters Program in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University, I proposed to teach a course, “Disciplines for Transforming the Peacebuilder”.  In the 10 years I taught it,  many students said it was the most important course they took.

In the coming months I’ll be publishing essays from that course.   If you share the conviction that this is an essential and poorly recognized element of preparation for conflict resolution, go to Settings for this blog now  and make sure you’re set to receive posts on “Transforming the Peacebuilder” so you receive those posts as I send them. 

Can We Afford All Those Levels and All Those Skills?

You might look at all those levels and skills, throw up your hands and say it’s too much.  

Actually, it’s far from impossible.  We don’t need to figure out anything new.  We already know how to train people in every skill.  The main challenge is simply that of building resolve to get institutions, schools, professions, and governments to do the obvious at a scale big enough to make a difference.

Those skills bring enormous benefits to those who use them. Listening, analyzing, and seeking creative solutions, which lie at the heart of conflict resolution, are central to human production and to the creation of wealth and social capital.   People and organizations thrive when they are abundantly applied.  

The benefits of systematically building skills of conflict resolution far outweigh the costs. The truth is: We can’t afford not to invest in them.  Every day we pay – and dearly – for the costs of scarcity here.

What are you doing to change that in the realms where you have expertise, relationships, and credibility?

Ron Kraybill, PhD
www.kraybilltable.com

Stop Giving Others Insult Power

 

Do you know people who get upset and insulted easily?  They may not realize it, but they’re setups for easy manipulation. When you’re easily triggered, you’re a sitting duck for anyone having a bad day.  

All it takes is a few choice words. Your buttons are pushed and you shuffle yourself off to the land of the Grumps.

Why give other people that kind of power over you?

Be Un-Insultable

You have no control over the behavior of others.  You can’t stop them from being annoying.  But you can remove your “Insult” button from easy public access.  Be un-insultable.  

It’s much easier said than done, of course. But it’s a choice you can make and work at achieving.

Un-Insultability in Practice

It even works with kids – if you can remember to do it. After starting this piece one night, I made supper for my 8 year twins. My culinary labors complete, I called the boys. But rather than devour what I’d prepared, they moaned about what I’d made and loudly declared they weren’t going to eat it.

When I said, “Well, that’s what we have tonight,” they announced that they weren’t going to eat supper at all and walked out of the kitchen.

Spoiled brats! I thought. They need to know this is not acceptable! I paused for a few seconds, brimming with righteous anger, to think about how to deliver the message with greatest impact.

In the pause I remembered what I’d just been writing about. And had to smile.  A few minutes ago I was writing praise for the idea of being un-insultable.  Here I stood now, undeniably offended.  By eight year olds!

So what would it look like, I wondered, if I refused to be insulted and angry?

“That’s what the cook made for supper,” my dad used to say when I complained about food as a child.  I wasn’t about to renege on that time-tested principle now.   But there was no reason not to enjoy my own supper and no reason I had to be offended because the boys wouldn’t eat what I’d made.  

I set aside their food and proceeded with preparations for myself.   I coaxed myself into a song as I worked.  As I was about to sit down and eat, a young dinner-denier wandered back into the kitchen. “Oh, well, maybe I’ll just eat what you made,” he said breezily.

Two minutes later, his brother appeared. As if the earlier exchange had never happened, the two proceeded – without a murmur of complaint – to devour the meal they’d just vowed never to eat.

OK, it’s not always that easy!  Pick your own easy battle for starters.  This attitude takes practice!

For more on being un-insultable, see this video by Roger Reece, the trainer and consultant who coined the term. He’s a good presenter and you’ll learn a lot in the 4 minute clip.

Take a Conflict Style Inventory – Thomas Kilmann or Style Matters

No matter how good you get at being un-insultable, there will still be times when you need to actively challenge others.  A conflict style inventory such as the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument or my Style Matters conflict style inventory is a quick way to get a snapshot of your instincts in conflict and a framework to analyze your choices.

Watch for future blogs with more concepts to help get your attitude where you want it to be.

Share your experience with being un-insultable in Comments!

Attacker Spreads Hate, Finds Mercy

The NY Times carries a gripping account about vandalism by young whites against a mosque in Texas.  One youth writes a heartfelt letter of apology and Muslim leaders are so moved that they request the judge to be lenient.   

The prosecutor thinks this is a bad idea and forbids the youth from even visiting the mosque.  Nevertheless, well, just read the story – you won’t regret it.

In a time when alienation is widespread, the response of NY Times readers to this story is one of visceral gratitude.  Many comment it is the best they have read in a long time.

This is a story about restorative justice that Americans really need to hear. If we are to find our way back from the abyss of polarization, we have to stop planting seeds of alienation. This requires changes to a justice system that systematically blocks people from relationally-based responses to crime. .

The concept of justice widely known and applied in our society is court-centered restorative_justice-storypunitive justice, which holds no interest in healing of relationships or individuals. The court calls all the shots. The individuals involved have only small roles in the process, and no say in what happens.

Victims often have the tiniest role and the least say in this process. They are expected to provide evidence of wrong-doing and then disappear for the court to mete out punish against an offender.

Restorative justice, in contrast, recognizes that offenses involve human beings and relationships  and therefore responses ought to do so as well.  It creates space for the instinct for healing that often still survives after offense and, when it emerges, allows it to shape sentencing.

Throughout the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and many other places, facilitators trained in restorative justice assist parties and justice system officials to work out a response to offense acceptable to the parties.

Restorative justice is not the right approach to all offenses. But it has grown rapidly since the early 1980s (first used by traditional and native communities; pioneered in courts in Ontario by Mennonite community workers in the 1970s; I did first US cases in Elkhart, Indiana in 1977; first US program there in the 80s) because it honors one of the strongest and best human instincts.

After offense we are hurt and angry. But we are also wired with deep knowledge that we ourselves are offenders at times and that offenders deserve support and help to grow.

If families, churches, mosques, schools, and courts would nurture this deep instinct, the polarization that threatens our world today would rapidly fade. 

Stories like this help reclaim the best of who we are. There is hope! Share it!

 

How Does Conflict Style Shape Destiny?

How is a Score Report

I spent much of the last month writing new text for the score report of Style Matters. That’s the 10 page personalized report from the online version of my conflict style inventory, whose numbers, with my reflections thereon, go out to users after taking the inventory.

Commanders in military establishments, janitors in neighborhood associations, freshmen at Bible colleges, and pretty much everybody in between read (and I like to think, ponder) this thing; according to logs on our server, nearly 365 days a year.

As usual in our multi-religious family, I did both Pesach and Easter celebrations. Sort of. But mostly, while others congregated for holidays, I wrestled epiphanies in text on my laptop.

And got new hope and vision as I remembered why conflict resolution continues to grip me. Here my traditionalist and my modernist, my believing and my agnostic, my monastic and my populist selves meet. Conflict, or at least reflecting on human responses to it, remains holy ground to this once Mennonite farmer, now aging peace process facilitator.

Conflict Style Awareness is More than Technique

“Conflict management starts with self-management,”  we say on the Style Matters frontpage.  The lone boatman there launches his journey to an unknown destination, symbol of the journey that peacebuilding can launch us on.

We’re not talking technique here.  This is a journey of growth – intellectual, emotional and spiritual – that lasts a lifetime.

The choices we make in conflict – about what to defend and how, what to cut loose and why, the strategies, defenses, and tools we use in dealing with those we disagree with, how to respond to victory and loss – all shape who we become and the legacy we leave.   This applies to individuals, institutions, and nations.

score_report_snip-300x185.jpeg

One of my long-term goals in the development of Style Matters is to forge a learning tool that corresponds to the richness of the topic it addresses. 

Larger issues of purpose, values, and meaning inevitably emerge for those who contemplate response to conflict and are ready to consider them.  

It’s not for me to supply answers to those larger issues.  But I do aspire, without apology, to devise a learning tool that, as it doles out buckets of tactical insight, fosters awareness that in responding to conflict, in our patterns and habits, over time, our choices shape us, who we become, and the kind of world we leave for others.

Precisely the lack of such awareness blocks the growth and enduring change required to reduce misery and violence in our world.

What’s New in the Score Report

The upgraded report squeezes a lot of additional insight from scores.

For the first time the report now addresses style combinations.  Many people have scores that indicate equal preference for two or more styles.  This suggests special strengths – and special vulnerabilities.

For example, people who score high in both the Directing style (known as Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) and Avoiding styles may be unusually well equipped to function in settings of high conflict and wily opponents.  

But the skill set that comes with these two styles is not very relational.  Such people probably need to make special efforts to build personal relationships. See a sample of part of the text at end of this post for the combination of Cooperating and Compromising

There are ten possible such score combinations in the Mouton Blake framework underlying Style Matters (as well as the Thomas Kilmann instrument, which originally inspired us, first in concept, then as a standard for betterment). The Style Matters score report now provides detailed commentary for those users who score high for one of these combos.  

In the coming weeks I’ll add these new scripts to our Trainers Guide for trainers who use paper and pencil versions and don’t benefit from the automated number-crunching of the online version.

I was struck in writing these with how much insight looking at combinations provides.  So far as I’m aware, this is new territory among conflict style inventories, including the Thomas Kilmann. I’m eager to hear user comments about this innovation!

In addition, we added tie-breakers to the interpretation algorithm.  As a result,  tied scores and the uncertainties this creates for some users are now less common.

Yet another upgrade addresses the question: What can you do to improve your patterns of conflict style use?  I added many practical suggestions for expanding use of your low-scoring styles.

Together with an upgrade to formatting and headings, this is a major revision that expands the size of the report to 6-10 pages.

How to Get Your New Score Report

If you took the inventory in the past,  login now for a fresh read of your report with these improvements. You don’t need to re-take the inventory.   The new report uses the data from your previous take and mines it in new ways. 

The login has been been moved to the upper right of the front page.  If you’ve lost your password, use password recovery under the login fields to reset yours.  After login, go to “Style Matters Online” in the top menu, for options to view, print, and email your new report.  First time users, order here and then go straight to the inventory.

Fiveconflictstyles

 

Sample text on the combination of Cooperating and Compromising

Sample-conflict-styles-combos

Too Ticked to Talk Nice

 

You can’t do conflict resolution without doing anger management.

Anger is an emotion that everyone needs.  Don’t wish it away.  It provides resources essential to self-protection and survival.  It helps us respond quickly, with high energy, to dangerous or unpleasant situations.

But that doesn’t mean it’s fine to rant when you’re pissed.

Talk About Anger in a Non-Angry Way

Researchers in several fields find that expressing anger in an angry way feeds the problem.

Angry_man You can talk about your anger without yielding to the impulse to be aggressive or to hurt others. Say that you are angry, say why you are angry, say what could be done to improve things – and say these things without being hurtful, hostile or rude.

When Anger is too Great for Constructive Talk

If you cannot yet do this, limit communication so you don’t feed anger or damage to relationships.  Use the cool-down time:

  • for journaling, which has been shown to be highly effective in helping people regain perspective on anger;
  • to do some detective work about your emotions (see point 3 in my essay on anger management);
  • to review how to present your concerns in ways most likely to bring positive response from your counterpart.

When You’re Ready to Talk

When you talk, consider the conflict style of your counterpart.  See my blog posts about the two-step approach and my detailed suggestions of support strategies for each style.

Regardless to conflict style, a formula that helps to frame things in a non-aggressive way is the “I message” or “Impact statement”.   The idea is to avoid the accusatory tone of “You are X,Y,Z.”

Instead, describe the impact of what your counterpart is doing on you and your emotions.   “I feel… when you… because….” Or, “The impact of what you do on me is YYY….”

For situations where anger is intense, you are more likely to have a successful experience in conversation if you agree on a way to structure it. For example:

  • Use a “talking stick” and agree that you will pass it back and forth as you speak. You can speak only when you are holding the talking stick (or pen, pillow, book, etc.)
  • Agree on a sequence to organize the conversation, such as: “We’ll begin by giving each person 5 minutes to explain without interruption what they are upset about. Then we’ll try to list the issues where we disagree. Third, we’ll see if there are points that we agree on. Fourth, we’ll return to where we disagree and try to resolve those.”
  • Agree to ground rules. For example, agree that each person needs to repeat back in their own words what the other person has said, to the satisfaction of that person, before responding.  Use this structure for at least 15 minutes , and agree when to relax it. The pattern is:  Person A speaks, Person B repeats back in his or her own words. Person B speaks, Person A repeats back, etc.

Live for Soul Not Magic

I’ve tried all the above and found them all helpful enough that I continue to use and teach them.  But I’ve also learned there’s no magic – no wording or strategies that guarantee a good outcome when feelings are deep or someone is in a hard emotional space.

Even after teaching and writing about tools for conflict resolution for several decades, I still fail to achieve constructive communication in some circumstances where I try hard for it.  So will you.

One of the ambiguous gifts of age is that we come to accept that which is.   We learn that ultimately we have no real control over anything or anyone other than ourselves, and not always not even that.   We learn to rest when we have done what we can, even if the outcome is not what we seek. These learnings shape the character of the soul and none shapes us more profoundly than our encounters with anger.

When life brings opportunities to practice the arts of resting peacefully in that which is and cannot be changed, do not close your heart to them.

For more on anger management, see:

You Can’t Delete Religious Extremism


This diagram contains important clues about an alternative to the widely held notion that religious extremism can be forcefully countered. It’s from Ian White, a key strategist behind the scene in stabilizing the Northern Ireland peace process.

religion and conflict

Diagram by Ian White – more readable here – shows alternative to “countering” religion

Religion is deeply embedded in human experience. The goal in responding to religious extremism must be to work with and constructively engage the powerful energies of religion rather than to remove or thwart them, what White calls “countering”.

The latter rarely work out as expected. To the extent that strategies to counter extremism are violent, they share and strengthen the underlying assertion of extremism, that force is acceptable and effective in building a desirable future. Even when not violent, if such strategies fail to engage religious leaders, they are devoid of understanding of the world from which extremism emerges; and thus bereft of potency and sustainability.

Transformation: A Sustainable Response to Extremism

The only option for responding to religious extremism without making things ultimately worse is a strategy of transformation.

Such a strategy works respectfully and knowledgeably in regard to the role religion holds in human functioning and it engages religious people where they are. It actively seeks out and finds common cause with those values, symbols, traditions, individuals and institutions that support non-violent responses to human diversity; responses that exist in virtually all religious milieu, even if not always apparent from a distance.

Because the only realistic goal is transformation, not transmission or domination, such an approach must be a dialogue, not a monologue.

With no exceptions, all who travel and engage the world participate in and benefit from systems that are violent and oppressive. There is no such thing as fully peace-creating people engaging others in need of enlightenment. The best we can hope for is to step forward as still-struggling, partially blind people, committed nevertheless to working actively with others to improve ourselves, our communities, and our world.

And that’s enough. From such a stance we have sufficient credibility that we will find and engage those with a similar stance in other communities. Together with them, we can find transformative responses, things that will change both them and us in constructive, sustainable ways.

Ask Ian White, who quietly called into life and coordinated such an approach in Northern Ireland.

Author Ron Kraybill has worked in peace processes in the US, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Philippines, Myanmar, and other locations and blogs at www.KraybillTable.com.


Trainers Guide to Conflict Styles

conflict-styles-trainers-guide 

Just re-released: my Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshop. Now 38 pages in the 2017 edition, it’s still free.

Like earlier versions, this one gives step-by-step guidance for trainers.  My aim is to make it easy for anyone with basic group leadership skills to lead successful conflict styles learning.

New in this edition are sections on training supported by online tools.  With a third or more of the US workforce working from home, multi-platform environments and extensive online interaction are the norm for many.  Trainers tooled only for live classrooms are obsolescing.

If you’re in a hurry, just hit download and abscond with the goods!DownloadnowIf you have a few minutes for some history, read on.

Kudos to TKI

I’ll always be grateful to Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, creators of the venerable Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, for turning me on to the conflict style inventory. Though their inventory was proceeded by Jay Hall’s and others, with the TKI I discovered the power of conflict styles for training.  To me, if not Adam and Eve, they’re the Abraham and Isaac of conflict style inventories.

I saw how engaged users became from my very first workshop.   No persuasion needed to hold attention.  This reinforced a conviction I’ve carried across my career, that “Conflict management starts with self-management.”

Priority: Psychometrics or Training?

I was hooked on the tool, but I sweated teaching it. For years  I fretted over notes before every workshop, tweaking how to present, how to ask questions that got people talking, how to set up reflection exercises that yield teachable moments.

I also got regular complaints about the TKI.  None of the choices is right for me, I kept hearing. The TKI uses a forced choice arrangement for questions that is intended to prevent “social desirability bias”, with users trying look good rather than be candid.

The complaint came in all settings but most loudly when groups were culturally diverse.  Some users were put off about the whole exercise.  This raised questions for me about the tool itself.

My purposes were training, where the focus is equipping for the future.  For this, trust in the learning tool is essential.    Gradually I came to see that key choices in design of the TKI had been made to optimize psychometrics, where accurate measurement of behavior is holy grail.  In ways that worried me, the priority for psychometrics was damaging my training environment.

Trainers aren’t mandated and most are not trained for psychometrics.  Our mission is to facilitate learning, to help people prepare for living and performing well.

This happens best in a relaxed environment where people feel connected in a positive way to their potential.  Regardless to the alleged psychometric authority of the instrument, I think trainers should model and encourage “taking the numbers with a grain of salt”.

A relaxed view of the numbers is important for several reasons.   One is that nobody is written in stone.  Recent research about the brain and emotional functioning underscores the reality of human “plasticity”.

The ability to adapt and change over time is deeply embedded in us.    We have preferences, habits, and tendencies, but we are capable of new responses at all phases of life. This points away from a heavy focus on scores in a self-assessment test.

To change, we need to trust ourselves, and this points to a second reason for a light touch on the metrics. We want learners to value their own self-evaluations more than those based on scores in a written instrument testing somebody else’s norms. Again, that means trainers should take a light attitude towards the numbers.

Third, we want to teach dialogue with others as an authoritative source of data for feedback and change, more so than an external instrument.  One of the biggest payoffs of conflict styles training is it gets people talking with others around them. Trainers know this is when workshops really come to life.

Having numbers to compare and reflect on is a potent resource to get started in such a conversation.  But authority for evaluating what happens in conflict obviously goes to live human beings reflecting on their experiences.  Honoring this authority requires care with metrics.  Start off with the numbers, but treat them as entertaining clues.  Give weight to the observations of those involved.

I’m sure circumstances arise, perhaps in personal counseling or performance evaluation, where an attitude of greater reverence for the numbers is called for.  But I’m rarely presented with those as a trainer, certainly not in the short workshops in which I lead conflict styles training.

As my work expanded to include people of greater cultural diversity, a new concern arose, the tone-deafness of virtually all conflict style tools, including the TKI, on issues of culture.

Cultures that are less individualistic than North America give less freedom to individuals to respond as they see fit when conflict arises. “High context” cultures expect individuals to be guided by things like age and social status. Maybe you can be assertive or even bossy to a younger person, but you should defer to an older person.

For people steeped in such a culture, the question, “Would you do X in conflict or Y in conflict?”, if stated that simply, is peculiar. Imagine someone asking you, “When you need to do a repair on your house, do you hammer it or saw it?” “Well, it depends,” you’d probably say. “Tell me more – what’s the fix needed?”

Precisely. We know instinctively that some responses are made only in the context of details. For people accustomed to high context cultures, this includes responses to conflict. The details of context that matter typically include age, social status, education, roles, etc., of all involved. I found a significant number of people from such cultures confounded by the experience of trying to answer twenty questions about conflict in the absence of details.

Of course, you can always coax people to fill in answers to questions; you can tally data and create norms. But if users of a conflict style inventory have been compelled to answer questions void of information they consider to be essential in answering, obviously the data has questionable value. Indeed, if responses for many people are truly context specific, the whole enterprise of establishing norms and interpreting scores from them is at best highly complicated, and quite possibly irrelevant.

Ideally, an instrument balances the requirements of psychometrics with the requirements of optimal training.  Increasingly I came to doubt that the TKI had achieved this balance. I felt that the intrusiveness of the forced choice questions and the questionable cultural assumptions of the instrument came at too high a cost to the requirements of training.

My work required a low-cost conflict style inventory optimized for training rather than psychometrics. I wanted to use it as a learning tool to engage people deeply about their options in conflict. It wasn’t crucial that the scores people got correspond exactly to what they did in real life, a standard which very few assessment instruments achieve anyway. The metric I cared about was how much did participants learn about conflict resolution, how much did their effectiveness improve as a result of using the tool?

  I developed an early draft in 1985 for my work as head of a national network of mediators and facilitators sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and this evolved through several phases to eventual psychometric validation in 2007.   See details of that story here.

All the above were factors in my work already in the 1980s.  To me it seems apparent that the astonishing expansion of training contexts and platforms that has unfolded since then, along with the diversification and globalization of teams and working environments, has only strengthened the case for a conflict style inventory optimized for training rather than psychometrics, and with issues of culture and stress built into its very structure.

Goodbye to Single Context Training

In 2007 I wrote the first edition of “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Training” to enable others to benefit from the years of experimentation I’d gone through.  Other versions followed.

But in recent years I’ve increasingly seen that the Trainers Guide had a gap. It assumed one training context only: a live, face-to-face classroom where users take the inventory on paper and participate in an old-style lecture/discussion learning experience.

We all know that life’s most important learnings rarely happen in classrooms. And that some very wise people do not spend much time in classrooms; never have, never will.

Perhaps even more important, more and more teams and groups do their work online.  A lot of managing and learning that once required face-to-face meetings now takes place online.

This means that trainers equipped only to work in classrooms are increasingly out of touch. The live connection of face-to-face learning can’t be beat, but that’s no reason not to diversify. We’ll never get to the conversations and learning processes required to build strong conflict resolution practices if trainers don’t diversify our teaching methods.

Hello to Mixed Platforms

Technology makes diversification of teaching methods easy and results can be good. In “Facetime is Limited, Distance is Far” I point out that  a remote digital learning experience that sustains the learning across time is probably better than a one-off face-to-face event.

So the just released revision of my Trainers Guide now fits all circumstances. Whether you are working with lone individuals on the other side of the world, traditional groups gathered face-to-face, or a blend of the two, the new guide now charts out a workshop design to ease your prep time.

In 38 pages, the guide:

  • reviews a spectrum of four workshop designs: Solo, Solo plus Discussion, Solo plus Workshop, and Workshop only, and lays out a step-by-step outline for each;
  • provides guidance in interpreting scores;
  • reviews the cultural reflection aspect of my Style Matters inventory, why this matters, and how to use it if desired;
  • provides lists of discussion questions useful for various moments in a conflict styles workshop
  • provides a directory to free resources on the Riverhouse ePress site for leading conflict styles workshops

All yours, for free, in a 38 page PDF you can download in a few second on the Riverhouse website.  Our world needs conflict resolution skills like never before – prepare yourself now!

Downloadnow