Trump and Conflict Styles

We can Learn a Lot from Trump about Conflict Styles

The weekend brought a textbook example of under-use of conflict avoidance and its costs.

It started on Friday when Rep. John Lewis picked a quarrel with Trump. “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president,”  he announced in a press statement.  Saturday Trump fired back with tweets.

TrumpTweet Jan15-17

In the context of the long holiday weekend honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday, the exchange echoed thunderously in the media.

Result?  Lewis’ book sales skyrocketed.  By Sunday leading newspapers were carrying reports that his books were in the top 20 list of booksales and Amazon had sold out all copies of his best known work.


For his part, Trump took a hail of criticism, including critical tweets by some fellow Republicans, for dissing one of America’s most respected civil rights leaders.

Let’s be clear – Lewis started it.   Never mind that Trump himself spearheaded a preposterous “birther” challenge to Barack Obama’s legitimacy for eight years, against all evidence. What matters here is that this time someone else threw the first punch.

But conflict management is about more than who started things.  What matters is how to respond in a way most likely to bring a good outcome.

I cannot imagine a prudent advisor saying, “Donald Trump, you need to go after that revered civil rights leader.  You’ll gain a lot by firing right back with a big put-down.”   On a weekend when everyone remembers white domination of blacks, it’s a good idea to smack down a guy honored for leading demonstrations alongside MLK?   With lines a 7th grader could write?

Trump chose the conflict response that I call Directing in my conflict style inventory (aka Competing in the TKI, for those who use that instrument).  Directing pays no attention to relationships, feelings, or cooperation.  You focus solely on taking charge.  You win.

Don’t Diss Directing as a Response to Conflict

Don’t diss that style.  I agree it sounds vicious, and it can be.  But every human being needs it in certain forms from time to time.   A parent who doesn’t grab his three year-old dashing towards the street and take charge of the situation is a bad parent.  No matter how the child feels about it.

How about the captain of a sinking ship, a surgeon in charge of a dicey operation, a youth leader on a field trip with teenagers?  Sometimes goals and responsibilities are more important than relationships and feelings.

So, respect Trump for a generous dose of Directing in his conflict style repertoire.  But is Directing the only style he’s capable of?  That’s a question fundamental to all leadership.

Mark Twain wrote, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.”  Conflict management is about flexibility, using the right style for the situation.  When we’re skilled in only one or two styles, we set ourselves up for failure.

Although Lewis started the fight, in the circumstances, conflict avoidance would seem to have served Trump, his party, and the nation far better.

When is Avoiding the Right Response to Conflict?

Avoidance is the perfect response:

  • when there’s no goal or purpose beyond ego satisfaction that you can accomplish by pushing your cause, or
  • when the the costs of a battle outweigh the costs of silence or withdrawal.  

On both counts, this was a slam-dunk for avoiding.   Why not starve the alligators with presidential inattention?  Just let the annoying words of the outspoken Representative fade into the news cycle.

People with a high Directing conflict style and low Avoiding response look and are intimidating.   But they are also easy to maneuver and tie in knots.   All it takes is low-grade insult to trigger them into reactions that waste time, energy, and good will over trivialities.   They can’t stop themselves from reacting.


In the world of politics and diplomacy, over-reaction can be hugely damaging.  Years ago I talked with an activist close to a group waging political insurrection in a country in Asia.  “We consider carefully,” he said, “which police stations to attack.  We hope they retaliate.  Our goal is to hit those stations most likely to strike back wildly in ways that really anger the public.   That’s one of the best ways to win support for our cause.”

I have no idea if provoking a self-damaging outburst from Trump was the intention of Lewis.   But it appears that the outcome of the exchange was indeed an expansion of the already record-breaking gap dividing Trump from many voters.

One thing we can count on: Recognition of the thin skin of the incoming president is not lost on adversaries of America. Trump is already being targeted in the international arena in ways calculated to work against all Americans. On the long run, the slender repertoire of conflict styles he has so far demonstrated will benefit neither the politician nor the nation.



3 thoughts on “Trump and Conflict Styles

  1. Ralph Boardman

    The implication of this discussion seems to be that Trump is still fighting the ELECTION, when perhaps it WOULD be more prudent to become closer to the role of representing all Americans as behooves a PRESIDENT. As candidate Trump, naked aggression may or may not be appropriate: As President Trump, discretion is often the better part of valour.

  2. Pat Conover

    I think Trump is more calculating in choosing over and over again to counter-punch against all criticism. First of all, he won the presidency by appealing to a political base that wants to hit back against those who they think are taking control of the United States away from them. Trump gives their hostility voice. Trump also gives their desperation voice. If Trump loses in an exchange they still feel the solidarity of “at least we’re going down together fighting for what we believe in. You miss this when you appeal to “prudent advisors.” You think Trump would be better off he was prudent and consider it a deficit that he isn’t prudent. People feeling angry, desperate, and/or mistreated (justified or not), don’t give a fig about prudence.

    You can also regard Trump as echoing the guidance of Norman Vince Peale whom he lauds as his pastor. Think positively. Don’t let anyone make you feel less confident about who you are and what you do. Confidence can overcome negative facts. Trump is confident in his own judgments.

    Trump is also slyly strategic. He won the presidency with a small number of votes from African-Americans. When Blacks and their allies respond with anger and outrage that deepens his ties with the white majority that supported him. For the moment at least all the Republicans who opposed Trump have pretty much fallen into line and have stopped criticizing. He has dominated them. And he backs up his insults with threats and actions. He has silenced his Republican critics and has, at least theoretically, of dominating the legislative as well as the judicial branch.

  3. Ron Kraybill Post author

    It’s clear that Trump felt his dignity was assailed but that doesn’t put this exchange in the category of identity conflict. It’s true that at the level of logical point scoring, he punched right back at a similar level of challenge. But as pointed out in the post, good conflict management requires more than scoring tit for tat. It asks: How can we respond in ways most likely to bring a useful outcome? I see no possible useful result to Trump from his aggressive response; to the contrary I see several costs. Lewis got more visibility and a bigger following while Trump’s polls continue to sag. An avoiding response would have served him and the country better.

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