Category Archives: Conflict Style Training

Info, ideas, and resources for conflict style trainers.

Things fall apart. How to respond?

These are scary times, and it’s not just COVID19.  Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory.  Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers.  Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace.  It is not exaggerating to say that  the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.  

What can we do about it?  The causes are many; there will be no single solution.  High on the list of essential responses, I believe,  must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus.   But how?

Our methods of making decisions and resolving conflict are out-dated.

Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, “the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis.” (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)

Like it or not, there’s no going back to the old ways of leading and managing.  We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels. 

But there’s a big obstacle. 

We think “they” are the problem.  Nope, it’s patterns we all share.

With our out-dated expectations and skills for dealing with differences, we easily blame “them” for our perilous situation.  In the sketch below, I represent “us” and “them” as two sides, brown and blue, each with its own leaders, grassroots, and middle leader influencers.  Both sides are focused on a massive divide separating them. 

 

The divide is real.  But it’s more a symptom than a cause.  To get out of this mess we must focus on causes.

The problem is not the issues piled up on the table between us.  Nor is it simply the bad behavior of the other side.  Instead we should focus on addressing this: The habits (assumptions, practices, expectations, skills) that guide how institutions and leaders  go about making decisions and solving problems are from fifty years ago.   

Here’s a reality that stands in the background: All groups, in all times and places face on-going decisions and conflicts internally.  There’s competition for power within every group. Also hurts, slights, disappointments, and resentments.  

We had a system that worked, sort of, in the past. The top-down approaches (leaders-talk-others-listen) that pervaded our institutions in the last century enabled leaders and institutions to resolve or contain problems as they arose.  

Top-down approaches don’t work anymore but we use them anyway because it’s the only response we really know.

 

So what to do about it?

Start at home, within our own networks.

There is a widespread belief that where conflict symptoms appear is the place to address a problem.  Nope. Dysfunctional conflict emerges where there are gaps of skill and analysis among those in key leadership roles. This results in bad patterns taking root all around. Leaders get mired in chronically unresolved conflicts: a) among themselves; b) between themselves and those they lead, c) among those who depend on them for leadership and mentoring, and d) with organizations in the environment.

You can’t fix that mess by mediating. The bad patterns soon overwhelm any progress you might make on specific issues. 

We can’t fix the big divide on the table between brown and blue, for example, by setting up dialogue at the table.  New understandings and skills for leadership, problemsolving, and conflict resolution have to be implemented internally first, on both side of the big divide.  

Institutions and groups today are made up of individuals who expect a lot of say in decisions affecting their lives. Leaders require a new understanding of their role and a new set of skills to pull this off.  They have to learn, and practice these skills and strategies internally, among the people they trust most, before they can deploy them in riskier settings.

Unity within a faction or party helps stabilize the entire system. Years ago a leading South African businessman told me: “I was very threatened by unionization when it first started. But eventually I saw that unions were easier to deal with. We used to have big problems with wildcat strikes and constant chaos. Unions brought order to the workers side. We know who to talk to, and we know that when we make a deal with the union reps, they’ll make it work.”


Diversify and expand the skill set of leaders.

A big danger for this moment is the temptation to seize on simplistic answers.  Eg: if top-down leadership doesn’t work any more, then bottom-up consensus must be the answer.  

Nope again. You can’t do bottom-up consensus on everything. Participatory processes take time and energy, and resources. Not all issues merit the costs; not all require the lavish resources involved. If we seize on participatory approaches to leading and solving problems as the solution to all problems, we’ll wear out and fail. The result will be reduced willingness to use participatory approaches at all.

We need flexibility in our responses. Some decisions merit all-hands-on-deck participation. But others should be dealt with by executive action. Some conflicts require us to be engaged and assertive; others should be delayed or avoided. Some merit a smile and quick assent to demands; others require haggling and compromise.

Our goal must not be to completely eliminate top-down leadership and the skillset that comes naturally with it.  Rather it must be to expand skill sets, so leaders don’t over-rely on top-down. One of the reasons I continue to invest a lot of energy in the Style Matters conflict style framework is that it teaches flexibility of response and gives leaders a tool to quickly recognize and evaluate a range of responses to conflict.  (View short “Intro to Conflict Styles” slide show here.)

Do joint process design.

In conflict facilitation involving numbers of people we give a lot of attention to good process design.  As early as possible, we consult with key people, sometimes gathering them in the same room, to get their input on questions like: What are the key issues here?  Who do they affect? What are the needs and goals for the people affected?  How to appropriately involve those people?  Who will make the final decisions regarding whatever decisions we undertake and what decision-making procedures will they use?

After getting input on those questions we work carefully, jointly with key actors, to design a process of discussion that is understood and accepted by those involved.   It’s called “agreeing on procedure”.  If you do this before jumping into deep discussion and decisionmaking of the issues, a sustainable outcome is more likely. 

That’s easier said than done!  But it’s remarkably helpful in getting things off to a good start and avoiding mistakes that are hard to undo later.

An instinct we need to hone now in institutions and leadership is to pay attention to good process design.   As we find our way with the new skill sets required today, we can’t just assume that the old approaches will work and be accepted by others.   We need to talk with those we disagree with – and those we are leading in decisionmaking activities – about how to go about resolving the differences that confront us.

Equip people around you with new skills.

We can’t get through this time with the same old approaches.   And new ones won’t just throw themselves at us.  Every institution, whether political, community, business, or religious should be investing thought and time in re-tooling.  

For many years I’ve used the diagram below to sketch out areas of competency.  Each of those layers can be taught and learned with resources available online, or with the help of schools, coaches, consultants, trainers, or mentors.  There’s no lack of learning tools and strategies!  For expanded commentary on this pyramid, see my blogpost on it.

Don’t be daunted by the scope of potential skills.  Nobody masters them all!  We need an expanded pool of leaders competent in the bottom five or six layers.  Part of our current problem is that we have a large number of people functioning in the upper layers who have almost no skills or awareness in the lower layers. 

It’s not necessary to start at the bottom and proceed in a nice smooth flow up through those layers.  Start with what’s within reach. Conflict styles training, for example, jumps in on levels two and three, which are about interpersonal conflicts.   But work here gives lots of opportunities to raise issues about level one, and to prime people for becoming more effective mediators or facilitators, the levels above.

Or maybe you start with a workshop on group facilitation, level five.  That’s a great lead-in for additional work on listening and other interpersonal conflict resolution skills.  The point is, you don’t have to have a nice orderly progression.  Wherever you teach, lead, consult, or administer, build awareness in the people you work with that there is a useful set of skills they can learn and use for decision-making and conflicts of all kinds.  Help them get on a lifelong journey of learning.

Starting with work within the parties in conflict seems longer and slower than just going for the issues between them.  But sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, and I think that’s the case now. 

Copyright 2021, by Ron Kraybill, www.kraybilltable.com.  You may quote from or use this post in entirety if you include the preceding credit info.

 

Cooperate Gracefully

 


 

The Cooperating Style of conflict management is about actively seeking ways for both sides to win everything they want.  I assert myself clearly and confidently.  You do the same.  We work together to find solutions that allow us to both get what we want.  I win and so do you – how wonderful! 

Or maybe, how ridiculous.   A magical conflict style that makes everyone happy?  Ha, haa, haaa.   We could be forgiven for starting a review of Cooperating with a big laugh. Real life isn’t that easy and we all have stories to prove it.

Both sides win?  Hilarious thought!

 

 

But don’t laugh too long or you’ll create a story with its own sad outcomes. 

 

For skeptics of Cooperating, life is an endless series of battles.  They are right in believing that many conflicts can’t be resolved with this optimistic style.  But pessimism prevents some people from seeing that in most conflicts there is more room for meeting the needs of both sides than  first meets the eye.

There’s a cycle of pessimism and failure that gets triggered in many conflicts.  People get upset and react to the discovery of differences.   Things escalate, emotions rise, unkind things are said and done.   This brings further escalation.  Pessimists often give up on resolution without ever having made a serious effort at joint discussion.  

You create your own dismal reality if you treat win/win as impossible.  You doom yourself to endless, pointless conflict if you never make a serious try at the Cooperative conflict style.

I’ve spent decades as a professional resource to people trapped in that place.   The trap is real, but usually not because there are truly no win/win solutions available.  A deficit of skill in using the Cooperating conflict style usually lies at the heart of their problems.   

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

When to Use Cooperating

This style is beneficial in many circumstances, and it is indispensable in situations where neither side can achieve their goals unless both sides are happy.  Think: long-term relationship, high inter-dependency, important issues.   When those three factors are present in a conflict, it’s essential to have good skills in the Cooperating style of conflict resolution.

How to Cooperate

Cooperating is a both/and response to conflict.  As shown on the blue axes  on the right, It involves being highly committed to both your own goals and to the relationship (and therefore to helping the other person achieve their goals). 

That’s not the natural flow of thing, though. Conflict creates a feeling that things must be eithor/or, and we tend to act accordingly.  Cooperating requires skill, self-discipline, and persistence in resisting the natural impulse to fight or flee.   

Expect a learning curve!  If you were lucky enough to have frequent modelling of Cooperating by parents, teachers, or mentors, you may find it easy.  But most people witness more examples of Directing, Avoiding, Harmonizing, and Compromising in their elders than Cooperating.  Practice in easy situations till you get the hang of how to be committed to both your own goals and the other person’s goals at the same time.

Active Listening as a Core Skill

Cooperating is hard work, of a very specific kind.   People have to stop reacting and start listening to each other.  Not pretending to listen while mentally reloading for the next round of argument, but actively seeking to understand what the other seeks.   Only if both sides are willing to do that is win/win possible.   We can say many other things about this conflict style, but the requirement to keep listening at the core is by far the most important.

If you’ve never worked on what is known as “active listening”, do a web search on the term.  You’ll find many resource pages, for many different settings.  Pick out several in settings that fit your life.  Read and re-read, and begin practicing the skills required.   

Start in non-conflictual situations where you will use the skill to convey support – perhaps a colleague struggling with a difficult decision, a partner distressed about a life situation, or a child upset about school.  You’ll be richly rewarded with deeper connections as you get comfortable with the basic moves of active listening.   Mastering them in low stress settings will make it easier when you begin using them under fire. 

Transition Phrases for Cooperating

A key requirement for success in conflict management is ability to  influence the dynamics of interaction with others.   For example, if someone approaches in a Directing style, pushing their agenda in ways that seem domineering, rude or self-centered, it’s natural to want to reply in kind.   But fighting consumes vast energy and can destroy possibilities of working together.  Or if someone persistently uses an Avoiding response with you, important issues may go unaddressed.  In both cases, you benefit by initiating a Cooperating exchange instead.

Transition phrases are short phrases or statements that help do this.  In my other blog posts you can find such phrases for other conflict styles.  For Cooperating, transition phrases are often longer than for other styles.  Cooperating as a response to conflict is somewhat counter-intuitive and it’s hard to describe in one phrase.  It also requires some level of buy-in from your counterpart.   So transitioning to Cooperating is often more like a phase than a phrase.

Overt Cooperating Approaches.  There’s two different ways to do this transition.  One is overt, meaning that you openly propose a special approach to the conversation:

  • “Could we try something?  Maybe we could agree to take turns for a little while here.”
  • “It seems like both of us have clear opinions on this.   Could we slow things down a bit and really try to understand each other?”
  • “This is not an easy moment for us.  You’re focused on XXXX, I’m focused on ZZZ.  We’ve both got a lot at stake here.   Let’s not turn this into a fight.  Let’s take the time to really hear and understand each other.   Want to go first and I’ll do my best to really hear you?”
  • “Could we take turns and really examine what each of us is concerned about here?  I promise you I’ll do my best to try to understand your concerns if you’ll do the same for me.”
  • “Could we take a few minutes to agree on a way of discussing this (or “some groundrules”, “some guidelines”, “some principles”, “a procedure”) that would help us bring our best selves to this?” 
  • “How about if we try using a Talking Stick?  We can use some object like a pen and have a rule that we speak only if we’re holding that object.   One person holds the Talking Stick and speaks for a while, and the other listens.   Then it reverses, and it goes back and forth like that for the entire conversation.”
  • “Could we set aside some time tomorrow to talk about this?  And maybe we could agree on sort of an agenda to help us be at our best?  We could start by trying to agree on what the key issues are.  Then we could go through those one at a time, and on each issue we could each have, say, ten minutes to say whatever is on our mind about that issue without interruption from the other person.  I think I’d function more positively in that kind of a framework.”
  • “Before we start talking about these difficult issues, could we do something that would help at least me to keep a positive focus.  Could we take a few minutes and each take a turn and review out loud what you and I have accomplished together and the benefits this relationship has brought to us?”  

Implicit Cooperating Approach.  Sometimes it’s better to just start using Cooperating skills yourself without trying to get your counterpart to explicitly buy in to a different approach.  The idea here is that if you simply begin using Cooperating Skills yourself, you may elicit similar responses in kind from others.   The shift may not happen quickly – be prepared to persist!

  • “Could you help me understand why this is so important to you?”
  • “We have a good bit of history here and I’d really like to find a solution that works well for both of us.”
  • “There’s a lot of potential good ahead for us if we can figure out a solution to this problem that we’re both happy with.”
  • “I see how important this is to you.  I really would like to figure out a solution that gives you everything you need.  Of course I have my own needs too.   But I care about our relationship – I care about you – and it seems important to find a solution that works well for both of us.   I’m willing to put a lot of effort into looking at all possible ways to find one.”  
  • “Could you describe what you see as the benefits of your proposal for  this situation?”
  • “How do you see this affecting each of us?”
  • “Could help me understand what are the things that matter most to you in evaluating any possible solution to this situation?”
  • “I’d be interested to hear what you see as the most important interests that need to be protected for each of us as we try to figure out what to do here.”
  • “What do you see as key values or principles that should guide us as we evaluate our options here?”
  • “Can we make a list of our options here?” 

Implicit approaches encourage a cooperating style by either stating a commitment to trying to meet the needs of both sides or by attempting to bring de-polarizing problem-solving approaches to the conversation.   The last suggestion in the list above, “make a list of our options”, is a good example of the latter.   If you do a web search on “problem solving tools” you can easily find more.  Getting familiar with them is a good way to expand your collaborating skills – they are designed to bring order, clarity, and in-depth analysis to decision-making and they excel at this in situations of contention.

Limits of Cooperating

It’s important to recognize that Cooperating is not the right response in all conflicts.   Even in the best of circumstances It requires time, energy, patience, and self-regulation to succeed.   Some issues and some relationships don’t merit the investment required.  Some people have inappropriate agendas that you really should not collaborate with.  If you over-use this demanding response or persist in deploying it with people who don’t reciprocate, you may burn yourself out and destroy your optimism about ever using it. 

Conflict style agility is the goal.  We should be good at every one of the five styles, so we can use each when appropriate.  Inevitably there come times when we try a style and realize that it’s not bringing the results we sought.  Then it’s time to transition to a different style – see the other posts in this series for help in that.

Work on this style!  The rewards – in terms of productivity, healthy relationships, good vibes, and learnings about self and others can be immense.  When appropriately used, no other conflict response comes close to its capacity to facilitate expansion of energy and joy in relationships.  

This post is part of a series on transition phrases for effective conflict management.  See the whole series at www.kraybilltable.com

By Ron Kraybill, PhD, author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory, which provides users with an eight page personalized report offering detailed suggestions based on their scores.  
www.stylematters.com
Copyright 2021. 
You may reprint or repost this essay so long as you include this block of  information on its source. All rights reserved.

Avoid Conflict Gracefully

 

Sometimes when there’s a conflict, the best thing to do is say nothing and just drift away.  Or say firmly, “Let’s not take that on right now. ”  If you’re good at selective conflict avoidance, you will have a greater sense of order and control in your life.

This post is the first in a series to help  you expand your skill with the five styles of conflict interpersonally or in leadership.  In each post I’ll show you several transition phrases for one particular style – in this post that style is Avoiding. Each of the five styles of conflict in Style Matters – which are similar to those found in the venerable if now out-dated Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument – will feature in posts that follow.

Not everyone needs this post!  It’s especially useful for people who find conflict Avoiding difficult or scored low in Avoiding in their score report.  If you scored high, stay tuned for future posts on styles you are under-using.   

Why Transition Phrases?

We manage conflict better if we choose our responses in moments of storm, rather than blindly react.  

But that’s easier to say than to do.  Frustration and rising anger handicap our rational, choice-making upper brain and activate the reactive lower  brain.  By the time we pause and pay attention to what’s going on, we may already be pretty far down the path of reptilian brain takeover.   

In these moments, it helps to have a few transition phrases on the tip of the tongue to help transition to a different conflict style.  If you prepare now, in a time of calm, you will be more successful – and graceful – in deploying the conflict style of your choice in storm.  

A transition phrase empowers your rational brain with key words that help it maintain control in dicey moments as the lower brain gets activated.  With a little practice you’ll soon express the intention behind the phrases spontaneously.

Transition Phrases for Avoiding

Avoiding has huge benefits and huge weaknesses, summarized below.  This post is for those situations where you’ve thought it through and decided Avoiding is the right response.

Of course, an easy way to avoid is to say little or just disappear.   But sometimes that’s not an option and you have to say something.   This is especially common if you’re leading or coordinating a group of people.

Metaphors useful in constructing an avoiding response include:  set aside the issue, not go into that, maintain focus on (something else), give priority to (something else) delay or postpone discussion; wait until the time is right (or we have the energy required, the time needed, etc.), think things through, agree to disagree.

Sample transition phrases: 

Let’s set that issue aside for another time.  (Or similarly: Let’s save that for another time.)

I’d rather not open that up right now.

Sorry, I’m not ready to discuss that right now.  I think we’d better stay focused on (whatever other task or topic is in play) for now and deal with this (contentious) question later.

I’d like to give priority to (some other task or activity requiring attention) right now and not start a discussion of that at this moment.

I agree that we need to discuss that, but I’m too (tired, stressed, distracted, upset, anxious, etc.) to take it on right now. Could we agree on another time to discuss it? 

I will be a much better partner in discussing that if I take some time to think it through.  Could we put it aside for now and discuss it later?

Maybe we just need to agree to disagree on that.

Whatever transition phrases you choose, they should roll easily off your tongue and feel natural to you.  From the words and  sentences above, pick those that seem most useful.  Edit and change them to fit you.  Then memorize and review them so you can use them without hesitation when Avoiding seems like the best response.   

Soon the concepts behind the phrases will take root in your brain and you’ll find your own spontaneous words for a request to Avoid without a second thought. 

All the above are equally useful in group leadership, by the way.  It’s impossible to facilitate group discussion without using conflict avoidance from time to time.  And the same goes for all the other conflict styles.   Every ounce of grace that you master in use of conflict styles interpersonally will serve you well organizationally!  

If you’ve already taken Style Matters, review your score report here and benefit from recent upgrades: 
If you’ve lost your password, use the password recovery function there.  After logging in, go to “Style Matters Online” in the top menu.  
Never taken Style Matters?  Take it now.

You Can Lead Training

 
Do you want to help a team or group improve patterns of dealing with conflict?   Below are resources to help you lead a rich learning experience on conflict styles. 
 
 
 
So long as you’re comfortable leading group discussion, you can do this yourself, even if you’ve never led a conflict styles workshop before.  
 
The resources listed capitalize on Style Matters Online, which harnesses digital power to do interpretation that required an expert in the past.   Its 2020 version combs a user’s scores for insights and presents them in a detailed, 10 page report that can be easily understood without additional input. 
 
You don’t need to be a conflict resolution expert to coordinate this.  Naturally the more you know, the better for the group. But ordinary group facilitation skills are all that is required to have an impactful event.

Conversation to Assist Learning

A feature we’ve added to recent upgrades is suggestions for partners.   Other learning tools like Style Matters – for example, the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument  – typically address the user as an individual.  “Here’s your scores, here’s how you compare to others, here’s what your numbers mean, etc.”  It’s up to the user to translate that into conversation with partners and colleagues.  
 
That’s like clapping with one hand.   Conflict happens in relationships.  That means that learning about conflict takes place best in the context of relationships.  We can start on our own, but we hit pay dirt in conversation with others.  
 
So a section of the Style Matters score report is for conversation with partners or colleagues of the user.  These suggest ways to support the user when things are dicey.   The goal is for people in long-term partnerships to review these together, and proactively negotiate patterns of communication that work well in times of difficulty.    

Resources You Need Training

Here’s a complete list of what need to design and pull an effective learning experience with Style Matters Online.

  • Download Trainers Big Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Training.   This free 45 page guide to conflict styles training explains the five styles of conflict, the concepts of Calm and Storm, how to work with the cross-cultural aspects of Style Matters, and provides step-by-step guidance through a workshop.   In addition you need…

  • Download Trainers Small Guide to Style Matters Online.   This free 10 page supplement builds on concepts in the big guide above and applies them to training with the online version.   If you’re just facilitating a conversation, you can get by with just this supplement to design your discussion.  If you’re feeling ambitious and expecting to give inputs as an active trainer role,  you should have both.   

  • View Intro to Conflict Styles slide show, available in either traditional Powerpoint format or dynamic Prezi format.    This short slide show, free for online viewing and available for purchase offline, introduces core concepts of the five styles of conflict and serves as a great prelude to discussion of score reports. 

  • Handouts.   If you like to work from handouts, download these.   From the traditional print version of Style Matters, they’re not required for training with the online version.   But if you have time for them, they’re a solid addition to any workshop.  Plus, it’s nice to have them ready if, like many trainers, you’re nervous about having enough solid material on-hand.

  • Tutorial.  The tutorial on our website packs a lot of info about conflict styles into a few pages, on topics like the cross-cultural feature of Style Matters, the Storm shift, interpreting scores, anger management, and more.   

  • Followup.   Conflict responses are habit-based.  Developing new patterns requires repetition.   You can expand the impact of conflict styles learning by spreading it across time, with followup activities and/or homework. See   my blog on followup activities for ideas.  You can multiply the impact of the whole experience by enouraging people to engage in conversation with those they live or work with.  See this essay for ideas for discussion between individuals.

Homework on Conflict Styles

 

Life spares none from conflict.

But unfortunately the word has not yet reached the schools that train professionals.

 
Name the profession – engineering, teaching, business, social work, lawyer, religion, medicine, whatever.   It’s a rare academy that offers training in how to navigate the conflicts that come with practice of that profession.
 
Even callings you might think of as peaceful have plenty of conflict. Some years ago a well-recognized seminary did followup with its graduates to assess how well its Masters program in religious leadership had equipped them for their congregational leadership.   The number one complaint?  Lack of preparation for conflict.   
 
Speaking from several years of experience, graduates wrote that they had no clue from their seminary preparation that dealing with conflict would be such a prominent aspect of religious leadership.
 
So what to do?  Even you want to address this gap, it may be hard to press another topic into an already packed schedule of lectures.   This post is for professors and teachers, trainers and consultants who see the need for students to reflect on conflict resolution but don’t have the space to include it in classroom work.
 
Here’s three assignments to choose from.  Each takes students into a valuable learning experience on their own, without requiring you to lecture or even to have a class discussion on the topic.
 
Setup: Students begin each of the three assignments that follow by taking Style Matters Online.  Instruct them to read their score report carefully and spend, say, 20 minutes clicking links in the report to resources that interest them on the Riverhouse website.   (These include a tutorial, summaries of strengths and weaknesses of each style, essays on anger management, apology, conflict and culture, and much more.) Pick out an exercise from the ideas below and assign it to your students to do on their own.  I invite you to adapt and present them as your own.

Assignment: Write a Reflection Paper

A simple but immensely useful exercise is for students to write a paper reflecting on their score report. 
 
Text of the assignment: Write a paper reflecting on your score report (at college or university level, I’d suggest 1500-3000 words in length).   Use the score report as a resource in writing if you agree with the report.  If you do not, draw on your own best self-assessments.   
  • When you are in Calm conditions, that is, when differences have just surfaced and emotions are not yet high, which conflict style or styles are you most likely to use? What are the strengths of this style or styles? What are the dangers of over-using this style?
  • When you are in Storm conditions, that is, when previous efforts to resolve a conflict haven’t worked and emotions have escalated,  which conflict style or styles  are you most likely to use? What  are the strengths of this style or styles?  What are the dangers of over-using it?
  • Drawing on the feedback in the score report and/or your own reflections, what do you see as personal growth areas for yourself in improving your conflict management abilities?
Notes to trainer: Depending on how big you’d like your assignment to be, a useful addition to the above is to ask students to connect their reflections to an actual situation.   For example, you could add a sentence to the first two areas of reflection above: Give an example from real life experience that illustrates your behavior.  
 
In the third area, you could add this sentence: Name a situation in which you expect your efforts at growth to be challenging.   Describe how your past behaviors would cause you to act and then describe what you would like to do differently in this situation in the future that would reflect personal growth for you.  

An additional task you could add to that list is to have students discuss their score report with someone who knows them well. The assignment could read:  Discuss your score report with someone who knows you well and whom you trust – a family member, friend, or colleague.  Invite this person to comment from their general observations of you.  Using the report as a resource, what do they see as your strengths in conflict?  What do they think might be “growing edges” for you in strengthening your responses to conflict?  Summarize your learnings in the essay.

Assignment: Apply Conflict Styles Framework to a Personal Conflict

In this assignment students write an account of a conflict they’ve been involved in, using the conflict styles framework to describe what was going on.    
 
Text of the assignment: Write a reflection paper applying conflict styles insights to a conflict in which you were involved that was distressing for you.  
  • Which conflict style or styles did you use?   Did this change over time?   If so, why, and how did this change in style alter the dynamics of the conflict?  
  • Do you see in retrospect that you under-used or over-used certain styles?  
  • Are there any tips (see the list of Support strategies suggested for your high-scoring Storm styles in the report) that, if the other person had followed, might have assisted you to function better?   
  • Choose another person who was central in this conflict and comment:  What style or styles was this person primarily using?  How did you respond to this style?   Can you offer any tips  for yourself (based on this experience and/or what you’ve learned about conflict styles) about what to do or not to do that might enable you to achieve a better outcome with this conflict style in the future?

Assignment: Discuss Conflict Styles in Study Group or Work Team

Whereas the above assignments are for individuals, here’s a learning exercise for a group, such as a study group or a work team.
 
Text of the assignment: Take the Style Matters conflict style inventory and print out the score report.  Read it on your own and underline things you think are especially valuable in understanding you.    If you disagree with the scores revise them in the chart on the first page of the report to reflect what you think is more accurate.
 
Bring your marked up score report to your group session.  Go around the group with the questions below, one question at a time, giving each person about 5 minutes to comment in each round.  If your scores are equal or nearly equal in several styles, should choose one style to highlight in responding to each question.  If you get stuck answering any of the questions, feel free to call on others to assist you in answering.
  • My Calm style of dealing with conflict is…..  Benefits of this style for me are….  Benefits for others when I use it are….     Dangers or costs of overusing this style are……..
  • My Storm style of dealing with conflict is…. Benefits of this style for me are….  Benefits for others when I use it are….     Dangers or costs of overusing this style are……..
  • Things that others around me can do when there is conflict that will meet my conflict style preferences and make it easier for me to function at my best are…..  (As a resource for this, review the sections of the report titled “Support Strategies”)
  • Something useful I’ve learned from our discussion here about how others function in conflict is that……

* * * * * * * *

I would love to hear your ideas for effective learning experiences outside of the classroom!  Please send them to me at center@riverhouseepress.com.   With your permission, I’ll publish the best ones here. 

For discussion questions and exercises in workshop settings, see my essay, Suggestions for Reflection and Learning with Others About Conflict Styles.  And of course you’ll find detailed guidance on leading a workshop – if you decide to go that route – in my free downloads  “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops and Training with Style Matters Online Version.

 

By Ron Kraybill, author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory and a blog KraybillTable.com.   You may use or reproduce these exercises for classroom training purposes but all rights are reserved by the author.   For publications, please contact the author for permission.

 

New Trainers Guides

If you’re interested in leading conflict styles training, download my 2019 trainers’ guides with a single click below.   To get notice future updates and my blog posts for conflict styles trainers, sign up on the lower right to the trainers list.  I post only a few times per year and I won’t share your email address!

Comprehensive Guide.  My comprehensive Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops is now in its 4th edition.  The 2019 update  is the same as previous editions, now newly edited for clarity and ease of use.  The 40 page guide provides detailed guidance for training with Style Matters (or the Thomas Kilmann or other inventories based on a similar five styles framework) and many suggestions for presenting information and leading discussion.  Download the Trainers Guide in PDF free here.

Guide to Online Version. We’ve also just released a 10 page companion piece, Trainers Guide to Style Matters Online. Whereas the above guide provides detailed guidance on all aspects of conflict styles training,  this short guide focuses narrowly on work with the online version of Style Matters.  If refers often to the full guide, so you should have both. Download the online training guide here.

 
A key part of the Riverhouse mission is to enable anyone with basic group facilitation skills to lead an effective learning experience on the topic of conflict styles. 
 
Every person, every organization, and every community faces conflict throughout the life cycle.  Failure to equip people to deal constructively with conflict is, we believe, one of the greatest obstacles to human well-being.  Addressing this gap is an achievable opportunity for every organization and community to improve the quality of life in fundamental ways.
 
These trainers guides are central to our mission of supporting trainers on a large scale to address this glaring learning gap.
 

Thomas-Kilmann, Hammer’s ICSI, or Style Matters?

Trainers considering Style Matters as a conflict style inventory should be aware of two other options as well, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and the Hammer Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory.   Style Matters has been optimized for the majority of conflict resolution trainers.  But a percentage of trainers might benefit from a specialized tool.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

Optimized for psychometrics. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, also known as the TKI, was developed in the 1970s with a priority on psychometric validation.

The Thomas-Kilmann is noted for its commitment to psychometrics, reflected in its commitment to the use of a question format that forces users to choose between only two possible options in responding. Although some users find this format annoying, authors Thomas and Kilmann retain it because it results, they say, in more accurate data.   For a description of my own experience with the TKI, see my blog post on it.

If psychometrics is your over-riding concern, and issues such as user friendliness, cultural flexibility, and cost have little bearing for you, the Thomas-Kilmann is probably the right choice.

Cost is $19.50 per user.   A trainer’s guide is available for $250.  

The Intercultural Conflict Styles Inventory

Optimized for cultural analysis.  The purpose of Mitch Hammer’s Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory is building capacity to understand cultural differences and do conflict resolution across cultures. Its questions and interpretive frameworks all revolve around this.  If that’s your primary objective, there’s no better tool.  The ICSI ranges in price from $16-$22 per user.

Style Matters

Optimized for Learning.  As a trainer with academic background and deep commitment to building cross-cultural understanding, I care about psychometrics and cultural issues. But for me and, I believe, most trainers using Style Matters, those are not the key priorities in training.

I’m not interested in making definitive pronouncements about how people function in conflict and I discourage trainers from this.  Rather, I want to give people a framework for evaluating dynamics of conflict, reviewing options, and making wise choices.   For that purpose, trust in the tools of learning is a more important requirement than supreme psychometric reliability.  That means arranging questions in ways that are not off-putting to users.

Nor am I interested in full-blown cultural comparison in most of the training I do.  I simply need a conflict resolution training tool that people from a variety of cultural backgrounds feel comfortable with.

In developing Style Matters, I prioritized teaching effectiveness. I needed a tool that I could rely on in all kinds of settings to give learners a high quality learning experience. I wanted a simple, powerful tool to help learners think through their options in conflict, that gave highest authority to self-reflection, discussion, and feedback from others rather than to “rock-solid metrics”. And it needed to be cost affordable to all the groups I worked with.

Although I had used the Thomas-Kilmann for several years and experienced its usefulness, I was frustrated by the resistance I regularly encountered around the wording of questions. I was also troubled by the discomfort of many participants from backgrounds outside the white, educated North American backgrounds of its authors. You can read more about this in my essay here.

Durable training tools mature and improve as authors revise them based on experience.  The themes we’ve worked relentlessly to improve are: 

  • accessibility and familiarity for users (in order to build trust and credibility in the results)
  • cultural flexibility (achieved by offering users two different ways to frame questions)
  • stress responsiveness (achieved by scoring users in both Calm and Storm conditions)
  • clarity and simplicity of wording
  • ease of use for trainers (achieved by providing free high-quality trainer guides)
  • affordability (priced at about a third the cost of the TKI and ICSI)

Independent researchers did psychometric evaluation of Style Matters in 2007 and helped us tweak it for psychometric validity and reliability.  But we signal users throughout that their own self-assessment and the feedback of those who know them well are what really count in determining their patterns.  Numbers on a test are the first stop on a journey of self-awareness; they should not be considered the final destination.   

Buy Style Matters here.

 

Join our Training Series

Want to lead a conflict styles workshop? Join me on November 21 for the first in a series of short webinars, Training with the Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory, I’m leading for trainers.
 
Scheduled for 11am Eastern time on Wednesday, the 21st of November, this thirty minute introductory webinar is for anyone considering Style Matters for training purposes and for current users wanting to update their knowledge.  It will enable you to:
  • choose among several options available for the format and method right for you and your setting;
  • design and lead a conflict styles workshop corresponding to your existing skills; 
  • equip yourself with resources for effective presentation of concepts
I’ll give input for about 15 minutes and we’ll have about 15 minutes open for questions.
 
Topics in future webinars will include:
  • interpreting scores
  • use of movement to raise energy and engagement in workshops
  • cross-cultural issues in conflict styles training and how to address them with Style Matters
  • creating assignments and other followup activities to expand the window of learning
As the first run of this series we’re offering this free.  Seats are limited.   Register now! 
 
Enter your name and email address and you will then receive a confirmation email with info for joining the webinar on the 21st.
 
 

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.

 

Conflict Styles: Digital vs Paper

In training with the Thomas Kilmann or my Style Matters conflict style inventories, you have an option to use either a paper or online version.   I used to be ambivalent about this choice, but no more.

I’m an old-school trainer. I love the simplicity of paper and face-to-face training.  But after Style Matters had been out in paper for several years, demand for an online tool drove us to also develop a digital version.  That was an eye-opener for me.  

After dozens of hours honing our scoring algorithm, I couldn’t deny that the score report our server spits out for each user mines the user data in ways I can’t match in a workshop from a hand-tallied score summary.  It would take quick thinking and 10-15 minutes dedicated to each participant for a trainer to come even close to the detailed insights contained in the 10 page score report generated by our server.    That’s just not realistic with 10-20 people in a workshop.

Best of all worlds – digital plus face to face.

So I’m a reluctant convert to the digital version of Style Matters.  We still sell the print version, but in my opinion the ideal approach in training is to have users take the online version before the workshop, print out the score report at home, and bring it to a live workshop.  

Then in a face to face setting a trainer takes users through a learning experience that provides some input on conflict styles, reinforced by review and discussion of digital score reports in small and large group settings.

Don’t miss the new guide to training with Style Matters Online.

To assist this, I recently wrote a new section for my long-standing Trainer’s Guide to Successful Conflict Style Workshops.   There’s a lot of trainer guidance in that guide, but it largely assumes the paper version.

The new guide presents a trainer’s outline for a workshop using the score report from the online version, including links to a lot of resources to support your preparation.  It’ll be in the next edition of the Trainer’s Guide, but don’t wait.  Take two minutes to scan it now.  The Thomas Kilmann has no comparable guide to my knowledge, but the two are close enough that some aspects of my guide still apply.

Get Guide to Conflict Style Workshops for Online Users.
Compare Style Matters and the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.