Category Archives: Conflict Style Training

Info, ideas, and resources for conflict style trainers.

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.


Train with Online or Paper Versions?

Online vs. Paper in Conflict Styles Training

In conflict styles training, you have an option to use either a paper or online version.  I used to be ambivalent on this, 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.   (Already, you’ve saved 20 minutes of group time that would otherwise be spent passing around paper forms, giving instructions, and waiting for everyone to finish!)

Then in a face to face setting take users through a learning experience (supported by this Powerpoint or your own sketch of it)  that provides some input on conflict styles, reinforced by review and discussion of digital score reports in small and large group settings.

Download 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.  

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

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument

Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode InstrumentThe Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument or TKI has been around since the 1970s and bills itself as the world’s most widely used conflict style inventory.  I started out as a Thomas Kilmann trainer in the 80s and found it very useful.  I got frustrated eventually and developed an alternative, for reasons I’ll explain.  But for at least one purpose, you should still use the Thomas Kilmann.

History of Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

A concern of Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in developing the TKI was “social desirability bias”, a phenomenon in testing in which test takers answer questions dishonestly.  Rather than truly describe their own behavior, they answer in ways they think are socially desirable.  Kilmann writes in his explanation of the development of the TKI that he and Thomas were inspired by their study of the Mouton Blake inventory, a predecessor to and paradigm for their own instrument.  But the Mouton Blake had a glaring social desirability bias problem.

Kilmann observed a situation in which the Mouton Blake inventory had been administered to managers.  From the way statements in the inventory were worded, he writes, “it was obvious that ‘collaborating’ was the ideal mode, while ‘avoiding’ was the least desirable one.”  “Sure enough,” he continues, “that’s exactly how managers rated themselves, with over 90% ranking themselves highest on collaborating and lowest on avoiding. Their subordinates, of course, experienced those same managers very differently.”

Thomas and Kilmann set out to create a similar conflict style test that would be free of the influence of social desirability bias.  They adopted the underlying framework of the Mouton Blake, but designed their conflict mode instrument with 30 questions containing paired statements, each worded to be equally desirable.  Takers are asked to choose the statement in each pair that more accurately describes them.

Since 1974 when it was first published, good publisher support, ongoing engagement by the authors in how to use the TKI, and use of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument in various research projects have propelled the TKI to a leading role.

Limitations of the Thomas Kilmann

So why look any farther?  The following experiences with the Thomas Kilmann drove me to seek alternatives and eventually create my own:
1) The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument frustrates many users.   As a trainer I discovered that the forced choice question format of the Thomas Kilmann greatly annoys a significant number of test takers.  Users are presented with two descriptions of responses to conflict and required to choose one of them. 

In my own first experience as a test taker, I kept thinking, “I wouldn’t choose either of those options!”  But I had to commit to one to get through the inventory.   As a trainer I saw that in most workshops there was a least one and often several people so frustrated by the question format that they turned negative on the whole learning experience.

2) The TKI has a tin ear on cultural issues.  Whenever I had people in workshops from outside mainstream white culture, I got even more criticism of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument from users distressed that some of the 30 questions forced them to select an option that didn’t fit them. 

Years later, as my understanding of cultural issues deepened, I realized that the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument assumes what Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book, Beyond Culture, calls a low-context cultural setting.   People from such backgrounds respond to conflict with minimal consideration of issues like role, seniority, status, etc.  That assumption works for some test takers but not for those from cultures where the first question is not “what do you want?” but “who is the conflict with?” 

For people from such high-context cultural backgrounds, an appropriate response to conflict cannot be contemplated without knowing, say, whether the conflict is with an elder, a peer, or a younger person.  High-context culture people need context to answer questions about how they would respond in conflict, and are flummoxed by an inventory that provides none.   Read more on that and how we resolve the issue in the culturally agile Style Matters inventory .   

3) The Thomas Kilmann is blind to the impact of stress.  The notion that human beings function in a steady state, an assumption of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode profile and its interpretive report, is several decades out of date.  We now know that when humans are angry, afraid, or highly stressed, our brain functions are increasingly influenced by the reptilian brain and decreasingly managed by the neocortex, the rational, problem-solving part of the problem. 

When the reptilian brain is in control, priorities and behavior change drastically, towards survival-oriented, all-or-nothing, fight/flight/freeze responses.    This means that in order to help people realistically assess their conflict responses, a conflict style inventory or test has to assess behavior in settings of both Calm and Storm. 

In its interpretive report the TKI refers to primary and fallback style preferences, but that’s different than a stress shift.  The transition from neocortex-managed functioning to lower brain-managed functioning is complex.  Behaviors and priorities change, data processing ability declines.  The data from Style Matters makes it clear that many users function quite differently in Storm than in Calm and that people’s use of several conflict styles often changes.    

3) User support is thin.  The TKI comes as a barebones unit with few interpretive materials.  Trainers can lead a workshop, or buy supplemental interpretive booklets, but either way users depend on receiving additional materials to make sense of their scores.   That’s OK sometimes but a pain other times.   
4)  TKI cost is prohibitive.   I’ve always done a lot of work in community settings where the hefty charge of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, $45 per user today (online version), is prohibitive.  

As a trainer, those factors weighed on me, and eventually I moved to create an alternative.  Over 15 years of experimentation I developed Style Matters, which like the TKI, uses the Mouton Blake framework, while addressing those issues.   Download a free review copy of the paper version of my conflict style here and view a sample score report of the  online version here.   See also our free Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops.

What about Social Desirability Bias?

Thomas and Kilmann report they inspired to develop their TKI in response to social desirability bias apparent in scores of takers of a predecessor, the Mouton Blake inventory.  Social desirability bias is a name for the tendency of users to give answers they think are socially desirable rather than honest. In his history, Kilmann says that they had observed that 90% of users rated themselves as highest in Collaborating (Cooperating in Style Matters) and lowest in Avoiding in a workshop with the Mouton Blake.  

With Style Matters, slightly less than half of users show that particular response pattern in Calm conditions.  And in Storm conditions, less than one-third report it.  That’s predictable: Calm conditions are precisely the setting in which Collaborative response would be most appropriate and easiest to deploy.   So it makes sense that this pattern will be favored by many people in Calm.    In the Style Matters data, these same people report much less use of Collaborating/Cooperating) in Storm conditions.  That suggests substantial candor, hardly a glaring case of social desirability bias.

Style Matters achieves this by wording the questions in ways that highlight the value of each conflict style.   All styles have important social contributions to make and we worded questions in a way intended to reflect that.   

In addition, Style Matters queries responses in two settings, Calm and Storm.  This simple differentiation acknowledges the reality of stress and makes it easier, I believe, for takers to admit responses they may consider less than desirable. The numbers cited above show that many users report different behaviors in Storm than in Calm.  

At the level of raw numbers, then, it’s far from obvious that Style Matters users are more vulnerable to Social Desirability Bias than those of the Thomas Kilmann.

Thomas Kilmann’s Theory of What Motivates Change

 But there’s an issue more important than social desirability bias that needs to be on the table as well:  theory of change.   The publisher of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, CPP, often advertises the TKI as having “rock solid metrics”.   This suggests they are not concerned about something that every trainer I’ve ever known who uses the TKI recognizes:   The TKI alienates a lot of users with its forced choice questions. 

It’s more important, it seems, to get “rock solid metrics” than it is to build trust with users.  This reflects an assumption about what facilitates personal change:  Change and growth happen when people are confronted with a picture of themselves believed to be highly accurate and authoritative.  This confrontation with reality will be eye-opening, the test designers seem to believe, and users will be motivated to change their behavior to be more constructive.  

That’s an inadequate theory of change, in my view.   Personal change doesn’t reliably result from a confrontation with authoritative numbers about yourself.   It is more likely to emerge from a process of honest self-assessment, supported by thoughtful conversations, in a setting with sufficient familiarity and safety that people trust the learning process. 

Getting an accurate picture of behavior from numbers on a test is good.  But there’s something far better than getting it from a test: Reflection, that is, getting an accurate picture of your behavior from a process of ongoing personal analysis and conversation with others who know you well.   

Reflection always trumps numbers as a motivator of change.  In fact, reflection will facilitate personal transformation even in the absence of numbers on a test.   But numbers on a test are useless in the absence of reflection.

The big question is how to get people to reflect deeply.  As a trainer, my number one goal is for people who attend my sessions and interact with my materials to trust the learning process they encounter.  Not necessarily “like it” in every aspect, but trust it.  Trust that the materials and the learning process are relevant to their life, trust that they are respected and recognized as authorities on themselves,  trust that the conversations with me and others are authentic and safe. 

When such trust is present, all is possible in terms of sustainable learning and growth.  When absent, all bets are off.  To me that means that, in conflict styles training, if there are tradeoffs required, we should prioritize trust and learning environment rather than psychometric purity. 

The Thomas Kilmann TKI can of course be used in processes that value trust and learning, but the instrument itself, in my view, detracts from that goal.  

How Style Matters Contrasts to the Thomas Kilmann

Whereas the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument has been optimized for validity and reliability, the holy grail of psychometrics,  the Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory has been optimized for the requirements of learning.   

Rather than use a question format that alienates many users, Style Matters counters social desirability bias in ways that build trust with users.  Even if that costs us something in the form of scores presenting an image of users that is somewhat rosier than reality (a big if – I see no evidence this is the case), I’d rather sacrifice accuracy than trust.   We don’t need a perfectly accurate image of the user in order to achieve success in the learning experience (which I define as improved ability to respond appropriately in conflict).  What we do need is deeply engaged, enthusiastic learners.

A priority on learning environment calls for a rich, interactive process of self-reflection and conversation with others.  Style Matters, especially in the algorithm-generated score report delivered to users taking it online, is designed to facilitate this by providing feedback on numerous issues not addressed in the TKI.  These include the difference between Calm and Storm responses, detailed attention to the least used conflict style and how to ramp up its use, the dynamics of style combinations, detailed suggestions on how to create environments friendly to the requirements of each style, and for trainers who avail themselves of this option, cultural dynamics of conflict response. 

We’ve also invested a lot in equipping trainers to lead workshops that reflect the dynamics of thoughtful self-exploration and conversation with peers I’ve pointed to above.  We provide free training materials on our site, including a detailed 40+ page Trainers Guide and a smaller manual for online trainers, as well as a free “Intro to Conflict Styles” in Powerpoint and Prezi.   We also provide a free Trainers Dashboard with powerful user management tools for trainers, to reduce the time demands of basic tasks.  We’d like to see trainer time invested in the learning side, not the technology side of workshops!

Expanding user learning to continue after the workshop has ended remains an area where I hope to provide more support to trainers.   Ralph Kilmann’s piece on the topic, “The Three Day Washout Effect”, is excellent in addressing the issue in the presence of colleagues in an organizational setting.   

But many people face a situation in which they are the only person who’s taken the inventory.  So what options for ongoing learning and reflection could we offer them? I’ll be experimenting with several in a university setting in the coming months.    

When to Use the Thomas Kilmann Instrument TKI

Although I think Style Matters is better suited to normal training purposes of most trainers and consultants, there is a purpose for which the Thomas Kilmann is superior: situations where psychometric data is indeed needed.  The TKI has been the subject of many studies over its forty years of existence, so more data are available on it than Style Matters.   Style Matters was subjected to validation study and revised accordingly, but our data is undeniably thinner. 

For that reason, trainers working in situations where it is important to be able to compare scores of current users with scores of past users and draw statistically precise comparisons should use the Thomas Kilmann.   

How to Get More Info Comparing TKI and Style Matters

View point by point comparison of the Thomas Kilmann and Style Matters  here.  Find ordering information for Style Matters here.  See also this short Thomas Kilmann wiki entry, a wiki entry on conflict style inventories generally and one on Style Matters.   Annotated bibliography on conflict styles resources on the web here.

Shift Dynamics with One Word

Here’s a strategy to improve dynamics in a difficult conversation:  In an argument or tense discussion, replace “but” with “and”.

Lawyer/mediator Susan Ingram describes this in her recent blog. “Typically”, she writes, “When you’re havingThis word builds bridges a discussion with another person, both of you are going back and forth with each of your own proposals, and not really listening to what the other person has just said.”

When we begin our comments in a conversation with “but”, Ingram says, “we are essentially negating and dismissing what the other person has just said. We are not valuing that person’s experiences and ideas and are just focusing on the point we want to make.”

Instead, she suggests, start with the word “and”. By doing this, say writes, “we are acknowledging that we have heard what the other person has said and allowing that there may be value in his or her words. Thus, we are effectively keeping the channels of communication open, encouraging problem solving, and moving the conversation along to a more likely resolution.”

Replacing “but” with “and” sounds easy, but it’s not a simple cut and replace. You have to listen carefully and craft your “and” response in a way that conveys your concerns.     You have to think it through and adjust a sentence or more in order for your “and” response to make sense.

It takes effort!  But then, so do exercise, healthy eating, music practice, and a lot of other things we do to create the life we want.

Put Your Neocortex in Charge

From the perspective of brain functioning, with this small change you’re revving up your neocortex or “thinking brain”.  When we’re stressed, upset or afraid, the primitive reptilian part of our brain becomes more influential.   Its concerns are primarily survival and defense and it sees the world in anxious, oppositional terms. Once activated, it shoves aside other brain functions and does not easily let go its control.  

But you can change this.  When you listen deeply to others and think carefully about how to offer a less combative response, you empower your neocortex and encourage the reptilian brain to stand down.  You begin to feel less upset and more capable of creative responses.  The lightening of polarization from your side often brings reduced hostility in others.  It’s a great example of how attention to something simple can facilitate complex change.


A conflict style inventory is a powerful tool for empowering the neocortex.   Download a free review copy (portions blacked out) of my Style Matters conflict style inventory or lead a conflict styles workshop with my free Trainers Guide.

Plan Teambuilding Now

It’s easy in team settings to get so focused on performance, planning, and budgets that you forget the single most important factor in productivity and in people’s sense of satisfaction on the job: relationships among colleagues.   

No matter how good everything else is, it’s hard toteambuilding be productive and feel content with your job if relationships are rotten.

Good relationships rarely happen by chance.  They happen by choice, when people choose to do stuff that facilitates friendship and connection.   Good leaders know this and make it a priority to plan activities that build relationships and  to incorporate them these plans into ongoing organizational life.   

There’s a bunch of ideas for team building on this page of the Human Resources Today website.

Recently a trainer wrote me about how pleased she was with her experience leading a conflict styles workshop as a teambuilding exercise with a small group of colleagues.   She used this outline in designing a short workshop on conflict styles with Style Matters Online

Team members particularly enjoyed, she wrote, the section of their score reports that offers suggestions for bringing out the best in themselves, given their own style preferences.   (See a sample of that in this demo score report, about halfway through)  She guided them in using an exercise on our site, “Create a MySupport Page: A Page of Tips about You for People You Live or Work With”.   

In this exercise, each person creates a list of suggestions that others could follow when approaching them for a discussion about a difficult issue.   She wrote that sharing these lists within the team brought a lot of intense and very useful discussion.   The group found the whole exercise so useful that they requested that another larger group of colleagues also be included in a similar event.  

The use of conflict styles training as a team building tool before the eruption of crisis is far more effective than waiting till things are exploding.  People learn and retain info better when they are relaxed.   It’s deeply satisfying for team members to participate in a positive experience of joint discovery and planning about how to bring out the best in each other – far more so than trying to rebuild after things have gotten intolerable.

Plan now to add a two hour workshop to your calendar for the coming year.  The rewards for a modest investment of time can be huge in terms of increased morale and performance!

New Trainer’s Guide

If you’re planning a workshop using Style Matters Online, see the new Training Outline for Style Matters OnlineThis is a 5 page trainer’s guide for a workshop 1-2 hours in length with users who’ve taken the online version of Style Matters and have its detailed score report in hand.

Don’t miss, of course, our long-standing primary training resource, the Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops. That’s a comprehensive 40 page guide you can download free, covering a variety of issues in conflict styles training. 

But the large guide is oriented to the print version of Style Matters.  This new 5 page addition is specifically for the online version of Style Matters and assumes participants each have a printout in hand of the 8-10 page score report created by the online version. 

We made significant upgrades in 2017 to the score report of the online version.  These make it easier than ever to lead an engaging workshop on conflict styles, even without previous experience as a conflict styles trainer.   

Our algorithm examines each user’s data in multiple ways, identifies patterns, and responds with detailed suggestions for maximizing a user’s responses to conflict resolution.   Only a very experienced trainer in a workshop setting with a good bit of time would be able to match the thoroughness and depth of this digitally-created score report.

Anyone with basic group facilitation skills can use the new Training Outline to easily design and lead a learning and reflection process based on Style Matters Online.

See an infographic on options for delivering Style Matters Online to users here.

Conflict Styles in Spanish

We’re pleased to announce that, thanks to many requests for it, the Style Matters conflict style inventory is now released in a Spanish translation.  A direct translation of the English version, the Spanish conflict styles edition is now available in PDF format.  In the coming months we will bring it out in the online version as well.

In contrast to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and other conflict style inventories currently available, Style Matters is designed to be suitable to users of diverse cultural backgrounds.  The inventory offers users a choice of instruction sets for users, one worded for people from Low Context Cultures and the other for users from High Context cultures.  

Click here to purchase the Spanish PDF for $9.95, a one-time purchase.  To train with it, trainers then buy user rights, one per user, at a price of $3.95 each, in order to photocopy and use the inventory.    Click here for Style Matters in French.

spanishsmcover  spanish5stylesdiagram

As a social enterprise, Riverhouse seeks to make our products available regardless to cost.   If $3.95 per user is simply not realistic for your circumstances, contact us.

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


The 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?

There is in fact a connection between what happens between human beings at the smallest level every day and what happens between nations.   We can’t build a peaceful world until parents, teachers, and leaders see this connection.  We must all act on it and teach others about it.

Below is a Pyramid of Competency to show the many layers of competence – and how they relate to each other – that are required for humans to live together peacefully.   I use it at the beginning of training on almost any conflict resolution topic to locate it on a map of “the big picture” of peace skills.  I also use it with individuals eager to pursue conflict resolution 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 this pyramid 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.  Up another level.  

Gradually opportunities came to work with group conflicts, in organizations that had come to a crisis as a result of conflict.  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 of mediation like starting off 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.  I found many resources in the well-established fields of Human Relations and Organizational Development that helped me grow.  But without the solid core of skills from interpersonal mediation and the group facilitation that I had now accumulated I never would have made it through the many challenging moments that came as I learned 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 added 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!

Leaders Have Gaps in Competence and the Cost is High

In every peace process I’ve been close to, there are plenty of people eager to assert leadership in time of crisis.  South Africa was no exception.  But few were skilled in facilitating discussion, negotiation, and decision-making processes.   This made things vulnerable – as all peace processes are – 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 that’s only one small aspect of the challenge.  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.  Reactionary white forces saw the vulnerability and diabolically labored to fuel it. 

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 either of the political parties in the US, 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, they might be good at wielding or brokering power.  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.

Sometime soon 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 most people still have no clue that  constructive responses to conflict can be taught and learned.   So institutions, schools, professions, and governments continue with the dysfunctional patterns of the past.  

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.   It will take decades, but over time we can address this vast deficit if we choose.    

Ron Kraybill, PhD