Category Archives: Conflict Styles Tips

Deepen your knowledge with tips for applying conflict styles awareness to daily life.

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.

Take Charge Gracefully

Take charge and direct in relational ways
Sometimes you have to be pushy in conflict.  Sometimes you have to say No and really mean it, insist that people step back, or lead in a direction some don’t want to go.   If you are not able to do this, you may someday be taken advantage of or violated in ways that hurt and handicap you, for years. 

Worse, you will someday fail to meet your responsibilities in a role you care about, like parenting, teaching, coordinating group activities, leading a team, facilitating meeting, exercising professional duties, or any number of other things important to you and your community.  Success, health, even life itself, sometimes depends on someone being pushy.

But most of us prefer being nice more than being tough. 

In this post, second in a series on the five styles of conflict, I’ll show you how to balance these two competing requirements. In particular, I’ll give you transition phrases for being pushy in challenging situations.  These are phrases you’ve prepared in advance of stormy moments to help you gracefully initiate a conflict style you find challenging to pull off.

General Principles for Graceful Directing

Directing involves pursuing a goal without be distracted or deterred by the resistance of others.  There are many shades of Directing, since skilled people usually blend some other styles into the mix. But in its pure form, Directing gives high priority to a task or goal and  low priority to relationships. 

Wisely used, this “take charge” style has big benefits for certain moments.  Over-used or badly used, it has big weaknesses, summarized below.  This post is for when you’ve thought things through and decided Directing is the right response.

Directing involves a high focus on your own goals and a low focus on pleasing others.

Be clear in your own mind about the necessity of Directing and come to terms with the role. Directing is not a particularly “nice” role. You’re choosing to ignore how others feel!  But being able to use Directing is essential to living responsibly. 

You can’t coordinate, administer, parent, teach, facilitate, or mediate well, without occasionally resorting to Directing.  Sometimes the only right response is to be in charge, to be firm, to focus on achieving certain things without allowing yourself to be deterred by how others feel about it.  

This is particularly true when we lead.   It’s just not possible to please everyone.   If two people both want to speak at the same time in a meeting, for example, we have to ask someone to wait, even though they might be unhappy about it. 

Directing with grace is an art, best achieved from clear inner awareness of a legitimate purpose, larger than personal ego, that drives us.  If you are at peace within yourself with the necessity of using Directing in the circumstances you face,  you can find ways to lead, manage, supervise, or protect, as well as to disagree, challenge, and oppose that do not denigrate others.  

Blend in relational styles whenever possible.  Graceful Directing is about turning down the volume of your power to the lowest level necessary to achieve your goal, and blending in some relational styles like Cooperating or  Harmonizing when possible.   

You do need to be ready to amp up pushiness if required.  But if you are skillful at blending in the relational skills typically associated with other styles and do so whenever possible, combat is rarely needed.   

Many people seem to think effective Directing requires volume or anger.   Once in a while, yes.  But screaming drill sergeants and bellowing sports coaches are poor examples of effective Directing  for most situations. 

Those who master graceful Directing get important work done, set limits, make demands, and take charge, in ways that are relationally-oriented, even though the requirements of task and duty hold highest priorities.  They are not always “nice” or accommodating, but even when they are non-negotiable, they are respectful towards others and they are careful to protect their dignity.

Pay attention to your non-verbals.   Researchers say that 75-90% of communication is nonverbal.  That means that the messages we send with body posture, tone of voice, eye movements, facial expressions, and hands matter even more than what we say in words.   

So graceful Directing starts with waking up to your non-verbals.  Most people are unaware of these, thus they don’t have a clue about the most important messages they are sending forth. 

You can teach yourself to monitor your non-verbals, but it takes time.  Welcome to the lifelong journey of self-management! 

There’s no easy answer about how strongly to project your power.  Some people habitually under-project, others habitually over-project.  The key point is to get off automatic pilot and to pay attention to this aspect of yourself.   Awareness puts a new tool in your self-management toolbox:  Now you can turn the strength of your power projection up or down as needed, which increases your odds of success in interacting with others.

Transition Phrases for Graceful Directing

Why transition phrases?  As conflict heats up,  the part of our brain known as the reptilian brain becomes more influential.  This brings primal, fight-oriented responses into the picture.  As emotions rise, the lower, reptilian brain increasingly takes over from the upper brain, which coordinates communication and problem-solving.   In the moment when we most need well-chosen words, the ability of our brain to formulate them is at its lowest.  

A transition phrase assists in such moments.   Phrases don’t magically fix things, of course, but they help get you started in the direction you’ve chosen, and learning them helps  you think through valuable skills and responses.  Learn several.  Memorizing them is not a bad idea – so they’re on the tip of your tongue. 

Provide information about what is needed.  Except for emergencies (do you want the surgeon battling to save your life patiently explaining the strategy she has adopted to a confused team member?), the goal in using Directing should be to create maximum opportunity for winning compliance of others on the basis of understanding and cooperation rather than coercion. 

The most effective strategy for this is providing information to others in a non-dramatic way.  You will see that many of the transition phrases suggested below do precisely this.

 Just fill in the blank after the crutch phrase with clear information about what you are requesting: 
Please…
I’d like to ask you to….I would like you to….
Here is what we need you to do….
It would be helpful if you would…
It will work best if….
Our procedure here is that…
The rules require that….
I (we) would appreciate it if you would…..
It is important that (fill in the reason for whatever you require), so I need to ask you to….
I have quite a different understanding than yours on this matter.  Please review the facts (or rules, requirements, data, etc.).  Let’s discuss it further after that if you’d like.

Whenever the situation allows, put effort into providing key info to those involved – in advance of a crisis or confrontation.   That allows cooperative people –  who are usually the majority – to align with your plans; it also reduces the number of situations when you must use raw confrontation to force people to comply.   Posting clear signs, for example, facilitates the coordination of large numbers of people in public spaces without police needing to scream at everyone.

Acknowledge the other’s reluctance, then restate your own request.  Sometimes, no matter how clear the info or how gracious you are, others disagree, or resist guidance.  Sometimes, when we know that we have all the facts, when we know we are right, when we have a mission or principles or duties to protect, we have to push ahead, despite resistance.

 Transition phrases for this could be:
I know this is not what you want, but we need to (whatever your demand is).
I’m sorry it’s inconvenient, but I’m afraid we need to stick with (the rule, the plan, the requirements).
I recognize that you’d prefer to do things differently, but (give the underlying reason, eg; policy, budget, precedent, etc).
I see/hear that you would like to do X (what the person wants to do), but I’m sorry to say that I need to ask you to do Y.   

If you must escalate (assuming you’ve done your homework, and know you are right; but be aware that these may trigger a fight), options include:

Broken Record.  Don’t get drawn into defending or explaining your demand, just keep repeating it.

Threaten consequences of non-compliance. But choose your threat carefully, remembering that a small threat often helps you more than a big one.  If your threat is too big, you will hesitate to carry through on it and the other person will see your bluff.  After that, all further threats have little credibility and you’ve weakened the usefulness of the strategy.  The best threat is just big enough to have the desired impact yet small enough that you can promptly and easily carry it out, without second thoughts.

Go institutional.  Every conflict exists in the context of groups and institutions such as families, teams, clubs, religious bodies, neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, etc.  If you feel you must use Directing, it is likely the well-being of such an institution that motivates you.  If not, examine carefully whether indeed this pushy style is justified. 

Look for ways to draw on resources of wisdom and power from the group or institution seek to serve.   You will probably need to do some homework on your own first.  Talk to your supervisor, convene the elders or council, call a family meeting, review the bylaws or mission statement, study the guidelines, look at the organizational chart.  If you face persistent, hardcore resistance, you need the perspective of others about how to respond.  They can help you figure out if and how to invoke the power of the institution on behalf of the concerns you represent.

* * * * * 

I’ve known a number of people in ordinary roles in life who are ninjas in graceful Directing. There’s the front desk receptionist in a primary school my children attended (I’ve known several special angels in this role!), the affable but no-nonsense manager of a local supermarket, the friendly but ever-competent project manager of a construction company, the sweet pediatric nurse who guided my son (and his parents) firmly through a difficult moment, the hard-working farmer shepherding his teenage children through an array of weekly chores, the head of a religious congregation renowned for her kindness who nevertheless runs council meetings with a firm hand.  

These are people with demanding duties and responsibilities.  They can’t say yes to everything that comes their way.  They have to coordinate, manage, limit, and control all day in order to do their job well.  They must prioritize certain tasks, obligations, and duties above pleasing people. 

We’ve all known individuals who cope with stress on the job by being tyrants.   Perhaps they get the job done, but they make everyone around them miserable.

Directing ninjas have a different way.  They are so graceful that, even when the Director must turn up the volume of their assertiveness, others experience them as relational.  The ninjas deserve hearing our appreciation.  Most of them labor unrecognized.  Many don’t themselves recognize the value of the gifts they bring to the world.    Notice what they do, thank them for their ability to assert and lead graciously, and learn from their example as you expand your own gracefulness with this challenging style!

 

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!  

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Lead without Bullying

We’re reading a lot these days about leaders who bully. 

In “When the Boss is a Bully”, a recent NY Times article points out that aggressive toughness has its rewards.  Some people like the idea of a very task focused leader.   Better to have a leader who gets the job done, albeit rudely, than one who nicely fails to deliver. 

People tend to extend the benefit of any doubt to a leader who acts decisively, according to research cited in the Times article.  One researcher calls this the “leader’s rosy halo” effect, a tendency for others to fall back and follow someone who is bold, decisive, and confident.  There is no evidence pushy leaders offer better solutions than anyone else, but others are attracted to decisiveness and tend to follow.  

  
Conflict Styles and Strong Leadership

A key concept in the conflict styles framework is that every conflict style has strengths and weaknesses.  We need all five styles.   Don’t write off toughness just because it’s not nice.

I learned this the hard way in my twenties when I found myself regretting I had not been more firm with my dog in training.  One day she ignored my call, as she often did.  She ran onto a road, and died under a car.   

Parents learn that there are moments when failure to be strict is to put a child’s life or well-being at risk.  And in a health emergency, we want a doctor who takes charge and give orders to co-workers, not one who dallies in nice dialogue with colleagues. 

Every one has moments when insisting on something, without worrying about relationships or feelings of others, is the only right response.  We should all cultivate the ability to be tough on demand for such moments.  We should value leaders who can do that when duty requires it.   

But toughness is an asset only in occasional doses.  As a habit, a primary way of interacting, it’s a liability whose damage grows with time. 

In organizations, the costs of over-use by leaders can be vast.  Competent, loyal individuals leave, teamwork deteriorates, aggressiveness spreads like a virus into all levels of the institution, morale plummets.

Costs often take a while to become evident.  By the time they are acknowledged, the damage is huge and recovery slow.

How to Maintain a Wise Balance

Are you a leader who’s pushy at times?  I hope so. You may not be doing your job if your answer is never.  But do you hold a healthy balance between pushing and nurturing? 

Here are suggestions, drawn from the score report of my Style Matters conflict style inventory, for using the goal-oriented Directing conflict style (in the Thomas Kilmann instrument, Forcing) wisely, without falling into overuse:

  • Increase your context awareness. Directing is a gift where strong coordination and direction from one person are essential. It’s a requirement occasionally, not all the time. Where partnership, equality and consultation are expected, others resent over-use of Directing. Recognize this and you will avoid the Achilles Heel of this style. Read the settings you are in and adapt accordingly. When in doubt, dial back on Directing instincts. You can ratchet up assertiveness later if required, whereas relationships may never recover from the resentment you will cause if you misjudge circumstances and impose yourself inappropriately.
  • Expand your skills in other conflict styles so you need not rely more than necessary on Directing. In particular, master the skills of the Cooperating style which, like directing, is assertive, but adds relational skills. For example….
  • Hone skills in listening well. Being a good listener rarely detracts from the ability to act decisively when necessary and  the info gained increases your ability to make good decisions. Plus, if you are a good listener, others are more likely to experience you as having strength tempered by wisdom rather than as simply pig-headed.
  • Work on relationships. Look for opportunities to support, affirm, appreciate others.  Read Support Strategies for specifics on how to support each of the other styles. The Support Strategies for Cooperating, Harmonizing, and Avoiding will be especially useful info for you, for they guide in doing things that many high-energy Directors never realize others need. 
  • Be in charge in ways that respect and honor others. Being both strong and supportive towards others is an art that requires practice. Pay close attention to your tone of voice and body language, for much is communicated by these.  If in doubt, request feedback from people you trust who are not subject to you.   
  • Consult where possible. Invite input from others and incorporate as much as you can into your work. Doing this does not remove your authority to make final decisions. The skills described above take time and effort to develop, but you can start consulting immediately. Remember, consulting is not negotiating. View it as a time to listen, learn, and gather input (about both the issues and about how people are experiencing the discussion process), not as a time to persuade. 

Take my Style Matters conflict style inventory and get practical suggestions tailored to your own unique blend of conflicts here.  80% of users say they’d recommend it to others. We’ll cheerfully refund the $8 cost if you’re not fully satisfied.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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?

I’ve devised a Pyramid of Competency to show the many layers of competence – and how their relate to each other – that are required for humans to live together peacefully.   I’ve it at the beginning of almost conflict resolution training to locate whatever topic we are working with on a map of “the big picture”.  I also use it in helping individuals eager to pursue skill development to chart a pathway for learning.  

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

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

Conflict Competency is a Continuum of Skills

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

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

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

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

As my mediation skills expanded I began to train other mediators. This gave lots of opportunities to develop skills in group facilitation.  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 like starting off mediation with a strong beginning, setting a framework, listening well and getting input from those involved, asking good questions, reframing destructive comments, defining issues, exploring options, working out package agreements, etc.

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

Facilitating group conflict processes required additional skills.  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 add new ones learned from reading and discussion with colleagues.

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

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

When Leaders Have Gaps in Competence the Cost is High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Many “Peace Professionals” Have Big Gaps

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

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

Expertise is Required at Every Level

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Conflict Styles Training

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

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

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

About Personal Foundations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Afford All Those Levels and All Those Skills?

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Kraybill, PhD
www.kraybilltable.com

Stop Giving Others Insult Power

 

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

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

Why give other people that kind of power over you?

Be Un-Insultable

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

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

Un-Insultability in Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Conflict Style Inventory – Thomas Kilmann or Style Matters

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

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

Share your experience with being un-insultable in Comments!

Can You Lead in Emergencies?

emergency_styleCan you lead in times of emergency?  Don’t think that’s for someone else.  Life exempts none from this call.  

Unless you’re a hermit, a time will come when you too must act and lead in the face of danger, no matter your rank or station.

And now is the time to prepare.

Directing Stars in Emergencies

In times of grave threat, tough decisions must be made and actions quickly taken.  What protective measures to take?  Must you flee?  What to carry with you? Who gets priority for assistance?  What about those who won’t budge?  Where to shelter and how to get there?

Professional emergency responders such as police, fire, medical, and transportation structure decision-making and action in tight chain-of-command hierarchies.   Superiors decide and give orders; subordinates obey.  

When lives depend on getting things done quickly, there’s no time for consultation and debate. The Directing style of conflict management and decision-making stars in emergencies.  (For a 30 second overview of this and the other four conflict styles, see “Intro to Conflict Styles” slideshow).

High Focus on Goal or Task, Low Focus on Relationships

The essence of Directing is focusing narrowly on a certain goal or task, without being distracted by objections and feelings, or relationships.  “Like it or not, here is how we are doing it.”  The focus is not on keeping others happy but on achieving a goal or outcome.

Directing Doesn’t Always Feel Good 

Directing is pushy.  Sometimes you have to insist on things others dislike or resist.  If you use this style regularly in non-emergency settings or long-term relationships, the cost is very high.  People withdraw from a bossy know-it-all.  Teamwork and morale plummet.   

But don’t think that since you are not a bossy person, this is never a style for you.  You wouldn’t be here if your ancestors hadn’t used Directing to defend their children.  You’re at risk in the next emergency life if medical, police, or fire responders don’t have a smoothly functioning chain of command based on it. 

Worse, you will fail to protect people you love some day if you aren’t able to use Directing yourself and model effective use of it to others. 

One of my life lessons in this came, oddly enough, in dog training.  When I was young, my family adopted a beautiful puppy.  We loved her very much and I invested a lot of time in training her.  She learned quickly except for one thing: coming when called.

One day, playing with me in the yard our one year old dog saw something interesting across the street and ran for it.   I knew the danger and called frantically for her to come.  But dear Chao Mei ignored me and ran into the path of a car.  A few seconds later, she was history.

I was surprised at how much sadness this loss brought for a fortnight into our life.  I felt guilty and pondered my role in it.  Clearly, there were elements of chance and animal instinct at work beyond my control.  

Yet had I been more demanding and less flexible in my training, or perhaps less eager to please Chao Mei by letting her run free close to a busy road, she might not have died.

I thought about this often in later years as I raised young children through the predictable dangers of growing up.  Seat belts, sidewalks on busy streets, crowded malls, computers and screens, early driving experience, etc.   Parenting requires frequent response in Directing mode!

If not parenting, someday you will be tasked with chauffeuring a youth group on an urban field trip, or driving colleagues careless about seat belts, or managing finances for a group, or coordinating schedules for use of a facility shared by many, or needing to get urgent medical attention for someone you love whose life is in danger.

Or you’ll be a professional with special responsibility during crises:  police, emergency personnel, doctors and nurses, legal representatives, finance people, etc.

The day will come when you will gravely let down other human beings if you do not have the ability to “stand up on your hind legs” when necessary, to speak in a strong voice, make a demand, assert authority, perhaps take control.   

There is a time when the most loving, responsible, devoted-to-others thing you can do is to be decisive, focused on a goal, and demanding.  Even though others are unhappy about it.

“Competing”: The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The venerable Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument names this style “Competing”.  It is true that Directing can look like competing.  But as a descriptor of emergency response, the word is misleading.   

When a  police officer is evacuating a neighborhood threatened by flooding and says, “We want you to leave and travel only on designated highways,” it’s not about competition.  It’s about providing firm direction on behalf of public safety and order.

When the financial controller in a company issues a directive to reduce spending by 20% for the rest of the year, she’s probably not into competing.  She’s just dead serious about ensuring financial survival and preserving jobs.

Improve Your Skill in Directing

Everyone should develop capacity to use Directing effectively when circumstances require. But it’s not as simple as just amping up your volume.   A human bulldozer on the loose in crisis is no help either.    You need all the other conflict/leadership styles as well in emergencies.

In a coming post I propose strategies for self-assessment and change, discuss the common error of using anger as a crutch in Directing, and suggest ways to expand your impact with this essential conflict style.  Stay tuned!

Yes, you!  Pay attention!

You can get an objective, psychometrically validated snapshot of your conflict style patterns.   Take my Style Matters conflict style inventory here for $7.95.  Answer twenty questions and get a 10 page score report with detailed feedback about your unique personal responses in conflict and high stress leadership situations.  Or take the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument here for $18.95.   Compare the two here.