Category Archives: Conflict Styles Tips

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

Simple Conflict Resolution Two-Step

Two-Step-Conflict-Resolution

 

An easy way to expand your conflict resolution ability is to begin using the two step discussion process. This is so simple that you might say, “Isn’t it obvious?”  Well, no.  It certainly wasn’t to me for many years.  So here’s a personal story that shows its power. 

In a large institution where I worked, people rolled their eyes about the facilities manager.  Kathy had been there for ages and people said she was an inflexible nitpicker.  Everyone had a story – we all had to go through her to arrange space and technical support for our meetings and workshops.

Soon after I arrived, I too had my moment with Kathy.  I needed access to meeting rooms at unusual hours.  This required a special key – which she tightly controlled.   I also needed her permission to bring in special equipment.

Overview of the two-step.

The two step approach looks like this:
   Step One:  Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
   Step Two:  Engage in problem-solving or task activity.

If you’re new to the concept of Task versus Relationship or rusty on it, see the diagrams below or view my 5 minute video, Intro to Conflict Styles.   In every encounter with others, we have to make choices about two things.  One is: How much to focus on our agenda or goals?

 

 

A second choice is: How much to focus on pleasing others?

 

When I am busy and stressed, I’m pretty task focused.   It would have been easy for me to dash into Kathy’s office, say a hasty good morning, and plunge straight into my requirements. For people with conflict style preferences like me, that’s great.   But for maybe a third of human beings, to plunge straight into a task without connecting at the level of the relationship is a big mistake.   

These people are slow to cooperate until you establish a relational connection with them.  In a conflict style assessment, they show up as high scorers in the Harmonizing conflict style (also known as Accommodating style).   I suspected Kathy belonged in this group, and that if I ignored her needs I would almost certainly walk away muttering the same things everyone else said about her inflexibility.

The two-step in action.

When I arrived at Kathy’s office I had prepared a different strategy.  I knew my tendencies and from the stories I had some clues about Kathy’s.  I devised a simple two-step strategy to prevent a repeat of history.

I opened by mentioning our recent email exchange.  I said I was happy to put a face to the name.  Then I said that she had a reputation for keeping the facilities well-organized and knowing where to find things.   

My colleagues, of course, thought she was a control freak, the kind of person that in an earlier blog post I jokingly referred to as a high power donkey.  But walking to her office, I’d been searching for something positive I could say that was also honest.  It occurred to me that there really was a good side to her firm-handed style of managing things that I could sincerely complement her.

It worked.  She smiled and said it drove her crazy keeping track of everything.  I commiserated and said we’re all lucky I didn’t have her job because I’d lose everything in a week.  She smiled about that too.

Now it was easy to get down to business.    She listened carefully to my needs, booked the rooms for off-hours without hesitation, gave me the policy description on off-hour facilities, and told me when to come and get the key.   

The fabled Kathy, my ally!  Cost to me? Caring enough to try, a few minutes of forethought, and three minutes of chit-chat.  In the years that followed, every request I made sailed across her desk.  I simply made sure, whenever we talked, to start with chit-chat for a couple of minutes.

It’s probable that, like Kathy,  a significant percentage of the people with whom you live and work are wired with a strong inner sense that relationships come first, and only then tasks.  There are cultures, of course, where it would be rude not to begin nearly every conversation with small talk.  But even there, some individuals are wired with a stronger expectation than others to connect before turning to tasks.

Connection to conflict styles.

If you scored high in the Harmonizing style of my Style Matters conflict style inventory (or in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, the Accommodating style) you almost certainly favor relationships over task. If you scored high in the Cooperating style you also have a strong instinct to connect to the human beings with whom you work.   For more details on how task and relationship shape conflict styles, view my 5 minute video, Intro to Conflict Styles.

It’s the small stuff that counts.

You don’t to make have to make a big deal out of it to attend to a relationship.   Just start with something that clearly acknowledges or affirms the human being in front of you first, before turning to serious work.  Bring a cup of coffee or donut as a gift, inquire about a family member, chit-chat about sports or local gossip, notice a new hairdo, appreciate a picture or souvenir on the wall.  A couple of minutes is all it takes, at the beginning of every work session and occasionally perhaps, during them. 

When to lead with task.

But be careful!  This two-step isn’t for everyone.  People who are highly task focused, especially those who score high in the Directing style of Style Matters (Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann) , generally prefer the opposite sequence.  For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning and takes priority.  They prefer to keep social pleasantries perfunctory and move promptly to tasks.  

Not just for individuals but also for groups.

My story highlights dynamics with an individual, but conflict style knowledge is equally valuable with groups.  Things go better when discussion process honor the diverse preferences that are present in every gathering regarding the balance of task and relationship.  Facilitators can and must plan for this.

Usually you’re working with both kinds of people in the same room.  If you’re in charge, you can walk the tightrope by starting with something like, “We’ll jump into our work in a minute.   But first, let’s make sure we’ve got everything we need.  Bathroom’s down the hall.  Coffee will be here in a minute.  Is the temperature OK?”  Your first phrase signals the task-oriented folks that you share their commitment to serious work; the rest reassures the relational folks that you care about their well-being.

After the work of the moment is done or well underway, of course, even many task oriented people appreciate relaxing for a few minutes for personal exchanges that deepen relationships.

The two-step brings out the best in others.

If you are skilled with the two-step, you bring grace to those you work with.   These strategies make it possible for people to function with more flexibility than they otherwise would.   

For example, if you work with relationship-focused Harmonizers in ways that address their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be highly effective and committed task partners.   Task-focused Directors, for their part, often show themselves to care deeply about relationships, after they see evidence of an intention and plan for getting tasks done.

Ron Kraybill is author of the Style Matters conflict style assessment, a psychometrically-validated learning tool used to train US diplomats, Canadian soldiers, staff in companies large and small, religious leaders, high school, college, and medical school students, and community organizations in essential problem-solving and conflict resolution skills.  Trainers, consultants, coaches, and team leaders can get free training materials and ordering info here.

Harmonize Gracefully

 

Don’t you love it when somebody readily agrees to do things your way?  Negotiating can be tiring.  It’s a gift when someone just smiles and – no persuasion needed – says “OK, I can go with that!”   

Fourth of a series on five conflict styles, this post showcases the Harmonizing conflict style.  With a focus on the relationship, setting aside your own wishes,  Harmonizing is not always a good option.  But in well-chosen situations, Harmonizing  is a great gift to those you live and work with, and potentially you as well.   I’ll show you a handful of transition phrases to help you shift gracefully into this conflict response.

Why Harmonize?

Harmonizing brings grace, kindness and flexibility into relationships.  Longterm partnerships need generous amounts of this other-oriented conflict style to thrive.  Without it, endless disputation will wear you out and leave little room for joy.

If you scored high in Harmonizing while taking Style Matters, you already know this stuff.  If not, it’s never too late to learn!

Choose your battles.  The first principle of Harmonizing is that human beings have limited time and energy for disputation.   Yes, it’s true that well-managed conflict can transform and renew.  But too much conflict exhausts all involved.  We should be choosy about what we take a stand on.

The ideal moment for Harmonizing is when we care a lot about the relationship with our partner in conflict and we care little about the issue (or our goals) in contention.  For example, partners trying to decide where to go for lunch, or which shade of white to paint a wall might be wise to using Harmonizing.  Those issues just don’t matter enough to quarrel over!  

If you scored high in the Directing or Cooperating conflict style, you may be wired to take every issue that comes along with great seriousness.  Your instincts may cause you to invest time and energy in things too trivial to merit the effort.  If you recognize such a tendency in yourself, experimenting with greater use of Harmonizing may hold special rewards for you. 

Transition phrases for harmonizing on easy issues

Here are transition phrases to help shift into a Harmonizing style  when you recognize from the outset the issues don’t matter enough to debate:

  • I’m happy with that!  Let’s go for it….  (After someone has indicated their preference.)
  • What’s your preference?  I’m easy to please here. (If someone hasn’t yet said what they want.)
  • Sounds good to me. 
  • What I care about most is a decision/solution that you’re happy with.  I’d be really pleased to go with your preference.
  • If I had a strong preference, I would let you know, but in this case, I don’t, so let’s go with yours.

Transition from another conflict style

The above is pretty easy.  It’s not hard to be flexible when you don’t really care much about the issue.  But it’s harder when you do care about the issue yet come to see that the other person cares a lot more than you. 

Exactly where you eat dinner might be a simple matter of convenience, cost, or taste for you, but for your partner it could be a matter of health.  Or in a financial dispute, five hundred dollars for one person might represent two hours of work whereas for another it might represent days of labor.  

Sometimes we only realize these things mid-way through negotiation.   Then we need transition phrases for graceful course correction.  How about one of these:

  • Now that we’ve discussed this, I realize there’s important things at stake here for you.   I have preferences, but the things you’re talking about are more in the category of needs.   Let’s do this in a way that takes care of your needs and not worry too much about my preferences.  I’ll be fine….”
  • Thanks for helping me understand where you’re coming from.  In light of that, let’s go with what you’re proposing.   (Perhaps adding:) I’m not always so easily persuaded, but I now understand why this is important to you.”
  • You know I started out this conversation requesting X.   But as we’ve talked, I’ve come to a better understanding of what this means to you.  In a relationship like ours, there’s got to be give and take.  This time it makes sense for me to back off and go with your preferences.  

When you’re over-powered or vulnerable

Then there are situations where you care a lot about the issues and the needs of the other side don’t seem persuasive.  Yet you know it’s very important to keep this person happy.   Maybe it’s a situation on the job with a high power person you have to stay on the good side of.  Or maybe it’s a living situation where disappointing a housemate or neighbor could disrupt a big piece of your life.  

This is hard.  It takes willpower!  Transition phrases here:

  • (If you can manage to “grin and bear it”) Ok, I’ll work with you on that….
  • It’s not my first choice, but I understand how important this is to you and I’m willing to work with your request.
  • If you’re too upset inside to pull off graceful acquiescence at this moment,  ask for time.  Eg: Could I come back to you tomorrow morning on this?  It’s a different direction than I had in mind.  I’d like to think it through before deciding.

A caution about over-using Harmonizing

Some people habitually dramatize the importance of their needs.  If you’re in a longterm partnership with such a person, watch out.  If you withdraw your own requirements whenever the dramatizer makes a case for the urgency of theirs, you’ll end up over-Harmonizing.  Those many small accommodations add up.  

Harmonizing comes at a cost.  Do not under-estimate its toll if Harmonizing is all one way.  You may be giving away things you can never recover –  your health, your time, your self-respect, your spirit.  You may end up feeling you no longer know who you are.

If you feel chronically trapped, reach out for support.  You need conversation with others to get perspective.   Discuss the situation with a trusted friend, a counselor, or a support group.   

Monitor yourself for signs of burnout.   There may come a time when you simply feel incapable of Harmonizing any longer.  Try to figure out an exit strategy or ready yourself for a different response so you aren’t permanently locked in. 

Honor Harmonizing by others

The best rewards of Harmonizing come when both sides use it generously.  This requires time, effort, and emotional maturity – it won’t happen unless both sides actively think about the well-being of the other side and look for opportunities.  Each must ask themselves: Is this issue one where giving in costs me little and benefits my partner a lot?  

When there is a balance of Harmonizing over many issues, both sides win frequently on things that matter.  Bring gratitude into play to encourage this.  Notice and appreciate it when your partner harmonizes; be lavish with gratitude!

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

How to Manage Your Storm Shift

 

 

Does your behavior in conflict change sharply when you get upset?  Do you turn suddenly aggressive when surprised or angered?  Or, when conflict heats up, does your assertiveness quickly fade, replaced by avoidance or accommodation?

What is a Storm Shift?

Such patterns may reflect a strong Storm Shift in conflict, a marked change in behavior as stress rises.  Stress, anger, or fear trigger a shift in brain functioning, away from rational “upper brain” management, towards control by the instinct-guided “lower brain”.   This can bring drastic changes in response to conflict.

A Storm Shift is not necessarily bad; it can in fact be good if your automatic responses are skillful and appropriate for the situation triggering them.  You want the surgeon who operates on you to react instantly, for example, if your blood pressure drops.  You want a quick shift to a different modality, an instant command of the situation, with clear orders to the medical team.  No negotiating, no pussyfooting around!

But a big Storm Shift handicaps effective leadership and conflict management if:

  1. You’re poorly aware of your patterns and thus;
  2. Unable to consciously evaluate whether your instincts fit the situation and thus,
  3. Over-use your Storm response.   

A key goal in conflict style management is self-awareness.  This helps consciously manage ourselves wisely.  The Style Matters conflict style inventory gives users two sets of scores for this, one for Calm conditions and one for Storm conditions.  In light of what we now know about brain functioning, we must consider conflict style assessments – such as the venerable Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode assessment – that don’t factor in the impact of stress as outdated. 

View this Real Life Example

If it’s not too distressing to watch, you can view a short episode on the web that vividly illustrates a badly managed Storm Shift.   For two minutes two police officers talk with a distressed apartment resident about her neighbor,  who she says came to her apartment and hit her.   The officers are assertive but calm; models of professionalism.

One then go down the hall and knocks on the door of the neighbor.  A sullen voice answers,  “Whaddya want?” An elderly man appears in the door, wielding a pointy object. 

The officers are taken off guard.  One swears and kicks the door open.   “Put it down!”, he shouts,  raising a Taser gun.  The man immediately backs away, turns, and carefully places the sharp object on a cabinet.  He turns and faces the officers, standing motionless 8-10 feet away.   

“Down on the floor!” shouts one. “Get out here!” bellows the other.  “No!” yells the man.  His voice is belligerent but he stands unthreateningly at a distance as he explains that his neighbor banged his wall.

Before the first sentence is finished, the lead officer fires his Taser and the man topples backwards like a falling tree.  We learn that he suffered a stroke and heart attack as a consequence. 

Analyzing this unfortunate situation, we can see that, in the first encounter, the officers are in “Calm” mode.  They are highly task focused, but respectful.  They use an effective blend of the Cooperating and Directing styles at medium-level intensity in a situation that involves distress, but not really a conflict.

The second encounter begins with sudden threat.  This brings the officers instantly into their Storm response, which for both appears to be high-intensity Directing.   They are in full fight mode and seem to view the resident as a mortal threat.   Even after the elderly citizen has put down his weapon, and stands nearly naked, unmoving, at a distance, they taser him.

In other words, they don’t take in the data of an evolving situation.   They’re locked in to the danger of what they think is happening (which was happening a few seconds ago but no longer) and use their Storm style of Directing (which involves high focus on their goals and low focus on the other person).   Their poor self-management nearly killed someone.

How to Manage Your Storm Shift

Not nearly everyone has a drastic storm shift.   About a third of people experience little change in their response to conflict, even as heat rises.  When these people take the Style Matters assessment, their numbers are similar in Calm and Storm. 

A second third experience only a moderate shift, with a score change of 0-3 in at least one style.  And a final third experience a high Storm Shift, which I define as people whose scores shift by 4 or more (the highest possible shift is 7) .  The police officers appear to belong in that third category.  For them, attention to their Storm Shift could be transformative. 

Regardless to which group we are in, everyone benefits from understanding the Storm Shift in managing their own responses and making sense of those around us.   The following can guide in working on yourself or in coaching others:

  1.  Ponder patterns.  Simple self-awareness is the most important tool for managing your own Storm Shift.  This takes time and effort.  A good place to start is with the section on the Storm Shift in your Style Matters score report near the end, which highlights relevant numbers.   
  2. Reflect on experience, with a special eye on the dangers of your preferred Storm style.  With a coach, trusted friend, or partner, reflect on moments of high stress or high conflict life brings you.  Which conflict style/s do you use?   Do your responses here differ from when things are difficult but not extremely so?   Review the dangers of this Storm style, with the help of your score report (detailed) or the Style Matters site (quick overview). 
  3. Identify and work on desired responses, skills, or behaviors you would like use to use more in Storm settings.   These could be about better listening, empathy, de-escalation, anger management, use of questions, assertiveness, negotiation, problem-solving or other things. Options for learning could include reading, online tutorials, workshops, or roleplaying. 
  4. Follow up.  We’re talking here about patterns that are instinctual and habit-based.  Such things don’t change overnight.  Make a  plan and revisit the topic several times, covering all the above each time, with a period of at least a week between reflections.  

All four steps in this sequence would be hugely beneficial to the officers in the video and to anyone who experiences a significant Storm Shift.   Those with a small or medium Storm Shift will still benefit from the first two steps. 

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 turn into a gimlet-eyed cynic, chronically creating the sad outcomes in conflict that you expect. 

 

For skeptics of Cooperating, life is an endless series of battles.  They are right in believing that some conflicts can’t be resolved with this optimistic style.  But in many conflicts there is more room for meeting the needs of both sides than they think.

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 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 Cooperating.

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, it’s essential to have good skills in Cooperating.

How to Cooperate

Cooperating is a both/and response to conflict.  As shown with the blue arrows  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 impulse to fight or flee.   

Expect a learning curve!  If you grew up with frequent modeling of Cooperating by parents, teachers, or mentors, you may find it easy.  But most people don’t.  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.   

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 use them under fire. 

Transition Phrases for Cooperating

Success in conflict management requires 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 Avoiding response with you, important issues may go unaddressed.  In both cases, you benefit by initiating a Cooperating exchange instead.

Transition phrases help do this.  In my other blog posts you can find such phrases for other conflict styles.  But Cooperating 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 here.  You’re focused on XXXX, I’m focused on ZZZ.  We’ve both got a lot at stake in this.   Let’s not turn it 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.net
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.  You have to say No! and really mean it, insist that people step back, or lead in a direction others resist.   If you are not able to do this, you will 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 show you how to balance nice and tough, using 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 that is 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 (a surgeon battling to save a life must issue orders and act, not stand and patiently explain strategy to team members), 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), and 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.

* * * * * 

Ninjas of Graceful Directing

I’ve known a number of people in ordinary roles in life who are ninjas of graceful Directing.  I remember  the front desk receptionist in a primary school my children attended, 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 me) 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 people have 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 they must turn up the volume of assertiveness, others experience them as relational.   For bringing grace to places where gruffness often rules, 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 asserting and leading graciously.  Learn from their example!

 

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, and you will have more time and patience for the issues most important to you.

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 for 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 for people who find conflict Avoiding difficult or scored low in Avoiding in their score report.  If you scored high, other posts in the series will be more useful to you. 

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. 

Avoiding gracefully is essential for leaders

All the above are even more useful in group leadership, by the way.  It’s impossible to facilitate group discussion without deploying strategic conflict avoidance from time to time.  No group can deal with all issues at once. Leaders need to manage group attention wisely and Avoiding is a key tool for this. 

The same goes for 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.