Category Archives: Conflict Styles Tips

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

Shift Dynamics with One Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put Your Neocortex in Charge

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

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


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

Pyramid of Conflict Resolution Skills


The Pyramid of Conflict Resolution Skills

What is the connection between interpersonal conflict resolution tools like my Style Matters conflict style inventory or the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and big conflicts of our world, like ethnic and religious violence or threat of nuclear war?

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

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

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

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


Conflict Competency is a Continuum of Skills

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

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

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

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

As my mediation skills expanded I began to train other mediators. This gave lots of opportunities to develop skills in group facilitation.  Up another level.  

Gradually opportunities came to work with group conflicts, in organizations that had come to a crisis as a result of conflict.  Although this was totally new territory, I was pleasantly surprised by how useful my now thriving interpersonal mediation skills were in group settings.   I had mastered basics of mediation like starting off with a strong beginning, setting a framework, listening well and getting input from those involved, asking good questions, reframing destructive comments, defining issues, exploring options, working out package agreements, etc.

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

Facilitating group conflict processes required additional skills.  I found many resources in the well-established fields of Human Relations and Organizational Development that helped me grow.  But without the solid core of skills from interpersonal mediation and the group facilitation that I had now accumulated I never would have made it through the many challenging moments that came as I learned new skills on the fly.  

I did early group work mostly in small group settings because my repertoire of skills in large group settings was quite limited.  But that changed as I figured out ways to adapt the techniques and skills I was mastering in small group facilitation to the high-wire of large group facilitation, and added new ones learned from reading and discussion with colleagues.

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

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

Leaders Have Gaps in Competence and the Cost is High

In every peace process I’ve been close to, there are plenty of people eager to assert leadership in time of crisis.  South Africa was no exception.  But few were skilled in facilitating discussion, negotiation, and decision-making processes.   This made things vulnerable – as all peace processes are – to one of the most poorly recognized dynamics of conflict resolution.

People think of peace processes as conflict resolution across a table between warring parties.  It is, but that’s only one small aspect of the challenge.  It’s often conflicts behind the table that most endanger success.  In South Africa far more people died in fighting among the various factions of the black liberation groups as talks dragged on than between blacks and whites.  Reactionary white forces saw the vulnerability and diabolically labored to fuel it. 

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

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

These leaders may be highly effective in maneuvering in upper levels of the pyramid.  For example, they might be good at wielding or brokering power.  But for leading a staff meeting of colleagues, many don’t have a clue about facilitation practices, even basic ones that can be learned in a weekend workshop.   

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

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

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

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

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

Even Many “Peace Professionals” Have Big Gaps

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

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

Expertise is Required at Every Level

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Conflict Styles Training

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

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

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

About Personal Foundations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Afford All Those Levels and All Those Skills?

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

Actually, it’s far from impossible.  We don’t need to figure out anything new.  We already know how to train people in every skill.  The main challenge is most people still have no clue that  constructive responses to conflict can be taught and learned.   So institutions, schools, professions, and governments continue with the dysfunctional patterns of the past.  

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

The benefits of systematically building skills of conflict resolution far outweigh the costs. The truth is: We can’t afford not to invest in them.  Every day we pay – and dearly – for the costs of scarcity here.   It will take decades, but over time we can address this vast deficit if we choose.    

Ron Kraybill, PhD

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.


How Does Conflict Style Shape Destiny?

How is a Score Report

I spent much of the last month writing new text for the score report of Style Matters. That’s the 10 page personalized report from the online version of my conflict style inventory, whose numbers, with my reflections thereon, go out to users after taking the inventory.

Commanders in military establishments, janitors in neighborhood associations, freshmen at Bible colleges, and pretty much everybody in between read (and I like to think, ponder) this thing; according to logs on our server, nearly 365 days a year.

As usual in our multi-religious family, I did both Pesach and Easter celebrations. Sort of. But mostly, while others congregated for holidays, I wrestled epiphanies in text on my laptop.

And got new hope and vision as I remembered why conflict resolution continues to grip me. Here my traditionalist and my modernist, my believing and my agnostic, my monastic and my populist selves meet. Conflict, or at least reflecting on human responses to it, remains holy ground to this once Mennonite farmer, now aging peace process facilitator.

Conflict Style Awareness is More than Technique

“Conflict management starts with self-management,”  we say on the Style Matters frontpage.  The lone boatman there launches his journey to an unknown destination, symbol of the journey that peacebuilding can launch us on.

We’re not talking technique here.  This is a journey of growth – intellectual, emotional and spiritual – that lasts a lifetime.

The choices we make in conflict – about what to defend and how, what to cut loose and why, the strategies, defenses, and tools we use in dealing with those we disagree with, how to respond to victory and loss – all shape who we become and the legacy we leave.   This applies to individuals, institutions, and nations.


One of my long-term goals in the development of Style Matters is to forge a learning tool that corresponds to the richness of the topic it addresses. 

Larger issues of purpose, values, and meaning inevitably emerge for those who contemplate response to conflict and are ready to consider them.  

It’s not for me to supply answers to those larger issues.  But I do aspire, without apology, to devise a learning tool that, as it doles out buckets of tactical insight, fosters awareness that in responding to conflict, in our patterns and habits, over time, our choices shape us, who we become, and the kind of world we leave for others.

Precisely the lack of such awareness blocks the growth and enduring change required to reduce misery and violence in our world.

What’s New in the Score Report

The upgraded report squeezes a lot of additional insight from scores.

For the first time the report now addresses style combinations.  Many people have scores that indicate equal preference for two or more styles.  This suggests special strengths – and special vulnerabilities.

For example, people who score high in both the Directing style (known as Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) and Avoiding styles may be unusually well equipped to function in settings of high conflict and wily opponents.  

But the skill set that comes with these two styles is not very relational.  Such people probably need to make special efforts to build personal relationships. See a sample of part of the text at end of this post for the combination of Cooperating and Compromising

There are ten possible such score combinations in the Mouton Blake framework underlying Style Matters (as well as the Thomas Kilmann instrument, which originally inspired us, first in concept, then as a standard for betterment). The Style Matters score report now provides detailed commentary for those users who score high for one of these combos.  

In the coming weeks I’ll add these new scripts to our Trainers Guide for trainers who use paper and pencil versions and don’t benefit from the automated number-crunching of the online version.

I was struck in writing these with how much insight looking at combinations provides.  So far as I’m aware, this is new territory among conflict style inventories, including the Thomas Kilmann. I’m eager to hear user comments about this innovation!

In addition, we added tie-breakers to the interpretation algorithm.  As a result,  tied scores and the uncertainties this creates for some users are now less common.

Yet another upgrade addresses the question: What can you do to improve your patterns of conflict style use?  I added many practical suggestions for expanding use of your low-scoring styles.

Together with an upgrade to formatting and headings, this is a major revision that expands the size of the report to 6-10 pages.

How to Get Your New Score Report

If you took the inventory in the past,  login now for a fresh read of your report with these improvements. You don’t need to re-take the inventory.   The new report uses the data from your previous take and mines it in new ways. 

The login has been been moved to the upper right of the front page.  If you’ve lost your password, use password recovery under the login fields to reset yours.  After login, go to “Style Matters Online” in the top menu, for options to view, print, and email your new report.  First time users, order here and then go straight to the inventory.



Sample text on the combination of Cooperating and Compromising


Too Ticked to Talk Nice


You can’t do conflict resolution without doing anger management.

Anger is an emotion that everyone needs.  Don’t wish it away.  It provides resources essential to self-protection and survival.  It helps us respond quickly, with high energy, to dangerous or unpleasant situations.

But that doesn’t mean it’s fine to rant when you’re pissed.

Talk About Anger in a Non-Angry Way

Researchers in several fields find that expressing anger in an angry way feeds the problem.

Angry_man You can talk about your anger without yielding to the impulse to be aggressive or to hurt others. Say that you are angry, say why you are angry, say what could be done to improve things – and say these things without being hurtful, hostile or rude.

When Anger is too Great for Constructive Talk

If you cannot yet do this, limit communication so you don’t feed anger or damage to relationships.  Use the cool-down time:

  • for journaling, which has been shown to be highly effective in helping people regain perspective on anger;
  • to do some detective work about your emotions (see point 3 in my essay on anger management);
  • to review how to present your concerns in ways most likely to bring positive response from your counterpart.

When You’re Ready to Talk

When you talk, consider the conflict style of your counterpart.  See my blog posts about the two-step approach and my detailed suggestions of support strategies for each style.

Regardless to conflict style, a formula that helps to frame things in a non-aggressive way is the “I message” or “Impact statement”.   The idea is to avoid the accusatory tone of “You are X,Y,Z.”

Instead, describe the impact of what your counterpart is doing on you and your emotions.   “I feel… when you… because….” Or, “The impact of what you do on me is YYY….”

For situations where anger is intense, you are more likely to have a successful experience in conversation if you agree on a way to structure it. For example:

  • Use a “talking stick” and agree that you will pass it back and forth as you speak. You can speak only when you are holding the talking stick (or pen, pillow, book, etc.)
  • Agree on a sequence to organize the conversation, such as: “We’ll begin by giving each person 5 minutes to explain without interruption what they are upset about. Then we’ll try to list the issues where we disagree. Third, we’ll see if there are points that we agree on. Fourth, we’ll return to where we disagree and try to resolve those.”
  • Agree to ground rules. For example, agree that each person needs to repeat back in their own words what the other person has said, to the satisfaction of that person, before responding.  Use this structure for at least 15 minutes , and agree when to relax it. The pattern is:  Person A speaks, Person B repeats back in his or her own words. Person B speaks, Person A repeats back, etc.

Live for Soul Not Magic

I’ve tried all the above and found them all helpful enough that I continue to use and teach them.  But I’ve also learned there’s no magic – no wording or strategies that guarantee a good outcome when feelings are deep or someone is in a hard emotional space.

Even after teaching and writing about tools for conflict resolution for several decades, I still fail to achieve constructive communication in some circumstances where I try hard for it.  So will you.

One of the ambiguous gifts of age is that we come to accept that which is.   We learn that ultimately we have no real control over anything or anyone other than ourselves, and not always not even that.   We learn to rest when we have done what we can, even if the outcome is not what we seek. These learnings shape the character of the soul and none shapes us more profoundly than our encounters with anger.

When life brings opportunities to practice the arts of resting peacefully in that which is and cannot be changed, do not close your heart to them.

For more on anger management, see:

Trump and Conflict Styles

We can Learn a Lot from Trump about Conflict Styles

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

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

TrumpTweet Jan15-17

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Diss Directing as a Response to Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

When is Avoiding the Right Response to Conflict?

Avoidance is the perfect response:

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

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

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


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

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

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


Do this for Less Holiday Conflict

If you’ve already spent time with relatives this holiday season perhaps you’ve discovered things are not all fa-la-la at family gatherings.  Getting together is great, but it can also bring conflict. All that cozy togetherness gives space for old issues to appear in new forms.

In a year when politics has polarized, more rancor than usual is likely to get served along with the turkey. Here’s what you can do about it.

Start with a resolution to be nimble at conflict avoidance. You can’t stop others from being pissants, but you can decline to be baited. Avoidance is a great conflict style for situations where you don’t have any real goal other than staying out of difficulty.

You probably already know which people and circumstances can handle candor and which cannot. Prepare lines for conflict harmonizing and avoiding that you can easily pull out when needed. To that annoying relative who can’t resist a verbal poke about politics or some other dicey topic, come back with responses that re-direct or de-escalate.

– “You know, I promised myself I’d stay on safe topics this year. Tell me about your new job….”

– “That’s a topic a little more lively than I’m up for right now. Want to hear what I did for the Thanksgiving holidays?”

– “I know you weren’t thrilled about my choice to XXXX, and probably neither of us is going to change our mind about that. But tell me, what’s going on in your life these days?”

You don’t have to be witty or cute to succeed with a conflict avoiding response. You just need to be firm in redirecting the topic. You’re more likely to pull it off if you’ve given forethought to the actual wording of your redirect.

Perhaps the most important preparation you can do is update your personal boundaries before the holiday gatherings begin. Boundary maintenance is about recognizing that you and I are different people, each responsible for our own self, each respectful of the other’s independence. When we each have good personal boundaries, there is no emotional drive to change the other. You are you; I am me; we let each other be.

If I have healthy boundary maintenance:

– It’s fine for you to prefer a different politician – that’s your choice.

– Whatever choices you’ve made about your life are fine.   They’re your choices, not mine.

– Your opinions about my choices and views, whether in politics, lifestyle, dress, career, etc., are simply that, opinions.  I make my own choices and accept that you make your own.   Just because someone doesn’t like my choice doesn’t mean I have to defend it.

– Your opinions about my choices and views, whether in politics, lifestyle, dress, career, etc., are simply that, opinions.  I make my own choices and accept that you make your own.   Just because someone doesn’t like my choice doesn’t mean I have to

If I have poor boundary maintenance

– It’s hard for me to allow others to hold views different from my own.

– I am easily upset by choices you’ve made for your own life.  I have a need to convince you that your choices are wrong if they don’t fit my beliefs.

– Your opinions about me and choices matter hugely to me.  If you don’t like my choices and voices, I am upset and anxious.

Small children have no emotional boundaries and as a result are easily stirred to intense emotional responses by criticism or differing opinions. Boundaries develop and grow stronger in adolescent and adulthood, but maintaining and expanding healthy boundaries is a lifetime challenge.

A large number of people in mid-life and beyond have never developed strong boundaries. Family gatherings seem to bring out the worst in bad boundary management. When that happens people interact on the basis of old boundaries of long ago, as though they’d never grown and matured since the original years of being family together.

Updating your personal boundaries is the best protection against such dynamics.  Staying connected to family members in a relaxed way over time helps that to happen.  Being in touch as we grow and change across life helps us to learn new patterns of interacting that reflect our unfolding life as adults.

You can do a simple reflection exercise in a few minutes that helps prepare you for relaxed interaction with family members.  The exercise guides you in reflecting on how you have changed and grown since childhood and teenage years.

Draw the diagrams below on a sheet of paper.


Then fill in some names. Start with your life at age of twelve and fill in the names of people in your family and network of friends who had a big affect on your daily sense of the quality of life. Then in the second diagram fill in names for today.

I’m not talking about distant people. Names in these lists should only be those people where there’s a personal connection and who have enough of a role in your life that a bad day or a bad month for them made (or makes) your life significantly harder.

When you are done, compare the two. Notice and appreciate fully the extent to which those two lists differ. For most people the lists are very different.

Take the exercise a step farther by listing personal strengths, talents, abilities, or accomplishments that have emerged in your life since the time you left your nuclear family.   When you feel secure and grounded in these, you are less vulnerable to being suckered back into the vulnerabilities that every child lives with by virtue of being a child.

When we get together for holidays, we return to relationships of long ago. But of course we’ve lived and grown since. We now have resources of knowledge and personal foundations from other relationships and roles that did not exist in the old days. If we keep our inner sense of boundaries updated, we draw strength and stability from our recent life experience. We are less vulnerable to difficult dynamics from long ago.

But if we’ve failed to update our sense of boundaries, we react emotionally from the limits of our ancient self. We’re like twelve year olds (or whatever age that we suffered the greatest difficulties with the people we are interacting with) in adult bodies.

You can prepare for re-connecting to complex relationships by refreshing your awareness of who you are today. When your brother/parent/aunt/grandparent makes a move that pokes your emotional buttons, remind yourself of your current reality. Odds are high that the person has little to no capacity any longer to have any impact on your daily life, so long as you keep your focus on your current network of family and friends.

Spare yourself the energy required to react.  Just let it be like water off the back of a duck. Shrug, grin, smile. Change the topic. Find someone else to talk to. Resist the temptation to try to change that person or fight back – if you do, you are already participating in the old patterns.

Draw strength from knowledge of who you are today and where you get the energy and joy that make your life meaningful.

Don’t Resolve Conflict, Utilize It

Conflict Utilization - Turning Difference into Creative Change on Vimeo

If you like the conflict styles framework and want compatible tools to build the capacity of your organization or team, check out the trove of short videos by Dr. John Scherer.

Don’t Resolve or Manage Conflict, Utilize It

For example,  in a 6 minute video clip on  “Conflict Utilization“, Scherer explains why you shouldn’t  be too quick to “resolve”  or “manage” conflict. Odds are you will end the conflict prematurely and thus lose an opportunity to talk deeply, think carefully and make necessary changes.

In the last two minutes Scherer lists 4 concepts and tools valuable for helping groups and team use conflict well:  The Pinch Theory, Three Worlds, The Four Languages, and Polarity Thinking.  He dedicates a short video to each of those concepts on the same site.

I especially recommend the video on polarity management.  That’s a powerful tool that I’ve found dramatically effective in certain conflicts. It should be in the toolkit of all who resource organizations and their leaders.

John Scherer is an esteemed elder in the field of organizational management and change who brings wonderful clarity and humanity to everything he does.  He has posted 100+ free short videos over the last two years on organizational management and change management, many with valuable tools for making conflict a positive experience.

Scherer reads widely and faithfully credits the many practitioners and authors from whom he draws his rich insights.  I have no stake in promoting John’s work –  I simply think he’s a very wise man,  who gives generously to others.   He deserves wide exposure; you deserve the benefit of his wisdom.

Conflict as Spiritual Path


Conflict style awareness is truly useful in day-to-day management of differences.  It’s easy to learn.

But not so easy to do!

Easy:  Learning the basics of conflict styles.  Do this in a few minutes with this free “Intro to Conflict Styles”.  You can figure out your own conflict style almost as quickly by taking a conflict style quiz (such as my Style Matters; the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or even a cross-cultural one).

Challenging:  remembering, in the heat of conflict, to use those great conflict resolution strategies.  We are hardwired by nature with a tiny set of responses when we are frightened or angry: flight, fight, or freeze.  Those three simple responses enabled survival in the jungle and you can witness them any time you want in the animal world.  But they have limited use for human beings today.

To build partnerships and solve problems in a complex world we need additional options for responding, and the ability to choose rather than merely react.  We acquire these capacities, not by relying on instinct, but by thought, practice, and reflection.

Conflict as Spiritual Path

When we are angry or frustrated, brain functions change.  The instinctual flight/fight/freeze brain takes over; the rational brain steps back.  Emotion blots out thought.  We react rather than choose.  Instinct and habit rule, not judgement and skill.

But all is not lost.  In the words of Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor whose writings have inspired generations: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I sometimes speak of conflict resolution as a spiritual path and Frankl nails why:  What we do in moments of difficulty with others has enduring consequences.  In the seconds between provocation and response we make choices that shape us and our legacy as human beings.

Here enduring and timeless aspects of our being come concretely within our influence.  Here, over time, in the patterns of repeated choices, we make manifest that which we consider of greatest value.  Here we shape the essence of the soul.

(Similarly, here too, in times of crisis, we witness laid bare for the world to see the true character of nations and communities and their institutions of governance and law. Ignore political rhetoric if you want to evaluate leaders and nations; just study what they actually do in times of provocation.)

You are not a helpless victim of your past.   You already possess ability to choose wisely.   Perhaps in lesser measure than you wish, but you can enlarge it.  In the heat of conflict arise opportunities to do this.

By recognizing you have choices and taking responsibility to reflect on and grow in choosing well, in ways that reflect the essence of your life and being, you make conflict a spiritual path.

Four Choice Expanders for the Journey

1. Take the initiative when there is conflict brewing.  Planning is your best ally in responding well in conflict.  If you don’t plan, you put yourself at the mercy of your emotions and someone else’s timetable.

Planning doesn’t mean you must always engage.  Avoiding is sometimes the best solution – click on the Avoiding tab in this tutorial to see a summary of when and why silence or walking away is sometimes the best solution.  But if you avoid, do it by choice, not from habit.

When a difficult issue is brewing and you recognize conversation is required, take charge of yourself by pondering when, where, and how discussion will take place.   Think through what you hope to achieve in the situation, and what your opponent probably hopes for.  Make a list of your options and possible consequences of each. Then prepare a strategy to approach the other person.  Tammy Lenski and other web authors provide good ideas here.

Preparing and taking the initiative doesn’t guarantee easy solutions.  But it greatly increases your ability to choose and manage the responses you want to make in conflict.

2.  Work on listening skills.  Do a web search on “conflict resolution skills” and you can quickly find quite a list of skills that are truly useful in conflict resolution.  Listening skills deserves to top that list – it is a “force multiplier” that amplifies effectiveness of every other skill.

Do not make the common mistake of confusing listening with agreeing or accepting. Understand listening at its barest minimum, as information gathering.  Whether you decide in the end to smile and be agreeable, or stiffen your back and confront, a foundation of good listening provides valuable information and makes you more effective.

And of course, whether you employ active listening or its more demanding cousin, reflective listening, listening keeps your rationale brain active, thereby expanding your ability to choose.

3.  Practice your lines.  I wish I had a more compelling way to say it.  But conflict resolution unfolds in the realm of words and the best way I know to prepare for a difficult conversation is to practice what you’re going to say.

Let’s say you’re inspired by that concept from Ury and Fisher’s famous Getting to Yes, about separating interests and positions.  What exactly are you going to say to move the conversation in that direction?

Or maybe you can see room to make concessions, but you’re so angry about the attitude of your opponent that there’s no way you’ll even hint at compromise until he gets off his self-righteousness?  How will you communicate this complex truth in a way most likely to bring progress?

I like journalling as a tool to think through what I want to say.  I often write out, word for word, phrases, sentences, and questions I might to use in an upcoming difficult conversation.   Sometime it takes many minutes to figure out the wording of phrase that can be said in seconds.

Maybe my first try at an opening line is: “I can’t believe how childish you are!”  Honest, but not so helpful.  Second try is “I’m outraged about the things you’re saying about me in staff meeting!”  Third Try: “You said things in staff meeting Monday that really got my blood boiling.  Eventually I calmed down, but I really don’t understand where this is coming from.  Could you fill me in on the history here?”

Obviously the third try invites a different dynamic than the first.  When I put the notes aside, it’s surprising how much remains in my head, not only words and phrases but also attitude, ready for deployment in moments of heated choice.

The ultimate way to practice lines, of course, is in role play.  From time to time I call on a friend or family member to take the role for a few minutes of someone whom I need to confront.  Here I try out words, phrases, and strategies from my notes.  Even if I disagree with the advice of my allies, rehearsal increases self-control and choice in the real life conversation that follows.

4.  Try calming techniques.  We’ve all heard of people who instill in themselves a habit of counting silently to 10 before igniting.  Conflict resolution consultant Tammy Lenski suggests additional techniques for mental detachment based on research:

– physically leaning back, which has been shown to help achieve mental detachment

– imaging that you are viewing yourself from a distance, like a fly on the wall

– moving away from the person you are upset with and if this is not possible, imaging that you are moving away and they are getting smaller.