Category Archives: Conflict Styles Tips

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

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.

Two Step for Conflict Avoiders


When voices rise and conflict escalates, do you step forward and engage?   Or step back and assess? This post is for people who favor the latter, and for those who live and work with them.  I’ll give you another two-step for conflict resolution, a practical strategy when engagement is difficult. 

Conflict Avoidance is Good

Let’s start by honoring “step back and assess” as a response to conflict. Life brings endless friction. We are confronted, goaded, and obstructed from every corner. It’s hard to get through even a day without someone or something in our face.

In chronically contested space, engaging all challengers is impossible.  When someone gives you the finger for your unexpected shift of lanes while driving, do you pull over to talk things through?  Hardly.  What would be the point?  You shrug, mutter to yourself, ignore the jackal, and drive on.

So the arts of skillful avoidance are essential to survival: Silence, distance, non-involvement, non-responsiveness, impassiveness, circumspection, studied neutrality, inaccessibility, biding your time.  All have a place as strategies to avoid battles not worth the cost of fighting or for which we are poorly prepared.

Choose your battles.  Manage carefully how you use the energies you direct to conflict.   If you’re not good at conflict avoiding, get to work on it!

When Avoiding Conflict Makes Things Worse

But.  If shrugging, ignoring and moving on is our primary response to all conflict, we pay a high price.  Early in my career I was puzzled to discover that the conflicted organizations I worked with seemed to be full of the nicest of people.  In one-on-one interaction I was often touched by their kindness and good intentions.  Why were these places where people tried so hard to maintain pleasantness and decency the sites of such vicious battles?

People avoided conflict for years, but seethed inside.  Eventually feelings grew too strong to hold back, and things exploded, sometimes triggered by issues of little consequence.  “Long periods of cottony silence punctuated by periodic explosions” was how one person described her experience in a conflict-avoiding group.

When relationships are ongoing, over-use of conflict avoidance is a setup for big trouble.  When issues are allowed to fester unresolved, feelings grow.  Then, when they do finally burst into the open, they are harder to manage than ever.

Conflict resolution ability is like a muscle that requires regular use to maintain.  If you don’t  challenge and constructively confront on small issues and practice there the skills of calm self-assertiveness and thoughtful engagement required for resolving conflicts, you’ll be helpless to function well in big ones.

A Two Step Strategy for Conflict Avoiders

If overuse of conflict avoidance is an issue in your life, you can do something about it, either as an avoider or as someone trying to engage an avoider.

Start by understanding how avoiding benefits the avoider.  Conflict avoidance gives opportunity to: 1) Manage emotions and reduce stress and tension; 2) Gather information about the issues, options, and people involved before taking a stand or making a decision; 3) Withdraw, review, and prepare for engagement.

You can achieve those without staying stuck in avoidance by using a two-step approach that provides space to think things through and prepare for conversation:

1) Step One:  Have a short “tabling” conversation to acknowledge or inform your counterpart that there are issues requiring discussion.  Take care not to let this initial exchange go deep or long as this would defeat the purpose of the whole strategy.  Aim for a short, light initial indication that discussion is needed and seek agreement on a time for extended conversation later.

2) Step Two:  Have the discussion at a mutually agreed time and place, after those involved have had a chance to think through their views, expectations, hopes, etc.

I learned this version of the two-step from Dr. Barbara Date of Eugene, Oregon, who learned it from Professor Susan Gilmore at University of Oregon.  Barbara tells of a friend whose young son loved to go to the beach.  Her friend would sometimes wake up on Saturday morning, notice a beautiful day dawning, and at breakfast say, “Let’s go to the beach!”   His son would then get upset and start crying!

The concept of two-step mental processing helps make sense of the puzzle.  The boy was a person who needs time to think things through and prepare himself internally.   Whether delightful or difficult  made no difference.   Unexpected change with no time to process it was disturbing.

People wired with a deep need to do an internal review before committing to anything will instinctively say no if presented with a request or proposal that requires an immediate answer.  For them, Barbara says, “If you want an answer now, it’s usually no.  If you can wait, the answer is often maybe”.

In conflict resolution, a two step approach allows conflict avoidance to function as a true strength and sets the stage for the use of other conflict styles.  The key is to accept and work with avoidance but add planning and structure to it.

Get a detailed report 6 page report on your conflict styles with the  Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory.   Use the free 24 page “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops” to design a workshop that will energize your team.  Download it now!

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Intro to Conflict Styles Podcast


Organizational psychologist and podcaster Meisha Rouser has posted an interview, “Exploring Conflict Styles with Ron Kraybill”.   In a 25 minute conversation you get an overview of key concepts of conflict styles and why it’s important to pay attention to them.



Simple Conflict Style 2 Step



A good way to expand your conflict style awareness is to begin using the two step discussion process. This is a strategy so simple that you might say, “Isn’t it obvious?” No, it’s actually not, including to me in certain moments. Give it some thought and make sure you’re using this little game changer.

In a large institution where I worked for many years, I heard stories about the facilities manager.  Kathy was an annoying and inflexible nitpicker, I was told.  Everyone had a story – we all had to work with 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 – one she tightly controlled.   I also needed permission to bring in special equipment.

How to Use the Two Step

In a situation like this, the two step approach is one of the first to consider.  It is easy to adapt to a variety of dynamics.  Given what I had heard I decided to use its simplest form:
     Step One:  Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
     Step Two:  Engage in problem-solving or task activity.

That’s not the way I would naturally approach someone.  When I have a lot of work to do I am 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 list of requirements. 

Even if I managed to do it in a cordial way, that would not be conflict style aware.  I probably would have walked out a few minutes later muttering the same things everyone else said about inflexible Kathy.

When I arrived at Kathy’s office I had prepared a different strategy:  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.  It occurred to me that there really was a good side to this annoying style of managing things and that I could sincerely complement her for it.

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 serious business.    She listened carefully to my needs, booked the off-hour rooms without hesitation, reviewed the policy 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 of her sailed across her desk.  I simply made a point, whenever we talked, to start with chit-chat for the first 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, 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 Style Matters and Thomas Kilmann Inventories

Almost everyone who scores high in the Harmonizing style of my Style Matters conflict style inventory (in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, the Accommodating style) is in this group.   Those who score high in Cooperating also have strong needs to connect to the human beings with whom they work.   For more details on how task and relationship relate to conflict styles, view my “Intro to Conflict Styles” slideshow.

Don’t Make a Big Deal Out of It

You don’t to make have to make a big deal out of it to attend to the relationship.   Just make sure to start with something that clearly acknowledges or affirms the human being in front of you 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 and Not Relationship

People who are highly task focused, including most of those who score high in the Directing (Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann) style of my inventory, mostly prefer the opposite sequence.  For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning and takes priority.  They value a process that keeps social pleasantries perfunctory and moves promptly to tasks.   But after the work of the moment is done or well underway, even many task oriented people appreciate relaxing for a few minutes for personal exchanges that deepen relationships.

Conflict Style Awareness Opens Space for Creative Responses

Like other conflict style strategies, the two step still requires you to figure out solutions.  But it opens space for people to be more flexible than they would be without it.  If you work with relationship-focused conflict style Harmonizers in ways that first take care of their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be highly effective and committed problem-solvers.   Task-focused conflict style Directors, for their part, often show themselves to care deeply about relationships, after they see there exists an intention and plan for getting tasks done.

The two-step belongs in everyone’s personal toolkit.   The story above highlights its value for individuals, but it is essential also in group decision making or conflict resolution.  Things go better when discussion process honor the diversities of preferences present in every gathering regarding the mix and sequence of task and relationship.  Facilitators can and must plan to address both.

In a later post I will review other versions of the two-step, in particular a two-step approach that has nearly magical impact on people who favor Avoiding as a response to conflict.

High Power Teams Underperform


Research shows that work groups of high power people do not perform nearly as well as groups of low power people. How can high power teams use more relational conflict styles and perform better? Here are seven strategies informed by the research.

Fact:  High Power Leaders Do Not Play Nicely Together

So Grandma was right: Too many cooks spoil the soup. The title of a new study at Berkeley says it all:”Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance.”

The study finds that, although powerful individuals working alone perform tasks and demonstrate creativity at levels well above average, when they are required to work with other powerful individuals on tasks as a group, they perform well below average.

In the research, groups of less powerful people settled down and cooperated in tasks assigned to them.  But high power people fought – over status, over who should be in charge, over who would have more influence over the group’s decisions, and over who should get more respect than others.

High power people also “were less focused on the task and shared information less effectively with each other than did members of other groups.”   In short, the researchers found, “teams with less powerful executives reached consensus far more easily than teams with the high-powered executives.”

You can read the above quote in the NPR News site and hear an audio version below.

Maybe Grandma Knew, But She’s History 

Do we need a study to tell us what we already know?   One NPR listener to the above clip called the study a “blinding glimpse of the obvious”.  “Thank you for wasting five minutes of my life,” he wrote.  

Actually, the negative impact of power on collaboration is barely recognized and not at all understood.  Otherwise, why would we continue to entrust the critical issues of our lives to groups of high power people on boards, committees, councils, and chambers? 

Fresh out of several years in the UN, in posts with lots of face time with high power people, I assure you:  Awareness that high power teams generally underperform is rare. Even more rare:  people with a clue about what to do about it.

The American electoral and political systems threaten to implode because leaders don’t know how to get high power people to work together and voters seem oblivious.  

Of course our system has checks and balances and many procedural safeguards.  But systems can’t build consensus.  Thinking, caring people have to put planning, time, and heart into the requirements of genuine collaboration, whether in organizations, communities, or nations.

But how?

Seven Strategies to Get High Power People Working Together

1.   Provide clear assignments of roles, tasks, and mandates.
The study found that “groups comprised of high power individuals performed worse because they experienced greater levels of status conflict and used worse group processes. Specifically, groups comprised of high power individuals not only fought over status more but were less focused on the task and shared less information with each other.” (p280) 

So when high power people are being launched on a task, reduce jockeying for power by defining and clarifying tasks, roles, and mandates in advance, as much as possible.  That’s a no-brainer for groups of any kind, really.  But with groups of high-power people it’s particularly important.  For them an undefined structure is an accident waiting to happen.  

2.  Build recognition into the process.
Preoccupation with recognition and status was a dominating concern for the high power participants in the Berkeley study.  You can say nice things about cooperating and deploy brilliant processes to assist it, but all is for naught if you neglect the basic human drive for individual recognition. 

People squabble for power largely because they want to be recognized.  Recognize this need, address it early, and address it continuously if you want collaboration to succeed. This applies to all kinds of people of course. But above all it applies to high power people.

Fortunately, recognition, like respect, is not “zero sum”.  It can be easily created from countless sources and doled out generously  to many people without taking anyway from anyone else. There are multiple ways people can play a role, make valuable contributions, and be recognized for these.

Yet high power people are stingy in recognizing others functioning as their peers.  Left to their own devices, when it comes to recognition, high power people create deserts. Then, like thirsty bandits, they steal water from each other.   

The antidote is pretty simple: build recognition of individuals, their work, and the contributions they think count into the process at all stages.  This starts with basics like creating space at the beginning of work together for participants to properly present themselves and their involvements to others in the group.  It continues by building in windows of time on a regular basis to update these.  

Something else: Divvy out multiple leadership assignments within the group. Leading meetings and serving as nominal group leader are obvious leadership roles.  But there are many more: information gathering, liasing with other people and groups, resource management, public relations, facilities arrangements, etc.    Create a variety of meaningful roles, appoint people to them, and make sure no effort or result goes recognized. 

3.  Talk about process, early in the game.
The final sentence of the study concludes, “It appears that group processes are the major cause for failure when high power individuals must work together in groups.”

The process. Get the process right.  As a conflict resolution professional of 35 years, much of what I do is a variation on this mantra.  I’m often surprised at how poorly understood it is – except, of course, when people are themselves the disregarded in someone else’s bad process.

Funny how being marginalized seems to raise the lights on insights about good process.  Even stranger: How gaining power seems to dim the obvious once again.  .

Does good process guarantee peace?  Of course not, but know this – bad process guarantees conflict and it is a rare day in the hinterlands to encounter tension in or between groups in which bad process was not perceived to be a key cause.

So what’s the right process?  Probably several different approaches would work fine.   The important thing is to talk about and agree on the process before you’re halfway into it. 

Skilled facilitators lead groups in working out an “agreement on process” before diving into things.  They agree on a definition of the issues or task at hand, on purpose or goals of the process, on the stages or timeline of the discussion, and on how decisions (by whom and by what percentage if voting) will be made.

4. Pay special attention to gathering and sharing of information.
A finding of the research is that high power people don’t share information as effectively in group work as low power people. Yes, lack of shared knowledge about the problem and possible solutions makes consensus a  tad elusive! 

A common mistake is to assume information sharing will happen on its own.  That’s rarely the case in any setting and certainly not, the case study confirms, with high power groups.  So special effort is required to encourage that which does not come naturally.   

Designate a special time in meetings or a special phase in an extended discussion process for information sharing.   Additionally, facilitators can help establish norms of information sharing by responding appreciatively when information is shared, holding this up as a model for others.

5. Use second tier negotiations strategically.
A story in NPR suggests an antidote to the squabbling of high power people:  In political and international negotiations, underlings often meet on their own and hammer out a draft deal, before top leaders arrive and finalize things.   

This puts the conduct of negotiation in the hands of people who are less powerful and thus generally have better instincts for cooperation  – and greater skill in it – than high power leaders.  In diagram form, that looks like this.Workaround (1)Not bad, so far as it goes.  But it fails to address another poorly recognized reality of decision making where power is a dynamic.  An additional step is often required. 

6. Encourage “behind the table” talks.
Gaps in communication within each side are a common and poorly recognized block to consensus across the table.   People focus on dynamics across the table and assume implementation will follow nicely once agreement is secured there.  Warning signs of trouble within the ranks are overlooked, with the result that leaders are sometime blindsided by opposition from places they least expect, often just as success at the table appears imminent.

High power people chronically over-estimate levels of internal support and their own ability to bring subordinates into line.  Odds are they will need to be nudged to invest the effort and time into internal consultation and consensus-building that will be required to enable agreements to move forward. 

7. Build consultation with impacted constituencies into negotiation processes.
A common strategy about which David Straus and others have written is to design talks as an “accordion process”.   Sub-meetings are set up – between sessions of high power people – in which groups affected by the issues under discussion are consulted.


An Accordion Process complicates some aspects of decisionmaking. But agreements achieved are more likely to be ratified and supported as a result.  As a veteran of complex public planning processes in South Africa once said to me, “It’s going slow in order to go fast”.

In settings where large personalities overshadow all else, accordion processes help restore balance to group life and decisionmaking.  They facilitate engagement, involvement, and thus ownership at multiple levels among diverse actors, thereby providing a corrective to the polarizing, self-aggrandizing, you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me style of some high power people.

High power, large personality people remain part of the picture, but their ability to swamp everything and everyone else diminishes.  From accordion processes emerge fine, complex webs of diverse relationships that activate a large range of human capacities essential to healthy societies.

Not nearly all issues and decisions merit the level of attention provided by Accordion processes.  But selective use on a regular basis brings many rewards in the form of enhanced group morale, expansion of skills for collaboration, and ultimately, greater quality and efficiency of decisionmaking.

Just as important, Accordion processes bring home another realization. Besotted by the empowerment that comes with life enhanced by devices tuned to our every individual want, modern people live in danger of losing an important awareness:  We are not only one, we are many.

When communal structures are neglected and languishing, life as individuals is wretched.   When connection and common purpose with others are lost, existence has little meaning.

And when people experience connections so rarely, how can we blame them for not bothering even to try to attain it?  Strong processes do more than improve group performance.  In giving a taste of the possible, they shape the vision and hopes we pass on to those who follow.

Signup for blog posts by Ron Kraybill on the intersection of conflict resolution and human potential in the right margin of this post or click here.

Ron Kraybill, PhD, has worked as an in-residence peacebuilding advisor and trainer in South Africa, Lesotho, the Philippines, Ireland and other locations for the United Nations, Mennonite Central Committee, and other organizations since 1979.  He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and blogs at   Copyright Ron Kraybill 2016.  All rights reserved. May be reproduced so long as this statement of authorship is included and links are made to

Facilitation in the Digital Age

What’s your experience of meetings?

“They’re boring.  They’re useless. Everyone hates them. Digital_meeting  So why can’t we stop meetings?”  laments a recent article in the New York Times,  “Meet is Murder.”

Research by Fuze, a telecommunications company, finds organizations spend 15% of their staff time in meetings.  For upper level managers, it’s 50%!  Yet meeting facilitation methods in most organizations are clumsy and out-of-date.

That needs to change.  As online meetings become more common and participants separated by miles increasingly gather electronically, inept facilitation becomes intolerable.  The digital age raises the priority of skilled meeting facilitation for organizations.

Why? To get things done in remote meetings, with people connected only through the thin linkages of screens and speakers, facilitators have to provide extraordinarily high levels of guidance and control.  Being proactive and assertiveness is paramount.  Facilitators must keep participants who are in multiple locations on the same page, prevent awkward silences and verbal collisions, and guide the group through appropriate and efficient problem-solving and decisionmaking approaches.

On both self-assertive and other-oriented:
Facilitate with high assertiveness, yet simultaneously
support the people involved?
It’s a stretch that will really make you grow.

And assertiveness is only half the story –  high support for the people involved is also required. Lack of physical proximity robs digital interaction of warmth. Facilitators must amp up existing skills and learn new ones to satisfy, at least to some extent, the longing for recognition and connection that makes human beings willing to put in  the effort that successful meetings require.

Being simultaneously assertive and supportive is paradoxical.  It requires a combination of skills that don’t come naturally to everyone.  But fortunately, building such skills for meeting facilitation is low-hanging fruit, offering one of the easiest ways to improve morale and effectiveness of your team or organization.   A modest investment of training time in a group of facilitators in your organization can rather quickly upgrade meeting dynamics.

The paradoxical requirements for online facilitation correspond to the conflict style that my Style Matters conflict style inventory refers to as a Cooperating style, and the Thomas Kilmann inventory calls a Collaborating style.   Ability to use this style is important, of course, for leaders in all kinds of settings.  But if your team works remotely and meets on digital devices like phone or video, it’s foundational to success.   

The Cooperating style has two key components:  Commitment to tasks or goals and commitment to relationships.   In the diagram below, you see how that combination differentiates it from other styles of dealing with issues and making decisions.  It is the only style with a high commitment both to goals and to relationships (slideshow with details here).

Styles of Facilitation diagram

That’s an unusual blend.   You have to be assertive and push for your goals to meet the first requirement.  Yet you have to be attentive, flexible, and considerate to meet the second.   Self-assertion is a different energy than affirmation of others.

But it can be done, both in conflict and in meeting facilitation.  Below is a real-life clip of a facilitator leading a group through a 7 minute standup meeting.  I know nothing about this group, but their “Daily Huddle” demonstrates things worth noticing.

Granted, that meeting has a limited purpose.  It’s little more than an information-packed hello to the day, neither a model for decisionmaking, nor, let us hope, a foreshot of all meetings of the future.  But in a short span of time we see several key aspects of Cooperative style facilitation:

Designated leader, clearly in charge.   Facilitating in the Cooperating style requires the facilitator to actively guide and shape the process of interaction.  He opens things crisply and guides the group smartly through several phases, backed at point by references to visual support materials.  He’s in control of the process (not content, mind you) the whole time.

Clear, agreed structure for the meeting.   The overall framework is clear and supported by all.  Obviously they’ve been doing this for a while and everyone knows what is expected.  The facilitator exercises strong, assertive leadership in guiding the group through the familiar framework.  No one knows every detail of the agenda of course.  Unexpected things happen.     But the framework is understood – the facilitator moves things briskly along and the group do their part by keeping things brief.  

Preparation and succinctness.People have prepared, including visual points of reference.  They are disciplined in being focused and brief, starting with the facilitator.  It ought to be this way in face-to-face meeting, too, but it has to be this way for digital gatherings to be effective.   Achieving focus and brevity requires effort and practice.  For a while facilitators will need to cue people before meetings to be ready and brief.  Gradually these disciplines become part of the organization’s culture.

Responsiveness to others, modeled by the facilitator and mirrored by all.  I’m not talking about mere politeness – any jack can grit his teeth and make nice.   Notice that the facilitator actually does little talking.  He guides the framework but he mainly sets the stage to help others communicate.  Even as he moves the meeting firmly through its phases, he gives space for people to talk and shape the interaction.

 Participants actively recognize others, including expressions of appreciation and support.   An atmosphere of taking relationships seriously prevails, despite the breathless pace.  That doesn’t happen overnight; it emerges as the culture of a group, over time and only where there is consistent modeling of it by leaders and support for it by key people scattered through the organization.

Lack of physical proximity
robs digital interaction of warmth.
Facilitators must amp up existing skills and learn new ones
to satisfy the longing for recognition and connection
that makes human beings willing to put in the effort
that successful meetings require.


Vast amounts of time are wasted in meetings.  It’s surprisingly easy to change this, but it doesn’t happen by just lamenting long meetings or setting timers.  Meetings have to be led by facilitators skilled at the Cooperating style.  

Yes, other styles of leadership are needed too.  Directing, Harmonizing, Compromising, even Avoiding – all have their place.  But Cooperating, with its unusual combination of assertiveness and supportiveness, is the style that requires thought and practice to master.

A good place to start is building skill in Cooperating in one-on-one personal relationships.  Use the Style Matters inventory or the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument for that.  With that foundation, there are lots of good facilitation guides out there and plenty of facilitation trainers to help learn tools for taking this fundamental awareness into group leadership.

Anyone can drive a group fast through an agenda – just go nazi and forget feelings and relationships.   Anyone can help a group lighten up and have fun – just add a few relational components.

But facilitate with high assertiveness  in meetings and simultaneously attend to the people involved?  That stretch will really make you grow.   Share what you’ve learned about how to achieve it!