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About Ron Kraybill

Chances are you know me as author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory.  You may not know that I’ve spent 40+ years in peacebuilding, often in very challenging circumstances.   That includes living with my family in conflict zones on four continents, sometimes in situations of high danger and always working closely with individuals and groups who were deeply involved in local or national struggles for justice, development or peace. 

I’ve been deeply immersed in a lot of promising things over the years,  ranging from street level work to initiatives with national political leadership.  

Something stands out to me today in my sixties that I couldn’t see in my thirties: the biggest obstacle to doing the work for change, healing, peace, etc.,  is not lack of money, training, or facilities.   

It’s also not lack of vision or hope.

The big limitation I’ve repeatedly encountered in initiatives for healing in our world is the frailties and vulnerabilities of people like me.  

There are big obstacles “out there”.  But there’s another problem that is deeper and more complex:  the struggle of world changers to be the people we want to be, year after year, in situations that are highly stressful. 

I can’t tell you how many promising initiatives I’ve seen get stuck because of tension or competition among those trying to get them going.   People are working towards the same goal, but they end up quarreling anyway.

I can’t tell you how many gifted peacemakers, activists, and healers I know who had to cut way back on their involvements, or leave them entirely, because they had grown exhausted by endless caring that seemed to lead nowhere.   

I’m an expert on burned out world changers because I’m in this group of struggling folks myself!   

The good news is that there are things we can do about this problem and that’s what this blog is about.

When I was in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, I proposed a course called “Transforming the Peacebuilder”.    I taught that course for ten years and found it the most rewarding course I taught.   Student evaluations made it clear they were as deeply touched as I. 

I’ve spent 15 years putting the key insights of that course into a book, due to come out in 2020, Transforming the Healer.   Many of the posts in this section of my blog are excerpts from that.

If you’re interested in traditional CV type info on me, see my LinkedIn profile.  Or send me a request for my full CV at

Harmonize Gracefully


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

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

Why Harmonize?

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

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

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

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

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

Transition phrases for harmonizing on easy issues

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

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

Transition from another conflict style

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

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

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

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

When you’re over-powered or vulnerable

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

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

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

A caution about over-using Harmonizing

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

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

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

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

Honor Harmonizing by others

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

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

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

Parenting Changed My Conflict Style

Part One in a three-part series applying insights from conflict styles to parent-child relationships.  By Laura Bowles, coach and mediator, Style Matters trainer, and founder of The New Normal, LLC

Being a parent changes many things!  For me,  my conflict style was one of those.

On the Style Matters inventory, my highest score in Storm is Harmonizing.  This means that when things get tense, I tend to focus on keeping others happy, and I am quick to let go of my own goals and agendas if necessary to achieve that.   I think of myself as flexible and responsive to others!

Conflict comes with parenting. However, it got complicated when I became a parent. I quickly realized that I couldn’t let go of my agenda all of the time. I have a duty to set boundaries with my kids, and often it’s right to be firm about those boundaries.  You have to wear clothes!  Brush your teeth! Don’t jump into water that’s over your head if you can’t swim!  

Putting yourself last all the time isn’t the answer. I knew from the start that I have to protect my children.  But it took a while to realize that being my best as a parent requires me to also protect myself.  I need to stay healthy.  I need to eat and sleep well.  I need a few moments of quiet in my week.  If I chronically sacrifice such basic requirements in order to keep everyone else happy, I undermine my ability to function and be a good parent, or even a “good enough” parent.  With my first child came far more conflict than I had ever dealt with before, and eventually I realized that trying to keep others happy all the time wasn’t working anymore.

Consider not just the relationship but also the agenda or role you are responsible to carry.  When my son was three and my daughter not even yet one, I was lucky to be introduced to Style Matters for the first time. The concept of weighing agenda and relationship when approaching conflict (explained in 3 minute video at left) gave me language to make sense of many of the challenges I was facing as a parent.  Some of these were internal conflicts, playing out in my head as I struggled with priorities.  Others were external, with my children or others around me. Style Matters gave me insights that helped me become a better, more loving parent.

Recognize there’s a time and place for all five styles. A freeing insight for me in Style Matters was recognizing that there is a time and place for each of the five conflict styles.  Conflict responses that might be exactly right in one situation might be quite damaging in another.  

For example, most of the time I’m eager to support my son in his determination to run and explore freely.  But not along a busy street.  There I insist that he accept my firm grip on his hand.  No matter how he feels about it, in this dangerous place I have a duty to impose rules of safety on him.  I have an agenda!  You can’t be a good parent without using the Directing conflict style with children at times.  The challenge is to achieve what author Ron Kraybill calls “graceful Directing”.  

Cooperating takes thought and practice.  A conflict style I find particularly rewarding is Cooperating, which involves a high commitment both to my own agenda and to the relationship.   Recognizing that the essence of Cooperating is doing these things simultaneously has helped me be more strategic in doing it well.  I find it an interesting challenge to figure out if and how this style can work in difficult circumstances.

For example, when we are getting ready for the day in the morning, I have a big agenda regarding time.   My child, on the other hand, has a different set of needs – to feel connected to me before we part for the day, and to have some power and recognition in our interaction.   These are both important agendas, and they compete!

It is liberating for me to remember that it is possible, and highly desirable with some extra effort on my part, to meet both my needs in full and my child’s needs in full.   Often it’s not a true either/or situation, it’s both.   

So I ask myself:  How can I be playful – or give my child some choices – even as we are hustling around getting ready to rush out the door for a just-in-time departure?

Conflict style awareness has also helped me to be more honest with myself, to see things about my behaviors I didn’t see before.  The goals I hold as a parent seem important to me and I can be quite insistent about them.  As in, the food is hot and ready to eat, so “Come for dinner right now!”  Or sometimes I just want to read my book in peace.   Or there’s a blog post nearly finished and it’s important to get it done.  

In those situations, my dedication to an important goal moves me to act and speak firmly on its behalf.  It’s easy to forget in such moments that my children have needs that are also important –  to be “seen” by their mother, to experience me being truly with them, to feel deeply loved by me, regardless to the state of the house, their room, or the schedule for the day.   When I lose sight of those needs, it’s easy to speak in demanding tones that do not adequately convey my love for them.  

Pondering how to use the Cooperating conflict style helped me to see that I can often be clear and assertive about my needs, but also add things that address a relationship component as well – a softening of tone, a slight increase in flexibility, a touch or hug that reassures.  

It’s not easy to get the right balance.  Sometimes I focus more on my agenda than I would like. Other times, I let relationship goals get in the way when I should stand my ground on an issue. Having this tool for thinking about things doesn’t guarantee I get it right all the time.

But knowing that it is normal and natural for these two components to compete with each other helps me understand why conflicts are inevitable with my children, and gives me strategies to mindfully move through them. 

When I make mistakes or a conflict moves in a direction that I had hoped to avoid,  the conflict styles framework helps me to take a step back and systematically review my options.   A different conflict style might bring a very different result in the next try.

There is a principle in Style Matters that I hope to expand on as my children mature:  Make reflective conversation about conflict responses a routine part of life.  As in: “I think I was a little too upset with you this morning when you were late for school.  I wish I had found a way to speak more kindly.  What did you think about that?” A comment like that sends a child – or an adult partner – two important messages: 1) I care deeply about you (even when I may not always sound that way) and 2) It’s helpful to come back later and talk about what happens in times of conflict.

Are you interested in bringing Style Matters to your parent group, or simply want to improve your conflict competency in personal parenting?  Contact Laura at or sign up here for a free consultation. 

Tutu Led by Sharing His Power

The passing this week of Archbishop Desmond Tutu brings a flood of memories of an amazing man and a remarkable chapter in history.  I was in South Africa from 1989 to 1995 and witnessed him in action on many occasions.   

For anyone committed to leading peaceful change in organizations, communities, or nations, there’s much to learn from Tutu’s life about how to be effective in human transformation.


In the framework of conflict styles, Tutu was strong in multiple styles.  He was often pushy – the Directing style. 

But he was just as often the opposite – gentle, sensitive, and caring – the Harmonizing style.

Often he was both at once!  In conflict styles language, that’s the Cooperating or Collaborating style, simultaneously committed to one’s own agenda and to the agendas of others.  So he was bold, strong, and outspoken as a leader for justice, yet consistently compassionate and responsive to the needs of others, including the white communities who in the beginning despised and feared him. 

There were many wonderful consequences.  One was he was earned the trust and respect of many South Africans, including many whites, and he was often a bridge between groups in volatile situations (including, late in his life, warring politicians in an electoral conflict in neighboring Lesotho).

Perhaps even more important, his Cooperating style helped unify his own fractured constituencies.  A largely unrecognized reality of longstanding social and political conflict is polarization within each side.  Wherever there’s a big liberation or political struggle (including here in the US right now) you will find deep division among supposed “partners in arms”.   South Africa’s liberation movement was terribly, sometimes murderously splintered from the 1970s onwards.

So Tutu’s Cooperating style of leadership was a tremendous gift of unity to the movement itself.  He initiated many things, but he never owned them.  He worked hard, but he didn’t clamor for credit.  He delegated leadership and authority. 

This week I’ve spoken with several South African friends from my years there.  I am struck by how many feel they played a key role in Tutu’s prophetic and nation-changing role.  People feel not only that they were “close to him”, but that they personally contributed in important ways to Tutu’s mission.  This probably reflects the universal human need for recognition. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as close to this noble man?

But there’s more: Tutu was a man of truly generous heart. He stood with boldness in the limelight but he didn’t hog it. You never doubted, seeing him in action, that he was in this for others, not for gratification of his own ego.

He didn’t have to be at the center of everything. He made space for others to lead. He delegated key tasks and commissioned people to carry out key missions mandated and supported by his office. Some leaders do this in a way that makes every effort an extension of their own ego, but Tutu wasn’t like that. He inspired and empowered and released people to do the work that needed to be done.

I suspect dozens of people across South Africa feel that they personally played a special role in the evolving prophetic ministry of Desmond Tutu! He didn’t hoard credit, recognition, or power, rather he made it easy for others to share in them.  All with whom he worked came to feel they held a stake in the goodness he brought into the world.

On a personal note: Though in gatherings where Tutu spoke from time to time, I never worked directly with “the Arch” in my South Africa years.  But later, in 2012 he accepted the request of Heads of Churches of Lesotho, with whom I was working at that time, to help secure commitment of politicians to an Electoral Code of Conduct.  I’ve published memories from my journal of an amazing day at this link.

How to Manage Your Storm Shift



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

What is a Storm Shift?

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

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

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

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

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

View this Real Life Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Manage Your Storm Shift

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

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

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

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

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

Use this tool to talk about COVID19



With COVID19 cases rocketing once again, old questions return.    We are all inescapably affected by the behaviors of others on this so we have to work out the answers with other people around us. 

As much as possible, we need to do this through dialogue. In my Style Matters framework that’s the Cooperating conflict style; Thomas and Kilmann call it Collaborating. Solutions achieved through dialogue garner more support and trigger less resistance than solutions imposed from above.

Cooperating as a conflict style involves responding in ways that are both assertive about our own needs and supportive of the needs and perspectives of others.   (For a quick visual over-view of the conflict styles framework and how Cooperating fits in, see this slide show). That’s a tricky combo.  The rewards can be enormous, but it  requires skill and commitment to pull off. 

Needed: Tools for structuring dialogue.  When working with numbers of people you can greatly raise the odds of successful use of Cooperating if you use tools for structuring dialogue.  A well-chosen tool does the heavy lifting of facilitation –  enabling people to express their views clearly and respectfully to each other, and doing so in a way that seems almost effortless.

Forget COVID19 for a moment: It’s a no-brainer that everyone who lives or works with other people needs simple tools for dialogue at their fingertips all the time.  As a leader of almost any kind, you’ll get more done and feel less anxious about controversies if you have several at the ready for moments when heat rises.  There are plenty of them out there on the web.  Or you can invest in my little book, Cool Tools for Hot Topics, which packs summaries of about 35 such tools into a slender six dollar volume. 

Dolan’s Know Your Number Scale for structuring discussion about COVID19 risks.  Carrie Dolan, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at University of Virginia, has devised a simple technique to help people talk about managing COVID19 protections.  Her Know Your Number Scale is a simple one-to-five scale to helps people talk about their personal risk level and its implications for behavior. 

In a short NPR interview Dolan says we need to improve ability to communicate about personal risk levels.  She says if we do not, we will not be able to stop the spread of COVID19.

Using the scale helps eliminate “the judgement factor”, as Dolan puts it, as people communicate about their needs and feelings regarding risk of exposure to the virus. Everybody has certain risk factors they must consider for themselves. The scale helps people review these and communicate their wishes clearly to others. In group and team settings, people can then more easily decide how to conduct themselves with others and feel less anxious and upset.

Her scale has five levels of attitude towards risk, from the most most lax (Level 5) to the most conservative (Level 1).  
Level 5 – These people consider themselves at very little risk.  Due to age, general good health,  vaccination, or any other reason, they feel safe to move around freely without concern about masking or other safety measures.
Level 4 – Feel fairly risk-free; they are moving around in the world, but with precautions.
Level 3 – Feel risk-free only in certain carefully controlled settings.  They limit their interactions and their movements strategically.
Level 2 – Have other serious health challenges or interact with people who do and must be protected.
Level 1 – Have serious health concerns; are not leaving their house or interacting with others at all. 

I’ve slightly re-worked Dolan’s framework into the following:

You could use it in a meeting, on Zoom or in-person, and invite people to share the level they are in.

In an in-person meetings, you could use this chart with the dialogue tool known as the Spectrum.   Ask people to choose a number from the chart that describes  them.  Then sketch out an imaginary spectrum in the room, say from front to back or side to side.  Ask everyone to get up and walk to a place on the spectrum that corresponds to their choice.   

In a few seconds you will have a physical representation of the risk tolerance of the entire group sketched before your eyes.  You can take it in various directions from here.  You could:

  • Invite people to share with others near them why they are standing where they are.  This is a good place to start if there is a lot of tension in the group about the issue, for in the smaller sub-groups of like-minded people that will form, people will feel safer to express their views.   Giving people an opportunity to talk about where they are personally in a space that feels safe to them is always a good place to begin.
  • Invite people to call out why they are standing where they are.
  • Walk down the line as facilitator and invite various people to explain why they are standing where they are (with the whole group listening to your exchanges.
  • Without discussion, ask people to go back to their seats and continue a discussion from there.

A different way to use Dolan’s framework would be to simply introduce it to people who work together and encourage them to use it in their conversations with each other about masking.  

Bear in mind that it is not by itself a decision-making process.  It is a tool for dialogue that can play a key role in decisionmaking.  But if your goal is to make a joint decision, you will have to add a component for that.

The Know Your Number Scale highlights people’s differing sense of risk and would be particularly useful in dialogue about masking.  But it’s clear that right now there’s an even more volatile issue taking the fore: vaccine refusal is prolonging the pandemic and jeopardizing everyone by providing ample space for the vaccine to mutate into more virulent form.  Heat is rising rapidly on this issue, and pressure is building to impose costs of some kind for not vaccinating.   

This reminds us that it is not possible to use Cooperating as a response to all conflicts all the time.   Situations do arise in which the goal of protecting the majority can be achieved only if we are willing to sacrificing good relationships and cooperation with a minority.   It’s a tough call to know when to deploy the Directing style, as we call it in the conflict styles framework.   

I think we are very close to such a moment now.  The costs to all of pandering to the resistant minority are indescribably high, potentially life-threatening to many (since delays in vaccination prolong the period in which the virus is able to use unvaccinated people as a lab for uninhibited development of even more deadly variants that can outwit all present immunities).

But we should not switch abruptly to a non-relational, coercive Directing response.   That will trigger massive resistance and backfire.  Rather, we should give high priority to dialogue-based responses (Cooperating) like the above and as our core strategy.  Even if we feel compelled to ramp up Directing responses, we should not abandon these;  we can and should have a two-style response.   

And rather than trying to coerce people into vaccination, we should instead focus on reducing access to the benefits of community membership to those who choose not to accept the will of the community.   Make demonstration of vaccination a requirement for participation in public events.   Make certain public and employer benefits contingent upon having received vaccination, etc.   We shouldn’t be telling people what to do with their own lives, but neither should they expect to have the public subsidize the costs of their unwise choices.

Needed: Tools for dialogue about vaccinating!  The Spectrum described above could easily be adapted for this.  What tools have you seen work well to structure conversation about vaccinating?


Things fall apart. How to respond?

These are scary times, and it’s not just COVID19.  Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory.  Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers.  Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace.  It is not exaggerating to say that  the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.  

What can we do about it?  The causes are many; there will be no single solution.  High on the list of essential responses, I believe,  must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus.   But how?

Our methods of making decisions and resolving conflict are out-dated.

Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, “the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis.” (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)

Like it or not, there’s no going back to the old ways of leading and managing.  We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels. 

But there’s a big obstacle. 

We think “they” are the problem.  Nope, it’s patterns we all share.

With our out-dated expectations and skills for dealing with differences, we easily blame “them” for our perilous situation.  In the sketch below, I represent “us” and “them” as two sides, brown and blue, each with its own leaders, grassroots, and middle leader influencers.  Both sides are focused on a massive divide separating them. 


The divide is real.  But it’s more a symptom than a cause.  To get out of this mess we must focus on causes.

The problem is not the issues piled up on the table between us.  Nor is it simply the bad behavior of the other side.  Instead we should focus on addressing this: The habits (assumptions, practices, expectations, skills) that guide how institutions and leaders  go about making decisions and solving problems are from fifty years ago.   

Here’s a reality that stands in the background: All groups, in all times and places face on-going decisions and conflicts internally.  There’s competition for power within every group. Also hurts, slights, disappointments, and resentments.  

We had a system that worked, sort of, in the past. The top-down approaches (leaders-talk-others-listen) that pervaded our institutions in the last century enabled leaders and institutions to resolve or contain problems as they arose.  

Top-down approaches don’t work anymore but we use them anyway because it’s the only response we really know.


So what to do about it?

Start at home, within our own networks.

There is a widespread belief that where conflict symptoms appear is the place to address a problem.  Nope. Dysfunctional conflict emerges where there are gaps of skill and analysis among those in key leadership roles. This results in bad patterns taking root all around. Leaders get mired in chronically unresolved conflicts: a) among themselves; b) between themselves and those they lead, c) among those who depend on them for leadership and mentoring, and d) with organizations in the environment.

You can’t fix that mess by mediating. The bad patterns soon overwhelm any progress you might make on specific issues. 

We can’t fix the big divide on the table between brown and blue, for example, by setting up dialogue at the table.  New understandings and skills for leadership, problemsolving, and conflict resolution have to be implemented internally first, on both side of the big divide.  

Institutions and groups today are made up of individuals who expect a lot of say in decisions affecting their lives. Leaders require a new understanding of their role and a new set of skills to pull this off.  They have to learn, and practice these skills and strategies internally, among the people they trust most, before they can deploy them in riskier settings.

Unity within a faction or party helps stabilize the entire system. Years ago a leading South African businessman told me: “I was very threatened by unionization when it first started. But eventually I saw that unions were easier to deal with. We used to have big problems with wildcat strikes and constant chaos. Unions brought order to the workers side. We know who to talk to, and we know that when we make a deal with the union reps, they’ll make it work.”

Diversify and expand the skill set of leaders.

A big danger for this moment is the temptation to seize on simplistic answers.  Eg: if top-down leadership doesn’t work any more, then bottom-up consensus must be the answer.  

Nope again. You can’t do bottom-up consensus on everything. Participatory processes take time and energy, and resources. Not all issues merit the costs; not all require the lavish resources involved. If we seize on participatory approaches to leading and solving problems as the solution to all problems, we’ll wear out and fail. The result will be reduced willingness to use participatory approaches at all.

We need flexibility in our responses. Some decisions merit all-hands-on-deck participation. But others should be dealt with by executive action. Some conflicts require us to be engaged and assertive; others should be delayed or avoided. Some merit a smile and quick assent to demands; others require haggling and compromise.

Our goal must not be to completely eliminate top-down leadership and the skillset that comes naturally with it.  Rather it must be to expand skill sets, so leaders don’t over-rely on top-down. One of the reasons I continue to invest a lot of energy in the Style Matters conflict style framework is that it teaches flexibility of response and gives leaders a tool to quickly recognize and evaluate a range of responses to conflict.  (View short “Intro to Conflict Styles” slide show here.)

Do joint process design.

In conflict facilitation involving numbers of people we give a lot of attention to good process design.  As early as possible, we consult with key people, sometimes gathering them in the same room, to get their input on questions like: What are the key issues here?  Who do they affect? What are the needs and goals for the people affected?  How to appropriately involve those people?  Who will make the final decisions regarding whatever decisions we undertake and what decision-making procedures will they use?

After getting input on those questions we work carefully, jointly with key actors, to design a process of discussion that is understood and accepted by those involved.   It’s called “agreeing on procedure”.  If you do this before jumping into deep discussion and decisionmaking of the issues, a sustainable outcome is more likely. 

That’s easier said than done!  But it’s remarkably helpful in getting things off to a good start and avoiding mistakes that are hard to undo later.

An instinct we need to hone now in institutions and leadership is to pay attention to good process design.   As we find our way with the new skill sets required today, we can’t just assume that the old approaches will work and be accepted by others.   We need to talk with those we disagree with – and those we are leading in decisionmaking activities – about how to go about resolving the differences that confront us.

Equip people around you with new skills.

We can’t get through this time with the same old approaches.   And new ones won’t just throw themselves at us.  Every institution, whether political, community, business, or religious should be investing thought and time in re-tooling.  

For many years I’ve used the diagram below to sketch out areas of competency.  Each of those layers can be taught and learned with resources available online, or with the help of schools, coaches, consultants, trainers, or mentors.  There’s no lack of learning tools and strategies!  For expanded commentary on this pyramid, see my blogpost on it.

Don’t be daunted by the scope of potential skills.  Nobody masters them all!  We need an expanded pool of leaders competent in the bottom five or six layers.  Part of our current problem is that we have a large number of people functioning in the upper layers who have almost no skills or awareness in the lower layers. 

It’s not necessary to start at the bottom and proceed in a nice smooth flow up through those layers.  Start with what’s within reach. Conflict styles training, for example, jumps in on levels two and three, which are about interpersonal conflicts.   But work here gives lots of opportunities to raise issues about level one, and to prime people for becoming more effective mediators or facilitators, the levels above.

Or maybe you start with a workshop on group facilitation, level five.  That’s a great lead-in for additional work on listening and other interpersonal conflict resolution skills.  The point is, you don’t have to have a nice orderly progression.  Wherever you teach, lead, consult, or administer, build awareness in the people you work with that there is a useful set of skills they can learn and use for decision-making and conflicts of all kinds.  Help them get on a lifelong journey of learning.

Starting with work within the parties in conflict seems longer and slower than just going for the issues between them.  But sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, and I think that’s the case now. 

Copyright 2021, by Ron Kraybill,  You may quote from or use this post in entirety if you include the preceding credit info.


Take Charge Gracefully

Take charge and direct in relational ways
Sometimes you have to be pushy in conflict.  You have to say No! and really mean it, insist that people step back, or lead in a direction others resist.   If you are not able to do this, you will someday be taken advantage of or violated in ways that hurt and handicap you, for years. 

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

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

In this post, second in a series on the five styles of conflict, I show you how to balance nice and tough, using transition phrases for being pushy in challenging situations.  These are phrases you’ve prepared in advance of stormy moments to help you gracefully initiate a conflict style that is challenging to pull off.

General Principles for Graceful Directing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Transition Phrases for Graceful Directing

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

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

Provide information about what is needed.  Except for emergencies (a surgeon battling to save a life must issue orders and act, not stand and patiently explain strategy to team members), the goal in using Directing should be to create maximum opportunity for winning compliance of others on the basis of understanding and cooperation rather than coercion. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * 

Ninjas of Graceful Directing

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

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

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

Directing ninjas have a different way.  They are so graceful that, even when they must turn up the volume of assertiveness, others experience them as relational.   For bringing grace to places where gruffness often rules, ninjas deserve hearing our appreciation.  Most of them labor unrecognized.  Many don’t themselves recognize the value of the gifts they bring to the world.    Notice what they do; thank them for asserting and leading graciously.  Learn from their example!


Avoid Conflict Gracefully


Sometimes when there’s a conflict, the best thing to do is say nothing and just drift away.  Or say firmly, “Let’s not take that on right now. ”  If you’re good at selective conflict avoidance, you will have a greater sense of order and control in your life, and you will have more time and patience for the issues most important to you.

This post is the first in a series to help  you expand your skill with the five styles of conflict interpersonally or in leadership.  In each post I’ll show you several transition phrases for one particular style – in this post for Avoiding. Each of the five styles of conflict in Style Matters – which are similar to those found in the venerable if now out-dated Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument – will feature in posts that follow.

Not everyone needs this post!  It’s especially for people who find conflict Avoiding difficult or scored low in Avoiding in their score report.  If you scored high, other posts in the series will be more useful to you. 

Why Transition Phrases?

We manage conflict better if we choose our responses in moments of storm, rather than blindly react.  

But that’s easier to say than to do.  Frustration and rising anger handicap our rational, choice-making upper brain and activate the reactive lower  brain.  By the time we pause and pay attention to what’s going on, we may already be pretty far down the path of reptilian brain takeover.   

In these moments, it helps to have a few transition phrases on the tip of the tongue to help transition to a different conflict style.  If you prepare now, in a time of calm, you will be more successful – and graceful – in deploying the conflict style of your choice in storm.  

A transition phrase empowers your rational brain with key words that help it maintain control in dicey moments as the lower brain gets activated.  With a little practice you’ll soon express the intention behind the phrases spontaneously.

Transition Phrases for Avoiding

Avoiding has huge benefits and huge weaknesses, summarized below.  This post is for those situations where you’ve thought it through and decided Avoiding is the right response.

Of course, an easy way to avoid is to say little or just disappear.   But sometimes that’s not an option and you have to say something.   This is especially common if you’re leading or coordinating a group of people.

Metaphors useful in constructing an avoiding response include:  set aside the issue, not go into that, maintain focus on (something else), give priority to (something else) delay or postpone discussion; wait until the time is right (or we have the energy required, the time needed, etc.), think things through, agree to disagree.

Sample transition phrases: 

Let’s set that issue aside for another time.  (Or similarly: Let’s save that for another time.)

I’d rather not open that up right now.

Sorry, I’m not ready to discuss that right now.  I think we’d better stay focused on (whatever other task or topic is in play) for now and deal with this (contentious) question later.

I’d like to give priority to (some other task or activity requiring attention) right now and not start a discussion of that at this moment.

I agree that we need to discuss that, but I’m too (tired, stressed, distracted, upset, anxious, etc.) to take it on right now. Could we agree on another time to discuss it? 

I will be a much better partner in discussing that if I take some time to think it through.  Could we put it aside for now and discuss it later?

Maybe we just need to agree to disagree on that.

Whatever transition phrases you choose, they should roll easily off your tongue and feel natural to you.  From the words and  sentences above, pick those that seem most useful.  Edit and change them to fit you.  Then memorize and review them so you can use them without hesitation when Avoiding seems like the best response.   

Soon the concepts behind the phrases will take root in your brain and you’ll find your own spontaneous words for a request to Avoid without a second thought. 

Avoiding gracefully is essential for leaders

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

The same goes for the other conflict styles.   Every ounce of grace that you master in use of conflict styles interpersonally will serve you well organizationally!  

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Conflict Resolution Trainer & Gun Lover

You know me as a peace process guy, a conflict resolution trainer, an author of peace training materials. You don’t know this: I love guns.

As far back as I can remember, guns stood in the corner of the pumphouse on the family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Carrying a 12 gauge shotgun down rows of corn on a chill Saturday morning in October, with our terrier on the prowl and all my teenage senses tuned to the hunt, thrilled me. With the deadly power in my hands I could bring home a pheasant or rabbit if I was quick enough. I felt grownup, part of the world of men.

So in 1993, in a remote training camp in the high veld above Pretoria, on the third day of a course in conflict resolution for police in the new South Africa, when smiling officers came during morning break and asked if I’d like to go out on the firing range, I instantly said yes. 

I wasn’t sure what they had in mind. But soon as I jumped into their van after lunch, I knew. A pile of weapons and ammunition sprawled across seats and floor. Three burly police trainers grinned at me knowingly. We were boys in a toy store and my heart was pounding.

We started with rubber bullets, in two varieties.  One was a heavy chunk of rubber an inch and a half in diameter and over 3 inches long.  I had seen these fired at protesters and witnessed a colleague take a direct hit a year ago as a peace monitor working a chaotic line between police and protesters.  She limped into the office the next day with an angry welt on her thigh the size of a saucer.   Centered in dark purple was a perfectly round, pure white circle larger than a quarter, exactly the size of the rubber bullets I was now firing.

Then to more lethal crowd control, hard blue plastic balls the size of marbles, with a metal core.   In their shotgun shell casing, they had the same ready-for-action look that had intrigued me about the pumpkin ball slugs I remembered from deer hunting in my youth. 

On to birdshot in a 12 gauge shotgun.   This brought memories of my first experience with shooting at the age of twelve.  I was so focused on holding the long, heavy weapon level and and steady that I neglected to secure it tightly against my shoulder.  Its kick hurled it up and over my head to the ground, leaving me with a bruised ego and a sore shoulder for a day.  

Now on the firing range, after two shots with this familiar weapon I was ready to move on to more exotic ones.  But the magazine held 10 rounds. The police trainer insisted, as a matter of protocol he said, for this and all weapons that day, that I fire every round. As I braced myself with manly deliberation and squeezed off another eight rounds, I wondered how my shoulder would feel tomorrow.

Then we graduated to weapons I’d rarely seen and never fired.  The Uzi machine gun, I wrote in my journal that evening, was “wonderfully light, compact, and maneuverable, elegant as a laptop computer.”   Then R4 and R5 rifles, South African automatics of similar caliber to the American M16. 

Long belts of ammo for each. No worries about kick now – they’re low-recoil rifles!   T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t, an axis of power dancing sweetly on my shoulder, my authority radiates into the beyond!

I keep these on a shelf in my office as a reminder of what I learned on the firing range. The work of building a peaceful world is not just about reducing dependency on weapons. It is also about addressing the longings of heart and soul that drive us to misplaced hope in weapons.

Next ten rounds with a Beretta pistol.   I’d had a recurring dream for years about shooting an unknown invader with a pistol.  I wondered as I fired at a human shaped target 30 yards away if this real life experience would feed or extinguish the dream.  For someone who hadn’t fired a gun for twenty years, I turned out to be a pretty good shot, coming within inches of my target with the pistol, as I had with the rifles at 125 yards.

We concluded with smoke grenades, CS riot gas, stun grenades, and tracer bullets shot by a light machine gun.   With a range of 800 meters, nearly half a mile, the latter didn’t seem so light to me. It required a strong arm to raise and aim, until I laid prone on the ground and used the short bipod on the muzzle.   I felt something close to omnipotence sending a deadly arc high into the mountain towering above the far end of the range.  

I loved every minute of that hour on the firing range.  As a lifelong tinkerer, I relished the mechanical elegance of the deadly tools in my hands.   I respected that each was a highly crafted device, the product of years of experimentation and creative thought, and beneficiary of endless rounds of improvement.

Even more, I loved the sense of power I felt with precise and mighty machines in my hands.   I loved that I could stand here, in one place, aim at something far away, and with a slight squeeze of a finger, obliterate it. 

Perhaps most of all, I loved the camaraderie I felt with the police officers. In the methodical receiving and handing back of powerful and uncommon weapons, I felt part of a privileged club.   I was an honored man among a highly skilled elite. 

By the time we finished, I felt that I’d survived – no, thrived – in a kind of brotherly test that had morphed into a ritual of belonging.  I was an insider.  When we returned to the training venue and the trainers described my skill to their beaming colleagues, my relationship with the whole group was sealed.

And my conscience was seared.   I had spent years teaching skills for nonviolent resolution of conflict.  I’d worked and lived in places where weapons caused indescribable grief.   Even the rubber bullets, the least destructive munition I’d fired, had been routinely used for years to subjugate African communities.  Had I sent precisely the wrong message by going along with these officers, eager to share their toys, in enjoying the thrill of weapons? 

What did it say about me that I enjoyed it all so much?

More than twenty years later, I am still not sure I did the right thing that day.  But I am grateful for the experience and for things I now see with greater clarity.

I understand something about love of guns. There’s no denying it – I too am drawn to powerful weapons.

I also came to understand something about why.  Wielding, firing, managing elegant and powerful devices refined to respond to my control is fun. 

But the biggest thrill, I now see in retrospect, came not from the weapons but from things that came to me through them.   For that hour, for the rest of that day, I felt powerful, capable, connected, esteemed; luxuriously so.

Guns get a grip on the psyche because they offer a quick, intense shortcut to things we’d all like to feel more often. 

And it doesn’t take Solomon to recognize that quick thrills don’t last. Nor can you sustain healthy lives or personal security around them.  In the end only a rich web of equitable relationships, personal involvement in meaningful work, and an undergirding sense of sustaining spirituality can truly satisfy.   

I do not doubt that some who own and use guns possess all three of those in generous measure.  But in the shrill, defiant voices of many I hear something different – pre-occupation with guns as a bulwark against fear, as a symbol of meaning. 

This is misplaced hope; a mark of inner shortcutting.   No devices, deadly or otherwise, no matter how numerous or powerful, can bring peace or meaning to those whose lives are empty of things that endure. 

Loyalty and  memories of long ago cornfields brought me some years ago to pass along to my son a shotgun from my grandfather.  Today I’d probably discard it.   I’ve seen too many lives and families destroyed by weapons to have any interest in keeping one in my own home.  Statistics show that my family is safer without a gun under our roof.

I no longer dream about firing at an unknown invader with a pistol.   But I confess that I am still intrigued with weapons, a reminder, I take it, of spaces in heart and soul that still long for shortcuts.  I’m in this thing for life.

Ron Kraybill has worked in peacebuilding on five continents at local, regional, national, and international levels since 1979 and blogs at  His Style Matters conflict styles training tool is used throughout the world to help users assess and optimize their responses to conflict.  Reach him at