Category Archives: Uncategorized

Use Silence in Facilitating

What can a facilitator do with an extremely persistent person, who refuses to stop interrupting others in mediating or facilitating?  In my last post I stressed the importance of stepping up early in proceedings to establish that groundrules must be kept.  Jump on any first violations and then relax a bit later, not the other way around.

Several readers pointed out that in the situation I was referring to, the interrupter would probably not have been restrained by such facilitator efforts.  Very possible.  So we have to ask, what then?

Of course, it is always an option to simply close a fraught session.  I am more effective as a facilitator when I am prepared to bring closure gracefully at any time.  I will mention closure as a possibility to parties if necessary, for the threat of it often changes their behavior.  But I need to mean it and be prepared to smoothly execute it in order for the specter of closure to have real impact on parties.

But closure is closure.  It is not a tool for changing the dynamics of the meeting we are in.   As a facilitator, I am prepared for closure but I want to maximize all possibilities for transforming this into a rule-governed exchange.

There is a powerful tool that facilitators can deploy to great benefit: strategic use of silence.  Veteran teachers knew this long ago;  the rest of us have to work on it!

One use of silence is simply to interject it in exchanges with disputants:  “Mr. Interrupter, (silence for 2-3 full seconds, with steady but non-aggressive gaze directed his way), I need to ask you to observe the ground rule that has been established for this debate, not to speak when it is not your turn.”  And then proceed with the debate.

I would try that, but I am not so hopeful that it would have had a great impact here.   In this situation I think I would then have followed up by using silence in the following way: “Mr. Interrupter, the terms of this debate include a ground rule not to interrupt when the other person is speaking.   It’s my duty to you and to those observing to ensure that ground rules are followed.  You seem to be having a great deal of difficulty with this.  I need to ask you now to recommit to it so that we can continue, and if you cannot, I will be compelled to call a pause in this conversation.   Please, take a few seconds in silence and think about this.  And then I’d like to hear your reply. “

I would then immediately busy myself with things on my desk for a few seconds – before turning back to the offender with, “Sir, are you ready to proceed with the ground rules as agreed?”
I would not allow the offender to ignore the question.  If he refuses to give clear assent, I would call a short break to give everyone a chance to calm down.  In the break I would try to interact briefly with both sides, and  make a decision about whether and how to proceed based on my reading of those conversations.  

There’s no guarantee this will work, of course, and if an offender refuses to observe ground rules, the facilitator has a duty to end the session.   But when we do that, we want to do it in a way that: 1) Conspicuously provides maximum opportunity for the offender to first accept compliance with ground rules and 2) If the meeting must be ended, leaves no ambiguity that it was failure of the participant to observe ground rules that brought the meeting to a close.   

The approach outlined above narrows down the possibility of proceeding to compliance of the offender with ground rules.  It will be apparent to all present who is at fault.   The offender knows this and only the most brazen will so clearly designate himself as the one who failed to cooperate.  

If the offender persists, then the facilitator can calmly, confidently, regretfully but without a trace of spite, announce that it seems clear that the proceedings cannot proceed at this time and bring things to a close.   

When People Interrupt

The problem we saw in tonight’s presidential debate is familiar to any mediator: How do you keep angry people from interrupting each other? Chris Wallace demonstrated clearly tonight that good journalists are not necessary good facilitators!

There’s actually a fairly simple solution. You have to establish a ground rule at the beginning – no interruptions. And you have to enforce it, not after four, five, or six interruptions, but the very first time it happens.

You need to stop the proceedings cold, right there, turn physically towards the interrupter and speak directly and firmly: “Mr. Trump, our ground rule is no interruptions, and we won’t be able to proceed if people don’t stick to it. I need your commitment to support the process. Can you give it?” And then you need to wait silently for the interrupter to give it. In 35 years of mediation and facilitation, I’ve never had a client refuse to do so.

I’ve trained thousands of mediators and seen that the tendency for most mediators, like Chris Wallace tonight, is the opposite. They ignore interruptions at first, hoping they will go away. But they don’t. One interruption will always be followed by more.

Parties size up very quickly whether they can get away with ignoring rules or not. If you give them several experiences of squeezing in their interruptions unrebuked, they see that the rule isn’t really serious, and the problem gets worse and worse.

Once the rule is clearly established – it rarely takes more than one or two interventions like the above – the parties tend to accept the guardrail and behave. You can in fact ease up on strictness later and allow some back and forth without losing control – IF you’ve established the norm early.

We Can Avoid Mask Conflict

There are a lot of stories going around about conflicts over wearing masks.  See for example this account in the New York Times. 
The evidence is now clear that masking makes a huge difference in infection rates.  All we have to do is get everyone to mask properly, and we can drastically reduce the rate of infections and deaths,  without closing down the economy.  It’s a no-brainer.  
So how to get there quickly, without needless conflict?
  1.  Leadership. The first step is clear direction and leadership from leaders.   We have to establish a new norm here, and quickly, friends!   It must start with those in charge – at whatever social level they exist in – fully embracing the need for masking and sending unambiguous signals in support of it.   No hemming and hawing, no “maybe this, maybe that”.  

    Wearing a mask is inconvenient and uncomfortable.   It’s not easy in the best of circumstances to move a population to do this.   There’s no chance of success if leaders don’t lead here, from president on down to the smallest local unit.

  2. Consistent modeling is essential.    Being an outstanding role model is one of the most effective forms of leadership.  No saying one thing and doing another!   Every time leaders appear in settings with other people, they should seize the opportunity to be a visible model of commitment to masking.   To do otherwise is to enable suffering and death. 

  3. Good Signage.  Communicate clear, written expectations of masking, at every turn.   Institutions need to message everyone who enters – from the moment they enter and followed by frequent reminders within – that masking is the norm.   Something clear and simple like “No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service.”   Only with clear, visible written signs about masks as a norm is there a chance of dealing with resisters without drama.   Staff whose job it is to deal with unmasked people can’t be expected to be effective without good public signage.

  4. Followup and monitoring.  What good are signs saying “Masks required” if staff are seen striding around maskless or half-masked? Because this is an awkward, inconvenient new norm, we can’t expect things to change just by issuing new policies and directives.   We must ensure that monitoring and review take place.  It’s a pain, it’s true, but we can’t establish new norms quickly without effort.

Clarity and Consistency Will Go Farther than Combativeness

It’s counterproductive to view every case of an unmasked person walking through the door as the ultimate battle.  Our goal should be to achieve very high levels of masking in a very short period of time, not to compel every dissident to instantly comply in the process of establishing a new norm.

A big angry confrontation with an unmasked person is a bigger threat to health and life of everyone in the environment than allowing a stubborn non-conformist to walk around quietly unmasked. Hyperventilation, shouting, close contact or shoving are inescapably dangerous for all.

Screeners need to be trained to act in light of that fact. The goal should be persistently communicating a clear expectation, not acting like police empowered to coerce.

Training is Essential

Screeners can easily be trained in a simple series of non-coercive responses to violators:
  • Start with clear, friendly, matter-of-fact  (non-confrontational in tone and body language) statements of masking requirements,
  • Escalate as needed by repeating the requirements and adding a direct, polite request not to enter without wearing a mask (if possible helpfully offering a location to get one);
  • Further escalate as needed by: repeating the requirements and informing that entry without masking is a violation of institutional policy; and that you are required to report the incident to management (or by saying that you have to immediately contact management to act on the situation).
Note that the sequence does not end with the screener attempting to physically block a violator.  Granted, there are  situations where the entry of even one unmasked person is highly dangerous and the above sequence would need to then include physical blockage.   In such circumstances screeners need to be trained and well-equipped as security guards or have quick access to such.
But it’s neither realistic nor necessary to expect such high control in most settings.  The battle for masking won’t be won by imposing fortified guards at every portal of public interaction or trying to mandate ordinary staff to act like guards.  Rather we will win it by posting well-prepared screeners throughout our institutions, trained in communicating a clear expectation with minimal confrontation and no physical tussles.
Some screeners need to be trained to turn up their energy and volume to do this effectively; others need to learn to turn it down so as not to be overbearing.   As part of a several hour training program, a conflict style inventory is a highly effective tool in helping individuals recognize their own tendencies and calibrate their responses accordingly.   In a workshop of a few hours, individuals can assess themselves, learn a basic sequence for handling difficult situations, and practice what they are learning in roleplays.     
Israel, Canada, and some other countries impose stiff fines on people who violate rules on social isolation.  They’re showing far better results than the US in slowing the virus.  But whether we go that route in the end or not, we’ll still need screeners and strategies like the above.

Let’s get on with this so we can return to something like the life we all long for!


Lead Conflict Styles Training

This post is for people who want to help a team or group improve their patterns of dealing with conflict.  With the materials here, you can do this without outside assistance, even if you’ve never led a conflict styles workshop before, so long as you’re comfortable leading a group discussion.
The resources below are for use with Style Matters Online, which harnesses digital power to do interpretation that required an expert in the past.  The Style Matters algorithm combs a user’s scores for insights and presents them in a detailed, eight page report that can be easily understood without additional input. 
With this score report, anyone with ordinary group facilitation skills can lead an effective learning experience, drawing on the free resources below.

Conversation to Assist Learning

A feature we’ve added to recent upgrades is suggestions for partners.  Many conflict style assessments (eg: the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) address the user only as an individual.  “Here’s your scores, here’s how you compare to others, here’s what your numbers mean, etc.” 
That’s like clapping with one hand.   Conflict happens in relationships and learning about dealing with it happens best in the context of relationships.  We can start on our own, but in conversation with others is where the real payoffs take place.  
So a section of the Style Matters score report is for conversation with partners or colleagues of the user, and offers a list of suggestions based on the user’s score report for when things are dicey.   The goal is for people in long-term partnerships to review these together, and proactively negotiate patterns of communication that work well in times of difficulty.    

Resources For Trainers

Here’s  what you need to design and implement an effective learning experience with Style Matters Online:

  • Download Trainers Big Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Training.   This free 45 page guide to conflict styles training explains the five styles of conflict, the concepts of Calm and Storm, how to work with the cross-cultural aspects of Style Matters, and provides step-by-step guidance through a workshop.   In addition you need…

  • Download Trainers Small Guide to Style Matters Online.   This free 10 page supplement builds on concepts in the big guide above and applies them to training with the online version.   If you’re just facilitating a conversation, you can get by with just this supplement to design your discussion.  If you’re feeling ambitious and expecting to give inputs as an active trainer role,  you should have both.   

  • View Intro to Conflict Styles slide show, available in either traditional Powerpoint format or dynamic Prezi format.    This short slide show, free for online viewing and available for purchase offline, introduces core concepts of the five styles of conflict and serves as a great prelude to discussion of score reports.

  • Videos.  There are several short videos to help users interpret their scores on our site.   You might want to encourage your users to review one or several of them before a workshop.  You’ll find them useful to you as a trainer as well, for their present key concepts concisely.  

  • Handouts.   If you like to work from handouts, download these.   They’re not required for training with the online version.   But if you have time for them, they’re a solid addition to a workshop. 

  • Tutorial.  The tutorial on our website packs a lot of info about conflict styles into a few pages, on topics like the cross-cultural feature of Style Matters, the Storm shift, interpreting scores, anger management, and more.   

  • Assignments.  If you have students writing papers, see this blog post by Ron Kraybill with several ideas for assignments you could give.

  • Followup.   Conflict responses are habit-based.  Learning new patterns requires repetition.  You can expand the impact of conflict styles learning by spreading it across time, with followup activities and/or homework.  See this  blog on followup activities for ideas.  You can multiply the impact of the whole experience by encouraging people to engage in conversation with those they live or work with.  See this essay for ideas for discussion between individuals.

Healers Call Others-III

(Part III in a series from a forthcoming book, Transforming the Healer)

As we accept the reality of our own pain and struggle, and begin to recognize their universality,  we open ourselves to the voice of the soul.   We hear and feel things we never heard or felt before about our gifts and our strengths.  There is energy within, a nudge to speak out, move, or act in new or different ways.

We also notice things in the world that we never noticed before.  Eventually the inner stirring is confirmed by an opportunity or request from without.  

In the interplay of the inner and outer comes a message:  “You possess the right capabilities to address a particular problem in the world.  You are the one able to offer that which is needed.”

This is Call, a deeply felt motivation to mobilize our own unique blend of interests and abilities to address a particular need in the world.    As the next story shows, transformation is not only about hearing our own Call, but about relating to others in ways that help them hear theirs.  

Transformative Leadership Facilitates Call

Inevitably, the transformative journey calls us into action on behalf of others, for at our highest potential, we care as much about others as ourselves.  If we understand transformation, our response will be different than “helping others” or “fixing their problems.”  We have to help others experience their own sense of Call.

In the 1970s, Macler Shepherd was an African American businessman who ran a furniture repair business in St. Louis.  Hubert Schwartzentruber was a  pastor – recently arrived from Ontario – with a sense of call to serve the city. Determined to mobilize the community for better housing, schools, and services, Schwartzentruber recognized enormous leadership ability in Shepherd.   “When are you going to help your people, Macler?” he would ask when he dropped in to visit.

Shepherd began assisting in organizing community campaigns. He enjoyed this so much and was so effective that he left his business to assistants and began spending his time in community work.  Eventually he sold the business and became full-time director of the largest community development agency in the city, managing projects bringing millions of dollars of investment and development funds into the community.

In the interaction between Shepherd and Schwartzentruber we see transformation at work in several ways.  Responding to the transformational nudgings of his friend, Shepherd allowed himself to move beyond the safe routines of a successful business.  He began to use his ability to plan and lead in ways he had never done before, and from this emerged a powerful Call. From this emerged a new career in community developed that changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

For his part, Schwartzentruber understood the role of being a transformative presence to others.  Rather than burn himself out trying to be the heroic leader of a struggle for justice in a community in which he would always be an outsider, he recognized that he could give more by empowering others to lead in that struggle.  Working quietly, selflessly, and persistently in the relational web of the community he served, Schwartzentruber found a way to be the early voice of the transformative Call that stirred Shepherd.   

Schwartzentruber’s contribution was being a catalyst of transformation in others.   He did this in relationship to an individual, but he impacted a whole community, as the individual whom he interacted with became a leader of many.   Perhaps equally important, he modeled a way of being that lives on in the memory of those who knew him. The transformative values that guided him linger long after his departure.

It took me twenty years of full-time work as a facilitator and trainer of peacebuilding before I could state clearly why I felt uncomfortable with a great deal of what takes place in the field of peacebuilding.   Throughout this time I had close association with – and for nine years, employment by – the Mennonite Central Committee. Alongside relief work and advocacy for justice and peace, MCC does community development, so for a quarter century I had the privilege and challenge of looking at human beings through the eyes of seasoned development practitioners.   

Development is a major industry in our world.  For decades, wealthy nations have sent people, money, and technology to “the South” for “development assistance”.   But the sad truth is that development is a failed industry. The billions spent on development in the last fifty years have largely been wasted and almost certainly benefited donors more than recipients.  Communities that planners once imagined would prosper remain poor. Rusting equipment and vacant buildings litter the globe like monuments to the empty dreams of a generation of “development experts”.  

Why? The reasons are complex, but largely they have to do with a preoccupation with products rather than people.  Development has been understood in material terms, with a goal to build clinics or roads or manufacturing facilities.  The factor key to any sustainable change process, the people affected, have mostly been ignored. Absent transformative strategies, money poured into roads and buildings and new technology is wasted.  Unrecognized, uninformed, uninvolved, and unempowered, the people whom development is intended to assist lose connection to development projects. When money runs out and the outsiders leave, projects die.

To be transformative, development must give first priority to strengthening the ability of communities to take control of their own future, with strategies like listening to local community people about what they see as needs, working closely with local decision-making processes, setting up accountability of projects to local communities, identifying and working with the best of local traditions and resources rather than rushing to import from the outside.  

The truth is that development as widely practiced is mostly driven by the needs and agendas of development organizations and their funders.  The assumption is that outsiders know better than locals the problems that must be addressed and how to address them. It is taken for granted that development workers make decisions for rather than with those who will live with the consequences of those decisions.   

Keenly aware of the failures of most development work, my colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee evolved a different model.  “Your goal should always be to work yourself out of a job,” said John A. Lapp, chief executive of the organization, in his first conversation with me.   Over and over I heard about the “listening/learning stance”, “acknowledging local resources”, “context appropriate technology”, “sustainability”, a “long-term timeframe”.

Those phrases may sound like jargon, but they point to a way of being present to others rarely practiced in our world.   A transformative presence helps others, not by giving them things or making decisions for them, but by building their capacities to address their own problems.   Perhaps most important of all, it strengthens people’s confidence in their own capacity.

This development-oriented approach has pervaded Mennonite peacebuilding approaches in situations of conflict.   In the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, we wrote and regularly revised a one-page summary of principles that guide in designing transformative peacebuilding practice.    In essence, these principles are the application of the best development insights to the design and implementation of peace work. You will find a current version in the sidebar on this page (or at the end of the chapter).   

Underlying these principles is the awareness – much of it arising from the experience of generations of community development work that influenced us – that the key questions determining whether we work transformatively are not whether we are good at planning, persuasive in negotiation, or organized in administration.  These skills assist the creation of peace and other good outcomes, to be sure. But something else determines whether our work is transformative: Is our first commitment to honoring and expanding the existing capacities of those we serve?  

More than half of the principles are about relationships, the only context in which transformation can possibly take place.  Many involve some form of bracketing of self, reducing preoccupation with our agendas as outsiders and focusing instead on the needs and resources of those we serve.  Reflecting the wisdom of sustainable community development work throughout the world, the principles take it as given that decision-making power must be shared.

Applying these principles of transformation demands much of world healers.  On one hand we bring a vision for change to every place that we go: the creation of a just and peaceful world to replace the unjust and violent one we live in.   We have an agenda!  

But change doesn’t stick unless it is deeply rooted in the people involved.  This means that the alternatives we advocate cannot be ours. They must emerge from and be carried by the people and communities we seek to serve.   People must “own” the ideas and skills they are learning. No amount of zeal, hard work, and dedication on our part can substitute for the commitment of others.  For our healing intentions to have impact and survive, we have no choice but to work in ways that empower others to carry on without depending on us.   

For thought and discussion

The post describes transformative leadership as helping others to recognize and expand their own capacity for solving the problems important to them.   Do you know people or institutions in your own profession who are not transformative in the way they operate? If you wanted to teach someone how to operate in this non-transformative way, what would you advise them to do?

Now name someone or some organization you know of that operates transformatively.    What does this look like in practice? What attitudes, values, skills, and resources are required to achieve this?

Wounded Healer – II

Pain Pushes us to Our Own Healing

Those called to work for healing and social transformation of our world must think about two transformations. 

The first is obvious, the mission of healing, leadership, or change we’ve trained for, and on which we spend our days: To call for peace when the masses clamor for war, to build bridges across no-man’s land, to assist wounded people to get to safe space, to build coalitions among those too weak to stand on their own, to be an advocate for the voiceless.

These tasks require knowledge, skills galore, connections, experience, ability to find resources, and more.   Graduate programs of many kinds excel at preparing young people for vocations of healing and social change.

But there is a second kind of transformation that is just as important and just as challenging, a transformation the professional schools and guilds barely acknowledge, let alone touch.  This is the transformation of the peacebuilder, the healing of the healer.

To say others have problems and we want to help is one thing. To admit that in the process of helping others we encounter our own problems and need help is quite another.    

* * * * * * * 

It may be devotion to others that calls us to our work, but it is pain that pushes us to our own healing.  At four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I find myself flooded with unfocused anxiety so strong I can’t ignore it.   The day was meant for repair projects around home, but it took half the morning just to settle on strategy and materials.   Then came a lengthy conversation with a drop-in friend.

At mid-day eldest daughter needed the family van, which meant I now couldn’t fetch materials for my project.   I did other shopping instead, failed to find what I sought, and fretted in long lines in the store. Now with evening at hand, there seems to be nothing to show for that rare commodity, a free Saturday at home.

And I am overrun with guilty restlessness.  A river of it washes up from the gut. I think of all the things I could have done on this day that might have made the world a better place.  There are workshops to plan, phone calls to make, books to write. I feel that I have failed, that I am not living up to my potential, my obligation as a human being.  Release would come, it seems, if I found some important task and did it. Then I would be at peace with myself and my day.     

What is this all about?  All the years of teaching, writing and practicing on relationship-building notwithstanding, somewhere in the misty inner world of my psyche resides a powerful conviction that I earn my existence through work and accomplishment.   On this day when I have no product to point to, I feel anxious and unworthy, in the core of my being.

This is a setup for burnout.   People who believe their identity and personal value depend on the work they produce never rest.  After all, a sense of self-worth vacillates in most of us. If we add to that unstable foundation the belief that work is a requirement for self-worth, we will labor ceaselessly to steady our inner world.  

And when work goes poorly – as happens in every life at points – emotional and spiritual well-being suffer with it. Then inner pressures push us to set aside everything else – family, friends, spiritual life, even health, in a determined effort to earn self-esteem.   Even when work goes well, we feel that we have never done enough.

How can someone who teaches a course a course on personal sustenance and transformation be so unhealed from a compulsion to work, I wonder?   No progress to show for years of effort? But then I remember concepts from the course. The goal is not perfection, but rather awareness and a commitment to the journey.  The journey has ups and downs.

In down moments we often feel as though we never started. But if we allow ourselves to be “in” those moments by acknowledging our feelings, letting them be and reflecting on their lessons, we are released from them and assisted to move on.   The goal is not to “overcome” weakness and hurt, but rather to befriend them, to be taught by them, and in their presence to journey towards grace and joy.

As we recognize our own pain, and accept the truth of our own woundedness, we open possibilities for our limitations to become a resource rather than a liability.  Our self-knowledge expands our understanding of others and increases our ability to support them in the difficulties they experience. 

So this afternoon I take a deep breath, and think about befriending the tide of ill feeling within.   Where do I experience it physically? I wonder. I set aside thought and focus solely on the physical feeling of the knot in my stomach.   Where, precisely, is it located? How would I describe its sensation?

As I focus on the physical dimensions alone, my emotional discomfort decreases.  Attentiveness to the physical body is a powerful tool for being present in the here and now that opens the way for other kinds of self-care and healing.   

I reflect on where this compulsion to work comes from.   I think about my parents and their ceaseless labor to feed, clothe, and school seven children of their own, plus several foster boys.   I think about the moral burden I carry as a middle class professional residing comfortably on a quiet street in a safe community, with friends across the globe struggling just to survive.  I recognize once again the presence within of a guilt-tinged sense of responsibility to use every bit of my privilege well.

I ponder the possibility of divine presence in all this and recall the beloved old song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.     What does that mean for me here, now? How could I shift myself towards gratitude in the present moment for the unearned gift of simply being alive and aware?   I smile at myself, breathe deeply and release the impulse to plunge into a big project at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I will call it a day, and rest.

Pain brings us to awareness of unhealed places, and gives opportunity to acknowledge those places.   It also pushes us to make room for other things essential to the transformative journey, rest, contemplation, relationships and joy.  

The strength for living well and being a healing presence can never come from work and accomplishment alone. It comes rather from the deep and sacred wellsprings of Being itself, a source whose riches cannot be engaged through one conduit alone.  

Whenever we devote ourselves narrowly to a single pursuit at the exclusion of others, we diminish our access to the Source of life. We encounter the Source most fully when we honor mystery in many dimensions. We must work, but we must also pray, meditate, make art and music; we must play and love and care for our bodies as temples of the divine.

Tonight I recognize that my inner restlessness reflects more than the disappointments of the day.   I am in a time of high stress on every hand, with needs of family, work, community, and friends in endless competition.  Struggling to keep up, I have not exercised well this week, nor have I made space for prayer, solitude, or creative activities.  

I find shoes and head out for a walk. As my pulse quickens, I feel tension ebbing from my shoulders. The knot in my stomach begins to loosen.   

I practice an ancient spiritual discipline as I walk, focusing my mind on one simple thing, re-focusing again and again each time my attention scatters on the winds of anxieties.   On this balmy evening I choose the sound of the insects whose song fills the air in an endless symphony to the Creator.

I have used other things in the past to discipline my wayward thoughts – the beautiful pine a quarter mile ahead, a mental image of my spiritual Guide walking by my side, a prayerful phrase.  But it is the insects that speak to my soul at this moment and I choose them as the focus of tonight’s meditation. When I return to the house, I get out my dulcimer, a friend of many years whose music reminds me of a world where hope never fades.

One day, one moment of pain, one step in the journey of personal transformation.   Am I healed? Transformed? Hardly.

But I have chosen responses that keep me in the journey. These responses make me more aware and more insightful about my place in the larger whole.   Being aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that flow in every waking minute helps me make conscious choices instead of responding automatically without awareness. 

Across a span of months, years, and decades, such choices leave an impact.   They support a spirit of thoughtfulness, restfulness, and peacefulness that can accompany us anywhere, including into rooms of angry or wounded people.   They help to find a pace of living and working and letting go that is sustainable for a lifetime, rather than for a few years of meteoric performance that fade into darkness.  These choices bring soul into our work and attune us to guidance from that dimension of being that resides beyond time and space.

For thought and discussion

Reflect on – or better yet, swap stories with a professional colleague about – a time when you experienced personal pain related to your calling that you take as confirmation that a journey of personal transformation is required in order to survive long-term and thrive in your work.   What practices, disciplines, or support did you use to cope?

This blog is the second in  a series by Ron Kraybill for activists, healers, peacebuilders, and agents of change, on making vocations of healing a spiritual path.   To read others in the series, click on the category “Transform the Healer” in the right column of this blogpost.   Copyright 2019, Ron Kraybill. 

Worry about Hornets

On September 11, 2019, President Trump warned about what America would do if attacked again. “We will go wherever they are and use power the likes of which the US has never used before and I’m not even talking about nuclear power.”

This reminds me of an essay I wrote in 2002, as the Bush administration, equally confident in the efficacy of its superior arms, was moving towards war against Saddam Hussein.

The analysis is even more true now than it was then. So with only minor editing and an update to the present at the end, I republish it now.

* * * * * * * *

A bear hunter gets stung by hornets. Angry, and confident in his firepower, he follows them to their nest. Boom! Lookout, feller!

Defense strategies of the past assumed a world full of bears. But today we are surrounded by hornets’ nests. We could drop any bear in our sights, but who wants to live in a woods full of hornets enraged by flying bullets and an invader on the prowl?

Humanity crossed a chasm in the last 50 years. Technology has placed weapons with destructive capabilities once available only to nation-states in the hands of individuals.

As the mightiest state on the globe, we benefited by being an early developer of these weapons. But now that means of mass destruction have grown portable and cheap and ridiculously accessible, the numbers will increasingly work against us. The smartest bomb will not secure us against a dozen determined terrorists who smuggle in a biological or atomic device inside, say, a shipment of dope. The woods is full of hornets, and their stingers are growing by the year.

Today’s threat is less from leaders of nation-states, who are dedicated to the trappings of power and whose palaces, armies, factories, and infrastructures have nowhere to hide. More and more it is from small bands of ideologues with little to lose and no footprint on our radar. We can handle bears. It’s the hornets we’ve got to worry about.

But why not at least pick off the bears and the deadliest of the visible hornets? The problem with terrorists is that they come from communities who share the resentments of the terrorists. Lucky for us, those communities usually reject the extreme tactics of the terrorists, so the terrorists remain at the fringes. But if outsiders move to engage and destroy the terrorists, community support for the terrorists multiplies.

We’d do the same thing in their shoes. Take an analogy: There are scattered Americans who advocate nuking Saddam. Most of us recognize this as illegal, immoral, and dangerous. We despise the dictator, but we distance ourselves from our extremist patriots and their tactics.

Suppose, however, that Saddam had the military means to go after those American extremists. Suppose he mobilized a large military force nearby and with surgical precision, destroyed the extremists and their families, and accidentally, a few neighboring houses.

Would we say, “Oh, those extremists had it coming, good riddance?” More likely, Americans would rally massively in their support. Saddam might have eliminated certain individuals, but he also would drive an entire nation towards the extremists and their ways of thinking. The principle: External threat increases internal unity and arouses support for those threatened.

It is possible to live well and securely, even in a woods full of hornets, but only if we get out of the bear hunt mentality. Every time we fire a weapon we rouse the entire woods. Even children know the first rule of survival with stinging insects, move slowly and let them be. Beekeepers know something else: you can actually develop a rewarding relationship with dangerous critters if you treat them with respect and see that their needs are met.

Survival in the woods requires us to fully live in it, not just venture out for bear hunting. As our fellow critters come to see that we truly belong among them and hold their best interests at heart, we will benefit from a source of security essential in an environment of multiple threats: friendship and goodwill.

Yes, we can keep our weapons at hand. Bears still lurk here. But we will be wise to see the danger we create from the hornets aroused with every shot at a bear. We will be wise to occupy 95 percent of our energies with the less dramatic but ultimately more security-building tasks of building trust with our fellow creatures.

* * * * * * * *

Update in 2019: The insight that has often eluded American policy planning in the post 2001 era is that current struggles will be won or lost not just at a military level between the US and the “bad guys”, but at a relational level. Responses that are only – or even mostly – focused on military destruction of extremists backfire. Collateral damage of military responses is almost always high, not just in property and lives, but also in outrage at foreigners waging war on domestic soil. And after the bombs, then what?

Rather than once again grabbing sledgehammers, what would it look like if world leaders applied the full toolkit of human strategies for change and development to the complex web of dynamics that have birthed extremists? Suppose our principle were that for every dollar invested in military responses, another dollar also will be invested in economic, educational, health, and human rights advancement among relevant populations, and that leaders in religion, business, education, youth, and women will be key consultants and targets of influence?

It would be slow, messy, and often wasteful, like every strategy for change. But if we rely on sledgehammers, it will all get worse and worse and worse.

Ron Kraybill is a peacebuilding trainer and consultant based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has 30 years of experience in South Africa, Lesotho, India, Ireland, and other locations, for the UNDP, Mennonite Central Committee, and other organizations.

Homework on Conflict Styles


Life spares no one from conflict.  But unfortunately the word has not yet reached the schools that train professionals.

Name the profession – engineering, teaching, business, social work, lawyer, religion, medicine, whatever.   Few professional schools in these professions offer students training in how to navigate the conflicts that come with practice of that profession.

Even callings you might think of as peaceful have plenty of conflict. Some years ago a well-recognized seminary did followup with its graduates to assess how well its Masters program in religious leadership had equipped them for their congregational leadership.   The number one complaint?  Lack of preparation for conflict.   
Speaking from several years of experience, graduates wrote that they had no clue from their seminary preparation that dealing with conflict would be such a prominent aspect of religious leadership.
So what to do?  Even you want to address this gap, it may be hard to press another topic into an already packed schedule of lectures.   This post is for professors and teachers, trainers and consultants who see the need for students to reflect on conflict resolution but don’t have the space to include it in classroom work.
Here’s three assignments to choose from.  Each takes students into a valuable learning experience on their own, without requiring you to lecture or even to have a class discussion on the topic.
Setup: Students begin each of the three assignments that follow by taking Style Matters Online.  Instruct them to read their score report carefully and spend, say, 20 minutes clicking links in the report to resources that interest them on the Riverhouse website.   (These include a tutorial, summaries of strengths and weaknesses of each style, essays on anger management, apology, conflict and culture, and much more.) Pick out an exercise from the ideas below and assign it to your students to do on their own.  I invite you to adapt and present them as your own.

Assignment: Write a Reflection Paper

A simple but immensely useful exercise is for students to write a paper reflecting on their score report. 
Text of the assignment: Write a paper reflecting on your score report (at college or university level, I’d suggest 1500-3000 words in length).   Use the score report as a resource in writing if you agree with the report.  If you do not, draw on your own best self-assessments.   
  • When you are in Calm conditions, that is, when differences have just surfaced and emotions are not yet high, which conflict style or styles are you most likely to use? What are the strengths of this style or styles? What are the dangers of over-using this style?
  • When you are in Storm conditions, that is, when previous efforts to resolve a conflict haven’t worked and emotions have escalated,  which conflict style or styles  are you most likely to use? What  are the strengths of this style or styles?  What are the dangers of over-using it?
  • Drawing on the feedback in the score report and/or your own reflections, what do you see as personal growth areas for yourself in improving your conflict management abilities?
Notes to trainer: Depending on how big you’d like your assignment to be, a useful addition to the above is to ask students to connect their reflections to an actual situation.   For example, you could add a sentence to the first two areas of reflection above: Give an example from real life experience that illustrates your behavior.  
In the third area, you could add this sentence: Name a situation in which you expect your efforts at growth to be challenging.   Describe how your past behaviors would cause you to act and then describe what you would like to do differently in this situation in the future that would reflect personal growth for you.  

An additional task you could add to that list is to have students discuss their score report with someone who knows them well. The assignment could read:  Discuss your score report with someone who knows you well and whom you trust – a family member, friend, or colleague.  Invite this person to comment from their general observations of you.  Using the report as a resource, what do they see as your strengths in conflict?  What do they think might be “growing edges” for you in strengthening your responses to conflict?  Summarize your learnings in the essay.

Assignment: Apply Conflict Styles Framework to  Personal Conflict

In this assignment students write an account of a conflict they’ve been involved in, using the conflict styles framework to describe what was going on.    
Text of the assignment: Write a reflection paper applying conflict styles insights to a conflict in which you were involved that was distressing for you.  
  • Which conflict style or styles did you use?   Did this change over time?   If so, why, and how did this change in style alter the dynamics of the conflict?  
  • Do you see in retrospect that you under-used or over-used certain styles?  
  • Are there any tips (see the list of Support strategies suggested for your high-scoring Storm styles in the report) that, if the other person had followed, might have assisted you to function better?   
  • Choose another person who was central in this conflict and comment:  What style or styles was this person primarily using?  How did you respond to this style?   Can you offer any tips  for yourself (based on this experience and/or what you’ve learned about conflict styles) about what to do or not to do that might enable you to achieve a better outcome with this conflict style in the future?

Assignment: Discuss Conflict Styles in Study Group or Work Team

Whereas the above assignments are for individuals, here’s a learning exercise for a group, such as a study group or a work team.
Text of the assignment: Take the Style Matters conflict style inventory and print out the score report.  Read it on your own and underline things you think are especially valuable in understanding you.    If you disagree with the scores revise them in the chart on the first page of the report to reflect what you think is more accurate.
Bring your marked up score report to your group session.  Go around the group with the questions below, one question at a time, giving each person about 5 minutes to comment in each round.  If your scores are equal or nearly equal in several styles, should choose one style to highlight in responding to each question.  If you get stuck answering any of the questions, feel free to call on others to assist you in answering.
  • My Calm style of dealing with conflict is…..  Benefits of this style for me are….  Benefits for others when I use it are….     Dangers or costs of overusing this style are……..
  • My Storm style of dealing with conflict is…. Benefits of this style for me are….  Benefits for others when I use it are….     Dangers or costs of overusing this style are……..
  • Things that others around me can do when there is conflict that will meet my conflict style preferences and make it easier for me to function at my best are…..  (As a resource for this, review the sections of the report titled “Support Strategies”)
  • Something useful I’ve learned from our discussion here about how others function in conflict is that……

* * * * * * * *

I would love to hear your ideas for effective learning experiences outside of the classroom!  Please send them to me at   With your permission, I’ll publish the best ones here. 

For discussion questions and exercises in workshop settings, see my essay, Suggestions for Reflection and Learning with Others About Conflict Styles.  And of course you’ll find detailed guidance on leading a workshop – if you decide to go that route – in my free downloads  “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops and Training with Style Matters Online Version.


By Ron Kraybill, author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory and a blog   You may use or reproduce these exercises for classroom training purposes but all rights are reserved by the author.   For publications, please contact the author for permission.


Lead without Bullying

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

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

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

Conflict Styles and Strong Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Maintain a Wise Balance

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

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

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

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

New Trainers Guides

If you’re interested in leading conflict styles training, download my 2019 trainers’ guides with a single click below.   To get notice future updates and my blog posts for conflict styles trainers, sign up on the lower right to the trainers list.  I post only a few times per year and I won’t share your email address!

Comprehensive Guide.  My comprehensive Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops is now in its 4th edition.  The 2019 update  is the same as previous editions, now newly edited for clarity and ease of use.  The 40 page guide provides detailed guidance for training with Style Matters (or the Thomas Kilmann or other inventories based on a similar five styles framework) and many suggestions for presenting information and leading discussion.  Download the Trainers Guide in PDF free here.

Guide to Online Version. We’ve also just released a 10 page companion piece, Trainers Guide to Style Matters Online. Whereas the above guide provides detailed guidance on all aspects of conflict styles training,  this short guide focuses narrowly on work with the online version of Style Matters.  If refers often to the full guide, so you should have both. Download the online training guide here.

A key part of the Riverhouse mission is to enable anyone with basic group facilitation skills to lead an effective learning experience on the topic of conflict styles. 
Every person, every organization, and every community faces conflict throughout the life cycle.  Failure to equip people to deal constructively with conflict is, we believe, one of the greatest obstacles to human well-being.  Addressing this gap is an achievable opportunity for every organization and community to improve the quality of life in fundamental ways.
These trainers guides are central to our mission of supporting trainers on a large scale to address this glaring learning gap.