How to Manage Your Storm Shift

Does your behavior in conflict change sharply when you get upset?  Does your normally collaborative demeanor turn suddenly aggressive when you are 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– such as the venerable Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode assessment – that don’t factor in the impact of stress as outdated.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, with 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. 

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