Kraybill Table

Blogposts on Conflict Styles and Conflict Transformation by Ron Kraybill

Two Step for Conflict Avoiders


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

Conflict Avoidance is Good

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

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

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

Intro to Conflict Styles Podcast


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


Tips for a Conflict Resolution Career

Career in Conflict Resolution-2


Everywhere I’ve lived and worked, I’ve met people who feel a deep inner echo to the idea of making peace.  I’m a bit mystical about such things. The inner echo is one mark of a calling and I have a lot of time for people hearing it.

But then it gets complicated.  How to get from inner echo to outer action? Sustaining my own call over 37 years and observing others, I’ve learned a few things:

      1.  View a job in conflict resolution and peacebuilding as a long-term objective.

        Almost nobody gets a degree in conflict resolution and then walks straight into a job in the field. You prepare and position yourself, you build experience and relationships, and if you are lucky a path slowly opens. Which means that, unless you are independently wealthy, you need to….
      2. Maintain at least one area of expertise or credentials besides peacebuilding.

        Most people with a job in conflict resolution subsidized their interest for a number of years with something else.   It takes a while to build up experience and a reputation in conflict resolution. In the meantime you’ve got to eat.  Whether law, social work, editing, teaching, web freelancing, pastoring, or carpentry, you’ll probably need something else to live on. This is not a bad thing because there’s more than financial reasons to have a second set of credentials.
      3. The path to full-time work in conflict resolution often runs through something else you’re already good at.

        People in conflict don’t want just any old mediator. They want someone competent in the area of their disagreement. Businesses want assistance from someone who understands business; schools, an educator. Religious organizations want “one of us.” International organizations seek facilitators, trainers, and consultants with deep knowledge of a region or relevant disciplines. So expertise in another area gives you your best opportunities for building a career in conflict resolution.

        Even if you cannot yet credibly present yourself as a resource on conflict resolution, you can still  advocate for creation of structures and processes for constructive resolution in the settings where you are connected. Start a playground mediation program in your school if you’re a teacher, encourage clients to explore mediation if you’re a lawyer, counsel a client in dealing with a conflicted family if you’re a social worker, lead a workshop on conflict resolution for a group of youth if you’re a youth worker.

        One great way to start is by leading a conflict styles workshop. Groups and teams of all kinds benefit from spending an hour or two reflecting on conflict style preferences of individuals in the group. So long as you are comfortable with basic group facilitation you don’t need to be a conflict resolution expert to lead a successful learning experience. Download my free “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops” for help in designing the workshop.

        In all the above, you’ll make mistakes but you’ll learn fast! If you enjoy it and others respond well, you’ll want more and you’ll find ways to do a repeat. Over time,  more and bigger doors will open.
      4. Expand your vocational goal from mediator to peacebuilder.  

        Mediating is a valuable but rather narrow go-between role, often confined by professional or social expectations, for which there is limited need in our world. Peacebuilding is a way of being and contributing to constructive resolution of conflict that can find expression in any number of roles and functions. There will never be enough peacebuilders because human beings are diverse and therefore conflict is inescapable.

        You might find, if you are, say, a lawyer, that you love being known for handling legal cases in ways that encourage early settlement. An administrator might take deep satisfaction in becoming highly effective in managing staff disputes. Even if you are sure you wish to end up working fulltime as a mediator, one of the best things you can to do open doors for that is to become known in your existing profession as someone with great conflict resolution skills.
      5. Polish writing skills.

        Conflict resolution work almost always involves the creation of new processes and structures. You have to advocate unusual ideas, develop proposals to get approval and funding, draft reports, create summaries. All have written communication at their core.  So at a minimum make it a goal to learn how to write clearly and simply.

        In a world where digital communication influences everything, learn tools for use of visuals in writing as well. You probably already know how to use Word and Powerpoint. What about, where you can easily craft killer visuals with attractive fonts and pictures at little cost?  (I have no relationship to any of the mentioned products or sites.)
      6. Learn inbound marketing.

        This is a recent and still tentative learning based on the eye-opening education I've received marketing my Style Matters conflict style inventory. Seemingly unnoticed by people in the social change, peacebuilding, community development, and human rights worlds, a transformation is taking place in how businesses reach buyers and clients.

        Many successful online businesses now avoid the loud, attention-getting sales strategies once considered necessary to sell. Instead they invest in listening carefully to the people who use their products. They give away a lot of useful knowledge and services for free. They emphasize collaboration and networking. People come to view such businesses as helpful and trustworthy and don’t need to be persuaded to buy.

        Clear strategies and tools have emerged in the business world with tremendous potential for peacebuilders and other agents of social change. Do a search on “inbound marketing” for resources, many of them free, at least for small users. Two of my favorites are and

        Look at Craig Zelizer’s Peace and Collaborative Development Network for a rare example of inbound marketing in the social change world. Lots of freebies there – good ones that clearly respond to needs. Extensive use of social media. Blogging. Networking in all directions. Obviously the site requires revenue and generates some – ads, requests for support – but revenue generation doesn’t dominate.  And no, you don’t have to be as big and ambitious as that site to benefit from inbound marketing approaches.
      7. If you aspire to do peacebuilding internationally, get a foundation in community development.

        The cutting edge in peacebuilding internationally lies at the intersection of peacebuilding and development. Reflect that awareness in your career path and you will be more credible to agencies doing serious peacebuilding work.  The single best career advancer for someone interested in international peacebuilding would be to spend several years in development work, paid or volunteer.

        But do not make the mistake of targeting the large, monied international organizations that are widely considered the pinnacle of international work as your ultimate career destination. You will pay dearly to elevate yourself in such organizations, in currencies that are priceless – the health and stability of your personal relationships (“Consider the UN your wife,” a seasoned UN peacebuilder once advised me, not in jest), your rootedness in community, your hopefulness for humanity, your contentment of soul.

        That is not advice against a sojourn in such places, but rather a caution against staying too long in them or assuming too much regarding what can be achieved there, how you will be treated, and how you will feel about your life as a result of your time there.

        If you like this post, click on an icon below to give it visibility on Facebook, LInkedIn or Twitter!
        Ron Kraybill has worked as an in-residence peacebuilding advisor and trainer in South Africa, Lesotho, the Philippines, Ireland and other locations for the United Nations, Mennonite Central Committee, and other organizations since 1979.  He now resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and blogs at Copyright Ron Kraybill 2016.  All rights reserved. May be reproduced if this statement of authorship is included and links are made to

Deal with a High Power Donkey


You know the type: Donkeys in middling positions just powerful enough they can cloud your sunny day when they choose.   A recent essay in the Harvard Business Review on these keepers of gates and keys observes: "Being in a role that has power but lacks status leads people to demean others."

What to do?  Probably not what you feel like doing, if you're like me: give the lowlife a piece of your mind.  The Harvard study suggests quite a different direction.  But first a story from my own life to consider what's driving the behavior.

 * * * * *

The jack would not hand over the money he owed us.  We had just delivered two hundred pounds of potatoes in sacks and stacked them neatly on the shelves of his two-bit neighborhood grocery store. Now he refused to pay.   "Nope, not gonna pay. Maybe later," John Booth said crossly as he wiped his hands on his apron and sauntered into the back of his store.

As a teenager helping my dad run the potato route from our farm, I hated John Booth's grocery.  He had no complaints about our potatoes.  He didn't have money problems.  He just took pleasure in being ornery.

Every few weeks, after we'd spent ten minutes heaving sacks of spuds from our truck onto his shelves and it was time to collect payment, he'd pull his pointless go-slow stunt.  Just for the heck of it.   Sometimes we'd go on and come back later.  Other times we'd hang around and wait him out.  My dad would go and coax a bit.  In the end we always got the cash, but often only after a wait of fifteen minutes or more.

I sat with a knot in my gut in our delivery truck, bored and confused, while we waited.   There was work at home, yet here we sat.   Worse was seeing my dad, a patient man whose intelligence and good humor won respect from everyone else, reduced to helplessness by this bent stick of a grocery man.

Running a neighborhood grocery in a small town, John Booth was but a few rungs above the bottom of the social ladder.  Yet in a perverse way he held rather significant power over us, at least after we'd lugged our potatoes onto his shelves.    My father's need for customers and his reluctance to make a scene allowed Booth to lord it over a busy working man and his earnest sons for a quarter of an hour whenever he felt like it.


Lacking status hurts, say the HBR authors: "It makes us feel bad about ourselves and makes us want to act out against others."  Low status people refrain generally from such behavior out of fear of consequences.  But in moments when they occupy roles that give them  power, they are no longer inhibited.

The result can be widespread social conflict, as people seek respite from their bad feelings about themselves by exercising power in hostile ways against anyone unable or unwilling to create consequences.

Although the HBR study examines only workplace dynamics, perhaps it goes without saying that we live in a time of increasing attacks by people of relatively low educational and economic status against truly powerless people, such as immigrants.

What to do?  The Harvard study suggests:
  1. Look at the structural dynamics.The study suggests that leaders in conflicted organizations should not assume that conflict is purely personality-driven.   Instead they should consider "the structural dynamics that can lead to workplace tension in order to minimize it."  Don't write off abuse of power by low-status people as merely a sign of individual weakness.   Instead consider the possibility that there may be issues of respect and esteem for these individuals that also need to be addressed.
  2. Seek to bring status into alignment with power.   This often means doing a better job of recognizing and honoring low-power people.  Avoid organizational changes that strip employees of power without compensating them with increased status.
  3. Improve public recognition of the efforts of people in low-status, high-power roles. "If your employees sense that you respect the role, they likely will too."
A natural problem-solver,  my dad found the inner strength to respond in ways remarkably similar to those recommended in the HBR study for peers and colleagues of low-status, high-power persons: Recognize that such persons often harbor insecurities related to their lack of status.  "Go out of your way to show respect," the authors recommend.  "They will appreciate it, and you will stand out as an ally in the future."

For my dad, that meant forbearance with Booth.  Though clearly frustrated, I never witnessed him reply disrespectfully.  I have no idea if he ever won appreciation from the quirk.  But he got what he cared about most: He held faithful to his personal code of decency, he avoided escalating a dicey situation, and he retained Booth as a much-needed customer.

Work Yourself Out of a Job


In my early days in peacebuilding,  I met with John A. Lapp, the executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee.   I had just been "hired" for a one-year stint of voluntary service with MCC to establish a new unit, the Mennonite Conciliation Service.

“Your goal should always be to work yourself out of a job,” Lapp commented thoughtfully.  In the 37 years since, I have often remembered the words of this veteran Mennonite peacebuilder and development worker.  Like a zen koan, they have provided me with layers of insight about vocation and the requirements of peacebuilding.

Conflict Transformation Starts with Encouraging Self-Sufficiency

As modern professionals tend to do, I thought of my work as responding to the immediate needs presented by individuals I was working with.  I thought Lapp meant  that, when mediating, I should seek timely withdrawal from conflicts and encourage parties to develop their own means of working out differences. It seemed like good advice and I sought to follow it as the caseload of our new unit slowly developed.

I was unable yet to see that my mentor, a veteran development worker deeply tutored by life experience working with communities that were both conflicted and disadvantaged, almost certainly had in mind dynamics and needs larger than the day to day quarrels of individuals.

Transformation Continues with Building Capacity to Make Peace

As requests for mediation increased, I sensed a call for deeper forfeiture than I had first understood.  I could be only one place at a time; conflict is everywhere. To achieve our goal of encouraging constructive resolution of conflict in communities and the nation, I should let go of the goal of becoming the mediator and instead train others as mediators.  I loved mediating, but I recognized I must shift my priority to training mediators, a mission I felt pretty shaky about.

Transformation Expands by Training Trainers

I soon came to love training even more than mediating.  But as demand for MCS workshops increased, it became apparent that a still deeper level of relinquishment was called for.   My calendar couldn’t accommodate all the promising possibilities to lead training workshops.  Rather than training mediators I ought to be training trainers.

I began pulling away from doing training workshops myself and sought to focus my priorities around developing others as trainers and bringing them into MCS workshops as co-leaders and leaders.

This was strange and scary in the beginning.  I was used to being in front, teaching.  Now I was often at the back while others taught.  And if I gave away all my training expertise, wouldn't I soon be left behind, with nothing to do?

Transformation Endures by Multiplying those with a Vision for Peace

Of course it didn't take long to see that being at the heart of a network of trainers grateful for what I had taught them was even more rewarding than training itself!

Yet even this focus eventually proved too narrow.  Peace in our world requires people with broad and courageous vision of possibilities for peace.   Such people are present in every society and situation of conflict, but often they lack the courage and skills to act.

So the “job” as I have come to understand it in recent years is to find and be an ally to those with a vision for peace.  Some may become mediators or facilitators, but others will become advocates of tolerance, bridgebuilders to supposed enemies, conveners or funders of fellow peace visionaries, professionals in other callings who use their connections and influence to create processes and institutions that build peace, etc.

High Power Teams Underperform

Workaround (1)

[dropshadowbox align="center" effect="horizontal-curve-bottom" width="700px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd"]Research shows that work groups of high power people do not perform nearly as well as groups of low power people. How can high power teams use more relational conflict styles and perform better? Here are seven strategies informed by the research.[/dropshadowbox]

Fact:  High Power Leaders Do Not Play Nicely Together

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

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

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

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

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

Facilitation in the Digital Age

Styles of Facilitation diagram

What’s your experience of meetings?

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

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

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

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

Parrots Heal PTSD

I want to tell you some intriguing things about parrots I've recently learned.   And then, why paying attention to parrots is important to human survival.

I always thought parrots were mere mimics. But it turns out they are highly intelligent.  They understand many words and often use them with caring intentions. A moving story in the New York Times describes traumatized parrots as remarkably effective therapists for people with PTSD.

Not just by entertaining, but by interacting in ways clearly intended to comfort and restore. Tests show some have the cognitive intelligence of five year old children.

As flock creatures, parrots are wired to use their intelligence to bond with and assist others.  As pets, they are deprived of their natural flock and bond with their human masters instead.  When abandoned they are devastated and lost and display symptoms similar to human victims of trauma.

But in settings where their powers for relationship are respected, parrots display an astonishing ability to recognize human needs and reach out to actively  assist.

As remarkable as the news story itself is the response of readers.  One recounted an experience with a beloved parrot after the reader suffered a car accident.  When the reader finally arrived home after weeks in the hospital, the bird greeted her with “Where were you?”, a phrase the bird never used before or since.

Nearly 300 people commented in the first day of its posting, and not a single reply was negative.  It’s a known fact that that many readers of the New York Times don’t agree about one thing, ever!

So what do parrots treating PTSD have to do with peace and conflict resolution?

Something I learned in the middle of church fights as a young mediator and relearned across the years in places like South Africa, Ireland, and the Middle East:  Hope is the single most important ingredient for peace.

When people think nothing can change for the better, it doesn’t.   When people think that good things might happen, they often do.

Hope doesn’t guarantee peace.  But loss of hope guarantees conflict.  Without hope of things getting better, people prepare for the worst and the law of the jungle eventually prevails.  So preservation of hope turns out to be essential to human survival.

This story about the amazing intelligence of birds, about their ability to care for broken human beings and restore them to life, renews my hope.   Humanity is not quite so alone and lost as we often feel that we are.   There are resources in the world, in the most unexpected places, capable of nurturing and healing us, if we only know how to open ourselves to them.

For several decades I’ve taught, published, and trained people in many skills for resolving conflicts, ranging from conflict style awareness to listening skills to meeting facilitation to process design.   I believe deeply in those things.  But none make a dent unless people have hope in the possibility of things getting better.

So part of the job in building peace is to feed hope.  But admonishing people to be hopeful doesn’t cut it.  People need encouraging encounters with caring parrots and other kindly creatures – especially the two-legged ones – to keep hope alive.

And when such encounters are scarce, we need stories that remind us of the reality of kindness.

Peace starts with hope; hope arises from experiences of kindness, forgiveness, and grace.   When the latter are in short supply, stories can keep alive the hope on which depends all possibility of peace.

It's not just people at war who need to hear such stories.   Those who labor for peace must feed our own inner springs of hope.   Make time for the parrots!

Why Do I Love Guns?


The world knows me as a facilitator of peace processes, a professor of conflict resolution, an author of peace training materials.   The world doesn’t know this: I love guns.

As far back as I can remember, guns hung on the wall above the well in the pump house 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, our terrier on the prowl and my teenage senses tuned to the hunt, thrilled me. With the deadly power I carried at the ready 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 I was leading for police readying for the new South Africa, when a couple of 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 exactly what they had in mind, but when I jumped into their van after lunch, a sprawling pile of weapons and ammunition covering the floor left little doubt. Three police trainers grinned at me knowingly, like boys in a toy store.  My heart was pounding.

We started with rubber bullets, in two varieties.  One was a heavy slug 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 the dark purple was a perfectly round, pure white circle larger than a quarter, exactly the size of the slugs I was now firing.