Conflict Styles Apply in Politics Too

Conflict style awareness is not just an interpersonal skill.  It's political too!

Editing this post in 2024 I note it's from 2015 and dated.  But it's more relevant than ever!  The illustration is now old, but it still nicely demonstrates an important point.  Nine years later, it's hardly partisan to point out that proclivity for pointless confrontation embroiled President Trump in persistent turmoil and blocked much of what he sought to do.  Worse, it continues to drag the nation through historical crises.  

The post began by noting that we had recently seen "a textbook example of under-use of conflict avoidance and its costs."  It continues....

It started on Friday when Rep. John Lewis picked a quarrel with Trump. "I don't see this President-elect as a legitimate president,"  he announced in a press statement.  Saturday Trump fired back with tweets.

TrumpTweet Jan15-17

In the context of the long holiday weekend honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday, the exchange echoed thunderously in the media.

Result?  Lewis’ book sales skyrocketed.  By Sunday leading newspapers were carrying reports that his books were in the top 20 list of booksales and Amazon had sold out all copies of his best known work.

For his part, Trump took a hail of criticism, including critical tweets by some fellow Republicans, for dissing one of America’s most respected civil rights leaders.

Let’s be clear - Lewis started it.   Never mind that Trump himself spearheaded a preposterous "birther" challenge to Barack Obama’s legitimacy for eight years, against all evidence. What matters here is that this time someone else threw the first punch.

But conflict management is about more than who started things.  What matters is how to respond in a way most likely to bring a good outcome.

I cannot imagine a prudent advisor saying, “Donald Trump, you need to go after that revered civil rights leader.  You’ll gain a lot by firing right back with a big put-down.”   On a weekend when everyone remembers white domination of blacks, it’s a good idea to smack down a guy honored for leading demonstrations alongside MLK?   With lines a 7th grader could write?

Trump chose the conflict response that I call Directing in my conflict style inventory (aka Competing in the TKI, for those who use that instrument).  Directing pays no attention to relationships, feelings, or cooperation.  You focus solely on taking charge.  You win.

Everybody Needs to Use Directing Sometime

Don’t diss that style.  I agree it sounds vicious, and it can be.  But every human being needs it sometimes.   A parent who doesn’t grab his three year-old dashing towards the street and take charge of the situation is a bad parent.  No matter how the child feels about it.

How about the captain of a sinking ship, a surgeon in charge of a dicey operation, a youth leader on a field trip with teenagers?  Sometimes goals and responsibilities are more important than relationships and feelings.

So, credit Trump for a generous dose of Directing in his conflict style repertoire.  But is he good at all five styles?  That’s a question fundamental to leadership.

Mark Twain wrote, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.”  Conflict management is about flexibility, using the right style for the situation.  When we’re skilled in only one or two styles, we set ourselves up for failure.

Although Lewis started the fight, in the circumstances, conflict avoidance would have served Trump, his party, and the nation far better.

When is Avoiding the Right Response to Conflict?

Avoidance is perfect:

  • when there’s no goal or purpose beyond ego satisfaction that you can accomplish by pushing your cause, or
  • when the the costs of a battle outweigh the costs of silence or withdrawal.  

On both counts, this was a slam-dunk for avoiding.  Just let the annoying words of the outspoken Representative fade into the news cycle.

Instead Trump took the bait and scored a self-goal for his opponent.  It illustrates an important point about people with a high Directing conflict style and low capacity to Avoid.   They look and are intimidating, but they are also easy to maneuver and tie in knots.   All it takes is one low-grade insult to trigger them.  They can’t stop themselves from reacting.

Years ago I talked with an activist close to a group waging political insurrection in a country in Asia.  “We consider carefully,” he said, “which police stations to attack.  We hope they retaliate.  Our goal is to hit those stations most likely to strike back wildly in ways that really anger the public.   That’s one of the best ways to win support for our cause.”

Maybe that was Lewis' intention?  I have no idea.  But that was the result.

One thing we can count on: A tendency to over-react with an aggressive response in any American president is not lost on adversaries of America.  Sure, it must make them cautious and worried.  But it also provides them an easy way to manipulate as well.  If they want to stir a huge firestorm of anger against America in some part of the world, all they have to do is make something happen there that will anger President Thinskin.  They can count on him to do his diligence to "Show them they can't push America around."   Then they can just sit back and enjoy while a storm of reactionary anger against the over-reaction envelops the world.  It offers them a low-budget way to spin a superpower in circles.

Flexibility and wisdom in conflict styles is not just an interpersonal matter.   Even more than others, leaders need a rich diversity of response capabilities to throw.  Even in internationally politics.