Chances are you know me as author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory. You may not know that I’ve spent 40+ years in peacebuilding, often in very challenging circumstances. That includes living with my family in conflict zones on four continents, sometimes in situations of high danger and always working closely with individuals and groups who were deeply involved in local or national struggles for justice, development or peace.
I’ve been deeply immersed in a lot of promising things over the years, ranging from street level work to initiatives with national political leadership.
Something stands out to me today in my sixties that I couldn’t see in my thirties: the biggest obstacle to doing the work for change, healing, peace, etc., is not lack of money, training, or facilities.
It’s also not lack of vision or hope.
The big limitation I’ve repeatedly encountered in initiatives for healing in our world is the frailties and vulnerabilities of people like me.
There are some high quality, no-strings resources on conflict out there for free right now! If you're looking for summer reading, here's two good options.
Since publication last year, Amanda Ripley's book, High Conflict: How We Get Trapped and How We Get Out has consistently drawn praise from reviewers. It's an engaging presentation of key skills and strategies for dealing with entrenched conflict, the kind we see and feel all around us these days.
Ripley structures the book around a series of real-life stories and shows how people used things like investigating the understory (there is one behind every entrenched conflict, she notes) re-framing, broadening identities, finding commonalities, marginalizing the fire-starters (the people who get a thrill out of the fight), buying time and space, and other responses that can get beyond polarization.
The publisher, Simon and Schuster, for reasons I'm not clear about, is currently offering the book as a free download on their site or Amazon Kindle. If you get the book from Kindle, you can also get it in Audible for listening. I was told it's available only till end of July - which might be true or just publisher hype to create FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, a common marketing strategy).
An easy way to expand your conflict resolution ability is to begin using the two step discussion process. This is so simple that you might say, "Isn't it obvious?" Well, no. It certainly wasn't to me for many years. So here's a personal story that shows its power.
In a large institution where I worked, people rolled their eyes about the facilities manager. Kathy had been there for ages and people said she was an inflexible nitpicker. Everyone had a story - we all had to go through her to arrange space and technical support for our meetings and workshops.
Soon after I arrived, I too had my moment with Kathy. I needed access to meeting rooms at unusual hours. This required a special key - which she tightly controlled. I also needed her permission to bring in special equipment.
The two step approach looks like this: Step One: Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship. Step Two: Engage in problem-solving or task activity.
Don't you love it when somebody readily agrees to do things your way? Negotiating can be tiring. It's a gift when someone just smiles and - no persuasion needed - says "OK, I can go with that!"
Fourth of a series on five conflict styles, this post showcases the Harmonizing conflict style. With a focus on the relationship, setting aside your own wishes, Harmonizing is not always a good option. But in well-chosen situations, Harmonizing is a great gift to those you live and work with, and potentially you as well. I'll show you a handful of transition phrases to help you shift gracefully into this conflict response.
Harmonizing brings grace, kindness and flexibility into relationships. Longterm partnerships need generous amounts of this other-oriented conflict style to thrive. Without it, endless disputation will wear you out and leave little room for joy.
Part One in a three-part series applying insights from conflict styles to parent-child relationships. By Laura Bowles, coach and mediator, Style Matters trainer, and founder of The New Normal, LLC.
Being a parent changes many things! For me, my conflict style was one of those.
On the Style Matters inventory, my highest score in Storm is Harmonizing. This means that when things get tense, I tend to focus on keeping others happy, and I am quick to let go of my own goals and agendas if necessary to achieve that. I think of myself as flexible and responsive to others!
Conflict comes with parenting. However, it got complicated when I became a parent. I quickly realized that I couldn’t let go of my agenda all of the time. I have a duty to set boundaries with my kids, and often it’s right to be firm about those boundaries. You have to wear clothes! Brush your teeth! Don’t jump into water that’s over your head if you can’t swim!
The passing this week of Archbishop Desmond Tutu brings a flood of memories of an amazing man and a remarkable chapter in history. I was in South Africa from 1989 to 1995 and witnessed him in action on many occasions.
For anyone committed to leading peaceful change in organizations, communities, or nations, there's much to learn from Tutu's life about how to be effective in human transformation.
Does your behavior in conflict change sharply when you get upset? Do you turn suddenly aggressive when surprised or angered? Or, when conflict heats up, does your assertiveness quickly fade, replaced by avoidance or accommodation?
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:
With COVID19 cases rocketing once again, old questions return. We are all inescapably affected by the behaviors of others on this so we have to work out the answers with other people around us.
As much as possible, we need to do this through dialogue. In my Style Matters framework that's the Cooperating conflict style; Thomas and Kilmann call it Collaborating. Solutions achieved through dialogue garner more support and trigger less resistance than solutions imposed from above.
Cooperating as a conflict style involves responding in ways that are both assertive about our own needs and supportive of the needs and perspectives of others. (For a quick visual over-view of the conflict styles framework and how Cooperating fits in, see this slide show). That's a tricky combo. The rewards can be enormous, but it requires skill and commitment to pull off. Needed: Tools for structuring dialogue. When working with numbers of people you can greatly raise the odds of successful use of Cooperating if you use tools for structuring dialogue. A well-chosen tool does the heavy lifting of facilitation - enabling people to express their views clearly and respectfully to each other, and doing so in a way that seems almost effortless.
Forget COVID19 for a moment: It's a no-brainer that everyone who lives or works with other people needs simple tools for dialogue at their fingertips all the time. As a leader of almost any kind, you'll get more done and feel less anxious about controversies if you have several at the ready for moments when heat rises. There are plenty of them out there on the web. Or you can invest in my little book, Cool Tools for Hot Topics, which packs summaries of about 35 such tools into a slender six dollar volume.
These are scary times, and it's not just COVID19. Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory. Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers. Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace. It is not exaggerating to say that the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.
What can we do about it? The causes are many; there will be no single solution. High on the list of essential responses, I believe, must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus. But how?
Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, "the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis." (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)
Like it or not, there's no going back to the old ways of leading and managing. We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels.
The Cooperating Style of conflict management is about actively seeking ways for both sides to win everything they want. I assert myself clearly and confidently. You do the same. We work together to find solutions that allow us to both get what we want. I win and so do you - how wonderful!
Or maybe, how ridiculous. A magical conflict style that makes everyone happy? Ha, haa, haaa. We could be forgiven for starting a review of Cooperating with a big laugh. Real life isn't that easy and we all have stories to prove it.
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Sometimes you have to be pushy in conflict. You have to say No! and really mean it, insist that people step back, or lead in a direction others resist. If you are not able to do this, you will someday be taken advantage of or violated in ways that hurt and handicap you, for years.
Worse, you will someday fail to meet your responsibilities in a role you care about, like parenting, teaching, coordinating group activities, leading a team, facilitating meeting, exercising professional duties, or any number of other things important to you and your community. Success, health, even life itself, sometimes depends on someone being pushy.
But most of us prefer being nice more than being tough.
In this post, second in a series on the five styles of conflict, I show you how to balance nice and tough, using transition phrases for being pushy in challenging situations. These are phrases you've prepared in advance of stormy moments to help you gracefully initiate a conflict style that is challenging to pull off.
Directing involves pursuing a goal without be distracted or deterred by the resistance of others. There are many shades of Directing, since skilled people usually blend some other styles into the mix. But in its pure form, Directing gives high priority to a task or goal and low priority to relationships.
Sometimes when there's a conflict, the best thing to do is say nothing and just drift away. Or say firmly, "Let's not take that on right now. " If you're good at selective conflict avoidance, you will have a greater sense of order and control in your life, and you will have more time and patience for the issues most important to you.
This post is the first in a series to help you expand your skill with the five styles of conflict interpersonally or in leadership. In each post I'll show you several transition phrases for one particular style - in this post for Avoiding. Each of the five styles of conflict in Style Matters - which are similar to those found in the venerable if now out-dated Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument - will feature in posts that follow.
Not everyone needs this post! It's especially for people who find conflict Avoiding difficult or scored low in Avoiding in their score report. If you scored high, other posts in the series will be more useful to you.
We manage conflict better if we choose our responses in moments of storm, rather than blindly react.
You know me as a peace process guy, a conflict resolution trainer, an author of peace training materials. You don’t know this: I love guns.
As far back as I can remember, guns stood in the corner of the pumphouse on the family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Carrying a 12 gauge shotgun down rows of corn on a chill Saturday morning in October, with our terrier on the prowl and all my teenage senses tuned to the hunt, thrilled me. With the deadly power in my hands I could bring home a pheasant or rabbit if I was quick enough. I felt grownup, part of the world of men.
So in 1993, in a remote training camp in the high veld above Pretoria, on the third day of a course in conflict resolution for police in the new South Africa, when smiling officers came during morning break and asked if I’d like to go out on the firing range, I instantly said yes.
I wasn’t sure what they had in mind. But soon as I jumped into their van after lunch, I knew. A pile of weapons and ammunition sprawled across seats and floor. Three burly police trainers grinned at me knowingly. We were boys in a toy store and my heart was pounding.
We started with rubber bullets, in two varieties. One was a heavy chunk of rubber an inch and a half in diameter and over 3 inches long. I had seen these fired at protesters and witnessed a colleague take a direct hit a year ago as a peace monitor working a chaotic line between police and protesters. She limped into the office the next day with an angry welt on her thigh the size of a saucer. Centered in dark purple was a perfectly round, pure white circle larger than a quarter, exactly the size of the rubber bullets I was now firing.
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 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.
I’ve trained police in conflict resolution skills on four continents. My first love is communities but the years of training brought me to care deeply about police officers as well.
This week's newspapers carry the story of a man shot and killed by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Mentally ill, he threatened family members, who called 911 for help. When police arrived, the man ran out the door with a 12 inch knife towards an officer who shot and killed him .
This story takes me back to my own years in Lancaster. In 1989, just a few blocks from yesterday’s death, I too faced an angry man, my neighbor, threatening his wife and anyone trying to help with a knife.
* * * * * *
“Put the knife down, John!” I stood at a careful distance of 15 feet, calling forth the most convincing combination of firmness and kindness in my voice that I could muster.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.