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.
If you scored high in Harmonizing while taking Style Matters, you already know this stuff. If not, it's never too late to learn!
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.
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.
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.
Conflict style awareness is truly useful in day-to-day management of differences. It's easy to learn.
But not so easy to do!
Easy: Learning the basics of conflict styles. Do this in a few minutes with this free "Intro to Conflict Styles". You can figure out your own conflict style almost as quickly by taking a conflict style quiz (such as my Style Matters; the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or even a cross-cultural one).
Challenging: remembering, in the heat of conflict, to use those great conflict resolution strategies. We are hardwired by nature with a tiny set of responses when we are frightened or angry: flight, fight, or freeze. Those three simple responses enabled survival in the jungle and you can witness them any time you want in the animal world. But they have limited use for human beings today.
To build partnerships and solve problems in a complex world we need additional options for responding, and the ability to choose rather than merely react. We acquire these capacities, not by relying on instinct, but by thought, practice, and reflection.
If you like the conflict styles framework and want compatible tools to build the capacity of your organization or team, check out the trove of short videos by Dr. John Scherer.
In the last two minutes Scherer lists 4 concepts and tools valuable for helping groups and team use conflict well: The Pinch Theory, Three Worlds, The Four Languages, and Polarity Thinking. He dedicates a short video to each of those concepts on the same site.
I especially recommend the video on polarity management. That's a powerful tool that I've found dramatically effective in certain conflicts. It should be in the toolkit of all who resource organizations and their leaders.
John Scherer is an esteemed elder in the field of organizational management and change who brings wonderful clarity and humanity to everything he does. He has posted 100+ free short videos over the last two years on organizational management and change management, many with valuable tools for making conflict a positive experience.
If you've already spent time with relatives this holiday season perhaps you've discovered things are not all fa-la-la at family gatherings. Getting together is great, but it can also bring conflict. All that cozy togetherness gives space for old issues to appear in new forms.
In a year when politics has polarized, more rancor than usual is likely to get served along with the turkey. Here’s what you can do about it.
Start with a resolution to be nimble at conflict avoidance. You can’t stop others from being pissants, but you can decline to be baited. Avoidance is a great conflict style for situations where you don't have any real goal other than staying out of difficulty.
You probably already know which people and circumstances can handle candor and which cannot. Prepare lines for conflict harmonizing and avoiding that you can easily pull out when needed. To that annoying relative who can’t resist a verbal poke about politics or some other dicey topic, come back with responses that re-direct or de-escalate.
- “You know, I promised myself I’d stay on safe topics this year. Tell me about your new job….”
The weekend brought a textbook example of under-use of conflict avoidance and its costs.
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.
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.
You can't do conflict resolution without doing anger management.
Anger is an emotion that everyone needs. Don’t wish it away. It provides resources essential to self-protection and survival. It helps us respond quickly, with high energy, to dangerous or unpleasant situations.
But that doesn't mean it's fine to rant when you're pissed.
Researchers in several fields find that expressing anger in an angry way feeds the problem.
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.
I spent much of the last month writing new text for the score report of Style Matters. That’s the 10 page personalized report from the online version of my conflict style inventory, whose numbers, with my reflections thereon, go out to users after taking the inventory.
Commanders in military establishments, janitors in neighborhood associations, freshmen at Bible colleges, and pretty much everybody in between read (and I like to think, ponder) this thing; according to logs on our server, nearly 365 days a year.
As usual in our multi-religious family, I did both Pesach and Easter celebrations. Sort of. But mostly, while others congregated for holidays, I wrestled epiphanies in text on my laptop.
And got new hope and vision as I remembered why conflict resolution continues to grip me. Here my traditionalist and my modernist, my believing and my agnostic, my monastic and my populist selves meet. Conflict, or at least reflecting on human responses to it, remains holy ground to this once Mennonite farmer, now aging peace process facilitator.
“Conflict management starts with self-management,” we say on the Style Matters frontpage. The lone boatman there launches his journey to an unknown destination, symbol of the journey that peacebuilding can launch us on.
Can you lead in times of emergency? Don’t think that's for someone else. Life exempts none from this call.
Unless you're a hermit, a time will come when you too must act and lead in the face of danger, no matter your rank or station.
And now is the time to prepare.
In times of grave threat, tough decisions must be made and actions quickly taken. What protective measures to take? Must you flee? What to carry with you? Who gets priority for assistance? What about those who won't budge? Where to shelter and how to get there?
Professional emergency responders such as police, fire, medical, and transportation structure decision-making and action in tight chain-of-command hierarchies. Superiors decide and give orders; subordinates obey.
Do you know people who get upset and insulted easily? They may not realize it, but they're setups for easy manipulation. When you’re easily triggered, you’re a sitting duck for anyone having a bad day.
All it takes is a few choice words. Your buttons are pushed and you shuffle yourself off to the land of the Grumps.
Why give other people that kind of power over you?
You have no control over the behavior of others. You can't stop them from being annoying. But you can remove your "Insult" button from easy public access. Be un-insultable.
It’s much easier said than done, of course. But it’s a choice you can make and work at achieving.
What is the connection between interpersonal conflict resolution tools like my Style Matters conflict style inventory or the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and big conflicts of our world, like ethnic and religious violence or threat of nuclear war?
There is in fact a connection between what happens between human beings at the smallest level every day and what happens between nations. We can't build a peaceful world until parents, teachers, and leaders see this connection. We must all act on it and teach others about it.
Below is a Pyramid of Competency to show the many layers of competence - and how they relate to each other - that are required for humans to live together peacefully. I use it at the beginning of training on almost any conflict resolution topic to locate it on a map of "the big picture" of peace skills. I also use it with individuals eager to pursue conflict resolution skill development to chart a pathway for learning.
If you took my Style Matters conflict styles inventory or the Thomas Kilmann, you've already given some attention to the second level, "Interpersonal negotiation and conflict resolution".
Ponder this pyramid and you get some clues about why, despite all the progress humans have made, and all the institutions we've created, we're still barely out of the Dark Ages with conflict resolution.
Here’s a strategy to improve dynamics in a difficult conversation: In an argument or tense discussion, replace "but" with “and”.
Lawyer/mediator Susan Ingram describes this in her recent blog. “Typically", she writes, “When you’re having a discussion with another person, both of you are going back and forth with each of your own proposals, and not really listening to what the other person has just said.”
When we begin our comments in a conversation with “but”, Ingram says, "we are essentially negating and dismissing what the other person has just said. We are not valuing that person’s experiences and ideas and are just focusing on the point we want to make.”
Instead, she suggests, start with the word "and". By doing this, say writes, "we are acknowledging that we have heard what the other person has said and allowing that there may be value in his or her words. Thus, we are effectively keeping the channels of communication open, encouraging problem solving, and moving the conversation along to a more likely resolution.”
Replacing “but” with “and” sounds easy, but it's not a simple cut and replace. You have to listen carefully and craft your “and” response in a way that conveys your concerns. You have to think it through and adjust a sentence or more in order for your "and" response to make sense.
Do you use an angry voice to communicate or give instructions when a firm, even voice would do the job just as well? I witness this most commonly in sports settings, where it seems to be accepted that coaches and trainers shout angrily at those they are training. I'm not talking about raising the voice to be heard. I mean shouting with angry inflections and body language, to convey authority and motivate.
Sports isn't the only place this happens. Every parent and teacher - and I speak as a veteran of both roles - gets ticked off at the youngsters in our charge sometimes. So do team leaders, managers, and supervisors of all sorts, working with all ages. Frustration comes with the territory of leadership.
Anger is a powerful tool for many good purposes, when used sparingly. The volume and intensity of anger say "Listen up...!" and often people do. When it's exceptional, anger gets attention and underscores a message.
But used frequently, the positive effects of anger diminish. Anger stresses people. Eventually they tune out and turn inwards for relief from the bombardment. Then you have to shout louder for the same effect.
Worse, your emotional outbursts trigger similar responses in others. Drama and disrespect creep into many discussions and become normal. All communication suffers, frustration spirals, and morale goes down.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.