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Principles of Wise Response to Conflict


Principles of Wise Response to Conflict




 Be a Transformative Presence  with These Principles

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With thought and practice, anyone can significantly expand their ability to deal well with conflict. In other sections of this tutorial are practical steps to assist this.

But we're not talking here about simple tasks like changing oil in a car or repairing a faucet, where basic skills and clear instructions are often enough. Effective response to conflict is about us, complex beings with emotions and vulnerabilities, managing ourselves in the presence of other human beings, who are also complex, emotional, and vulnerable, and whose response cannot be predicted. No 1-2-3 steps are adequate here. Skills and strategies truly help in conflict, but they are not enough. We have to apply them from an inner place that seeks wisdom.

A number of principles lie beneath the strategies and learning suggestions in this inventory. We state them here, so you can evaluate them and, if you find them compelling, incorporate them into your reflection and practice. By putting them at the core of efforts to improve your handling of conflict, you place yourself on a path of growth at every level of your being. These principles have the capacity to expand those who apply them, not only in skills and strategies but also in heart and soul.

1. Acceptance of diversity and conflict

Differences are part of being human, even in settings where people appear similar. We function better in conflict if we accept that it is a normal part of life. Ironically, when we embrace the reality of differences, they become easier to manage.

In this world of diverse others, we must be capable of offering diverse responses.  Sometimes, smiling and being flexible is a wise response.  Other times, a firm, no-compromise stance is wise (ask a parent about that).  Then there are times when avoiding conflict entirely by withdrawing is the only sensible response. 

When we accept that diversity is central to life, we can apply other principles, such as....


2. Self-awareness

We make better choices when we know our habits and tendencies in conflict. Most people have a clear preference for one or two styles of responding. This style feels natural since we learn patterns of how to deal with conflict as children and young adults. In those formative years, each of us was shaped by a situation unique to us, created by our own needs and abilities, the conflict styles of people close to us, and the influence of school, religion, and society. As adults, many of us still prefer the style that we learned to rely on in those early years. Since all the styles are valuable in certain times and places, that basic preferred style is an ongoing asset to us to call upon when needed.

But if we use one style automatically, without awareness that we are using it or that other responses are also available, we set ourselves up for difficulty. Becoming aware of these instinctive responses to conflict is probably the most important step we can take to improve our ability to respond wisely when things are difficult. Then we can choose our responses rather than react blindly. The Style Matters inventory helps to become more self-aware by giving a picture of our responses to conflict.


3. Self-management

Conflict management starts with self-management. We manage ourselves better:

  • When we know our strengths and build on them;
  • When we are aware of the flip side of our strengths, in particular the dangers of using them too much.

We benefit by paying careful attention to the strengths associated with our highest scoring styles and to the costs of over-using those styles. By becoming more conscious of these, we expand our strengths and learn to avoid over-use of those styles.


4. Flexibility

Diversity and change seem to be hard-wired into reality.Thus life is easier and we serve others better when we can adapt. Being skilled in all five styles of conflict enables us to cope with a wide variety of situations. Each style is necessary for living well. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Each is the right choice in some situations and wrong in others.

A few people are naturally flexible in conflict and have a “flat score” in this inventory, meaning their numbers all fall within three points of each other. This suggests that such people are comfortable with all five styles.

However, most people have a preference for one or two styles, reflected in a score of two or more points higher for one style than other styles. The stronger your preference for a particular style, the more likely you are to experience the costs of over-use associated with that style. Look for opportunities to use the styles in which you scored lowest. By expanding your abilities to do this, you strengthen your management of self. You will find that with practice you can respond in the ways you choose rather than from pure emotional reaction.

Every style requires a different set of skills to use well. Most people are already quite skilled at one or two styles and clumsy with some of the other styles. We will identify skills that assist in using each style well, making it easier for you to strengthen those skills. (Skill section to be added)


5. Conscious choice

We respond more effectively to conflict when we use not only our emotions but also our intelligence, when we choose rather than react. When emotions rise, we tend to go on autopilot and use responses we learned long ago. Self-awareness helps us switch out of autopilot mode into conscious choice mode. By learning the five styles of response available in any conflict, we position ourselves to make conscious choices. Does that mean our choices are guaranteed to work? Of course not, no more than being a skilled driver guarantees that you will never have a car accident. But when we have a range of responses that we are good at instead of only one, we can respond in ways that give us better chances of getting out of a tight spot with the least damage. Over time, our lives improve as the consequences of improved response accumulate.

Perhaps more important, as we begin to make choices consciously rather than reacting automatically, we expand and grow as human beings. Conscious choice move us beyond the blame game, and enables us, for the first time, to take responsibility for our actions and our future.

But doesn't conscious choice mean endless calculation in which we must constantly ponder all options? No, as we learn and practice new responses, they gradually become automatic. A good car driver brakes instantly and instinctively when danger appears, with just the intensity of foot pressure on the brake required by the circumstances. Similarly, as we get skilled in a variety of responses, we respond with less effort. Flexibility and responding to the unique requirements of each situation become second nature. [For a visual diagram of the learning process that gives a clear picture of the steps of growth, click here.... Additional page to be added to the Stages of Skill Development.]


6. Welcoming both light and shadow

Our desire for predictability and control pushes us to cling to narrow visions of who we ought to be (wonderful) and the way things ought to be (perfect and permanent). When reality, including other people and ourselves, does not fit the rigid boxes of our fantasies, we struggle. We become unhappy and less resourceful in dealing with problems.

This inventory points towards a different view of things, the awareness that "strengths" and "weaknesses", "good" and "bad" are often closely related. Embedded within "weakness" lie certain kinds of strength; within "failure" lie resources for transformation. Similarly, many personal qualities often considered to be negative are actually virtues, albeit with the volume too high or played at the wrong time. For example, "pushy", dialed back to a lower volume, may be "assertive". "Passive" dialed up to higher energy may be flexibility or equanimity. Thus, rather than fight or resist things in ourselves or others that create difficulty, often we arrive at a better place if we aim instead to discover unexpected gifts and unrecognized resources in things that frustrate.


7. Acceptance of imperfection

No matter how aware or skillful we are, we still get hurt and we fail. We're humans, not gods. The goal is to learn from mistakes, make right what we can, forgive when we are able, and get on with things. We live more gracefully when our focus is on living fully rather than perfectly.

This attitude makes us more relaxed and easier to be around for others. It also makes it easier to ourselves recognize when we go "over the top", to smile at our serious selves, and prepare to do better the next time. A paradox of living: Accepting that we are imperfect makes it easier to become who we want to be and more likely that we rise to our fullest being.