How to Manage Your Storm Shift in Conflict Resolution

conflict style stormshift


What is a Storm Shift?

Some people experience a change in preferred style as conflict heats up. They begin a conflict with one style but as emotions and stress rise, they shift to a different style. They may shift:

  • from a style of Harmonizing in Calm conditions to Directing as things move into the tension of Storm conditions;
  • from Directing to Avoiding or Harmonizing as emotions rise and it becomes apparent that achieving their own agenda is not possible;
  • from Cooperating to Directing or Harmonizing, etc.
  • or any other combination of styles.

Others around them may be relieved and pleasantly surprised by a Storm shift, if it is a change towards greater flexibility. But others are likely to be upset if it is a change towards less flexibility. Some people who make a Storm shift do so quite suddenly. This is particularly confusing for others, if the shift is towards Avoiding. If it is towards Directing, it may be shocking.

Steps You Can Take

Study your patterns in Calm and Storm. Are there major changes? If any of the numbers increase or decrease by three or more, chances are that others around you are confused when this happens.

A small Storm shift is normal.  Even a large shift is not necessarily bad. The key is to be aware that it happens and to manage it well. For example:

  • Learn to recognize your own inner signs that accompany such a shift: a suddenly pounding heart, heat in the face or neck, a flash of anger in the head, churning in the gut, or icy fear in the chest. Ask people who know you well to give you feedback about what they notice when you become stressed in conflict. Simple awareness is your most important tool for self-management. But be patient with yourself! Developing such self-awareness requires practice. It comes only through a process of careful effort and disciplined reflection over a period of time.
  • If awareness alone is not enough to achieve the response you seek, discuss with others you trust what you could do when you feel stressed that would help you use the style you want to use.
  • In relationships that are important to you, it is probably a good idea to communicate to others about what is happening inside you as the Storm shift takes place. Acknowledge the change in your style and provide information about what you are feeling or want to accomplish. E.g.: "I realize I am getting upset here and my tendency is to back off/get louder/get more insistent on talking things though (whatever your storm style does)." If you present it in tones of self-disclosure and not of threat, this information makes it easier for others to understand what is going on and to respond more positively.  You can practice this on your own when you are not in a conflict so as to refine the wording.
  • In primary partnerships, tell your partner about your scores on this test and invite feedback. Does he or she see a significant Storm shift in your behavior? Do they have things they want to suggest that would make life easier for them when you experience a Storm shift?
  • See the section in this site on Anger Management.

Suggested Learning Exercise: Compare your numbers in Calm and Storm for each style. The printout shows specifically in which style there is a significant shift in style. If there is a shift in any of your styles of three points or more from Calm to Storm, pay attention to this. If the shift is five points or more, chances are that your Storm shift confuses or alarms others at times. In this case, the tips above for managing your Storm shift are likely to bring special rewards for you as you get better at applying them.

Research Notes

Ron Kraybill, author of Style Matters, credits early awareness that many people experience a stress shift from calm to storm to Professor Susan Gilmore and Patrick Fraleigh, authors of the insightful personality inventory, the Frlendly Style Profile (Eugene, OR: Friendly Press).  Recent research in neurobiology provides important new support for insights about human functioning that, back in the 1980s when Gilmore and Fraleigh developed their instrument, were largely ignored. 

We now know that under stress, brain functioning changes.  As fear, anger, or chronic stress escalate, our higher, cognitive brain functions are increasingly shoved aside by the reptilian brain, whose mission is primarily about survival and whose coping strategies are limited to fight, flight, or flee.   The research findings demonstrating this are now so clear that conflict style models unable to recognize the behavior changes that inevitably accompany escalation of conflict are out of date.  Here's a clear, detailed description.