Ideas for Discussing Conflict Styles with Others

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People love to talk about conflict.  When we've had a quarrel, we tell the story to a friend. We get a feeling of connection when someone confides in us about a fight. 

Conflict engages us at every level - emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual.  We're wired for this.  For our ancestors, only those who paid attention to conflict and figured out choices supporting survival lived to pass along their genes and habits.   As their descendents, we inherit their knowledge that this is important conversation.

So conflict and what to do about it is one of the most interesting and energizing topics you can raise with others.  That is, if they feel it is safe to talk about it.  If you're :thinking about setting up such conversation:

  • Think through power dynamics among people in the conversation. It's easier for people to feel safe with peers than with someone with a lot of power over them.  If there's already a history of trust and safety, then no worries about power dynamics.  But absent such a history, don't expect others to quickly open up.   They'll need to ease gently into the topic.   If there is a history of conflict among those in the group, do not expect people to share openly about themselves or their score reports, and do not ask them to do so without careful preparation.
  • Put yourself on the line.   Whether you are a trainer or a peer trying to engage others, you may need to "go first" in sharing your struggles, questions and self-doubts regarding how you have dealt with conflict.  If you're leading a workshop, have some short illustrations of your own failures in conflict on the ready for the right moment.  I still remember how my trust in a workshop leader warmed after he told us a story of reacting in anger to his son and slapping him in the face.   If you're an individual hoping to engage your partner or team about conflict, be ready to share some examples of your own over-reactions.
  • When people do share, make it easy for them to move to the role of wise problem solver.  If you're eager to be in that role yourself, others will step back for fear of being humiliated.  When people tell a story, resist the temptation to offer suggestions (unless directly asked).  Rather respond in ways that put them in the role of wise ones.   Ask, for example, "What did you take out of that experience?", or "If you could do things differently today, how would you handle it?" or "If you were advising someone in a similar situation, what advice would you give?"   You might also invite them to to a strengths/weaknesses analysis.   That is: "What are the things you feel you handled well in that situation?  Where do you think your responses could have been improved?"

Ideas for Opening up Interesting Conversations about Conflict

Here are questions that many people are happy to share about, in one-on-one settings, in workshops, or in small group discussions.   Many of these work well in "getting to know you" situations as well!

  • What comes to mind for you when you hear "Conflict"? (Or what words come to mind for you when you hear the word "Conflict"?)
  • On a spectrum, with "I move towards conflict" on one end, and "I withdraw when there's conflict" on the other,  where would you locate yourself?   Why?  How do you feel about that?  If you could change your habits and relocate yourself to a different place on that spectrum, where would you move? 
  • Who is the best conflict resolver you've known?   What did he/she do that was so effective?   
  • Who is the worst conflict resolver you've known?   What did he/she do that was destructive?
  • Tell a story about an experience with conflict - between individuals or in a group setting - that was very frustrating for you.  Possible followup questions:  How did you deal with that situation?   Was your response unique to that situation or typical of how you deal with conflict?
  • Have you ever had an experience when a disagreement or conflict turned out to bring good results in the end?
  • How did your parents deal with conflict? 
  • What were the family rules in your family about disagreeing or fighting?
  • How did your location in your family affect the way you deal with conflict?
  • What was your reputation as a child when it comes to conflict?  Was it fair/accurate?  Has it changed as an adult?  If so, how? Is it fair/accurate?
  • What is one skill (or insight) for dealing with conflict that, if you could now, you would go back and give to yourself as a child?
  • What values, attitudes, or skills do you have that help you be the kind of person you want to be in conflict?  That get in the way of that?
  • Name an organization that seems to deal constructively with differences.   What's going on there that they are able to achieve that? 
  • Have you ever had an experience of seeing other people (partners, groups, institutions, video documentaries, whatever) deal constructively with a conflict that seemed scary?  What made the difference there?   

Ideas for Discussing the Style Matters Personal Report

1. Discuss your scores from the inventory in pairs or trios. Do this in rounds.   That is, everyone responds to Round One questions, then everyone responds to Round Two question.  If you want to get a quick review of the conflict styles framework first, view this Powerpoint "Intro to Conflict Styles"

    Round One

  • Share your score results, especially your highs in Storm and your lows in Calm.
  • Briefly share an experience of conflict you’ve been a part of.  Comment: Do the score results fit your real-life response?

    Round Two

  • What strengths come with your results?
  • Where would you like to change or improve?
  • Storm shift? If your numbers suggest a significant shift in style from calm to storm, are you aware of making such a shift? What factors are most likely to trigger this shift in you? How does the shift affect others?

2. Meet in small groups of similar-style people. For example, in one group is Directors, in another Cooperators, etc. If you have nearly equal scores in two styles, choose the style that seems to get you in difficulty the most. Discuss the information in the pages above about the style of your particular group. Go around the small group and give each person chance to reflect on himself or herself:
• Which strengths of the style do you see present in your handling of life and relationships?
• Which weaknesses or costs from overuse do you see?
• Which "partner support" suggestions do you find especially applicable to you?
When you reconvene as a whole group, with all styles present, have a reporter from each small group give a summary of insights from that group to the whole group, so others can increase their understanding of each style.

3. People who live or work together benefit greatly from conversation about their styles.
A suggested discussion sequence:
• Share scores with each other.
• Reflect on the scores, with each person responding to the questions in item 2 above.
• Recall a time when differences arose between you. Do the scores reflect how you actually responded?
• Each person can reflect aloud, in the presence of others, on the "Hot Tips" pages. Which hot tips would they particularly like others to use that would help bring out the best in the speaker?

4. Have someone who knows you well take the test "for" you, as though they are you answering the questions. To get a really comprehensive picture, have several people do this for you. Then compare your own scores for yourself with the scores given by others. Where do the scores agree? Where do they differ?   In organizations, you can do a "360 feedback" by having people above, beneath, and on par with you take it "for" you; this gives complete feedback from all sides.

5. People in teams and organizations will be rewarded by discussing the impact of styles in times of negotiation or decision-making. Each style has different preferences for how to go about things (e.g., how direct and open to be in stating preferences, how much relationship-building time to include in decision-making, how rapidly to make decisions, etc.) Discuss: What insights do we get about our collective decision-making processes from looking at these scores? About difficulties we’ve encountered? About how to improve decision-making in the future?

6. If there is no time or willingness to discuss the full report, partners or teams can do a useful exchange based only on the Partner Support section.  Each person reviews on their own the suggestions in the Partner Support section of their own score report.  They highlight suggestions they like, the things they would appreciate others to do for them when working together.  They edit and add to those as they see fit, creating a set of Partner Support suggestions for others.  They then share these, orally or in an email, for the benefit of others. 

This is more satisfying and impactful if done orally, face to face, with opportunity to ask clarifying questions and respond.  (If there is a history of difficulty among people in the group, there's no alternative.)

7. People in teams and organizations benefit by discussing difficult style combinations. A lot of conflicts escalate because the people involved have different style preferences and thus prefer differing approaches to dealing with differences. For example, Directors and Cooperators want to put things right out there and talk about them now, whereas Avoiders prefer to step back and think about things first. Each tends to assume that "good" people would use the approach they favor. As a result, there are now two sources of tension - one about the issues and the other about how to deal with the issues!

With others in your team or organization, identify particular pairings of styles that commonly cause difficulties. Think about recent conflicts. In what ways did style expectations play a role? What insights can people exchange about the needs of the styles involved that would ease future conflicts?

8. If your group has people from both individualist and collectivist cultural backgrounds (see Note 1 first on page 24), you can have an illuminating discussion. Separate into small groups of individualists only or collectivists only. Ask each group to create a picture showing a conflict someone in their group has experienced, using vehicles as a major part of the drawing. Have each group share with the larger group: What kind of vehicles did they choose for the parties and why? Who is driving the vehicles? Who else is in the picture and with what connections to the conflictants? What factors do conflictants consider in deciding how to respond to the conflict? When all groups have shared, reflect as a whole group: What insights do you gain about differences between individualist and collectivist conflicts?

9. Here is a discussion for group settings that inspires hope:
Select two people who work together and have different styles, but know and trust each other well. Have them talk in the presence of the whole group about their style differences, how they see each other, how they have learned to work with and respect each others’ unique patterns of dealing with conflict.