Posts Tagged ‘conflict response styles’

John (let’s call him that) is a youngish and very successful exec who has had a stellar rise in  bio-tech (making a few enemies along the way),  and who is now, as head of a major research division,  experiencing enough work-related stress and anxiety to drive him to coaching.    Asked to tell me more about his stress,  he says that he’s “in a state of siege” at work, “defending himself” against “constant attack” and never knowing “where the next blow will come from”.  When I ask how he most often responds to conflict at work, he says he has learned to “keep his head down”, his “ear always to the ground” and to “dodge the bullets” before he gets hit.  John’s metaphors tell me that he’s at war!

The way we speak and the metaphors we use reveal very much more about us than we think.  And the metaphors we use when we speak about conflict not only reveal how we feel but even how  we rate our chances of reaching successful resolution.

Metaphors are not just figures of speech or the linguistic flourishes of competent speakers but are a fundamental element of everyday communication and reflect how certain experiences have been received and stored in our subconscious and what deep connotations they hold for us.  In this way, metaphors are not only a mirror to the soul but are the soul’s very language – informing the observant listener about our state of mind, what we have in our hearts, what we fear most and how we see the world around us and our place in it.

Focussing your listening skills on the client’s use of metaphor therefore:

Allows you to delve more deeply into the conflict discourse 

Following on the metaphoric leads that your client gives will allow you to delve more deeply and quickly into the conflict discourse than you ever thought possible:  In this way, through curiosity, open questions and staying with the metaphor of war, I am able to ask John about his immediate situation including who his “allies” are, what “resources” he has at his disposal, what his “weapons” are, how he views his chances of “getting out unscathed”, how long he thinks he can “hold out with his current strategies” and what would need to happen to change his “chances of getting out alive”.  But I am also able to dig deeper and ask him how he maneuvered himself into this position in the first place and what long-term vision he has for himself.

Delivers an entire portfolio of client information

Over and above informing the coach about the current conflict situation, the metaphors we choose to use in discussing conflict reveal a great deal about our conflict response styles and our conflict management skills.  In this way, metaphors can deliver an entire portfolio of client information that is otherwise only collected after several sessions of assessment tools and explorative coaching.

Allows easy access to difficult emotions

Working through metaphor allows the client to discuss difficult experiences and emotions with more distance than if they were simply asked to describe “what it feels like”.  Using metaphor enables them to step back and view the conflict situation almost as an observer and from that vantage point, to describe not only what they are feeling but also what they are seeing.

Acts as a vehicle for fundamental change

Staying with metaphor and inviting the client to choose alternative metaphors to describe the conflict or the conflict setting, can be a major step towards fundamental change.   In John’s case, he was able to replace the war metaphors he used for his workplace and career experiences with metaphors surrounding his former passion for rowing.  His focus turned towards becoming “one of a team”, looking out for others, “watching the flow”, “checking the current”, “carrying weight”, “sharing a load” and a wealth more of co-operative and collaborative metaphors that involve communication rather than ducking bullets and keeping one’s ear to the ground.  Needless to say, he felt less anxious going into work and despite performance pressure, was able to focus on getting his research team to the next milestone in one piece.  He turned his focus onto upgrading resources, improving training and furthering the team concept.

Clients love it and are amazed at how revealing it is

I have not yet met a client who is not amazed by what they reveal about themselves through their choice of metaphor.  This moment of discovery generally inspires a willingness and a curiosity to explore all aspects of the metaphor and in that way to uncover hard-to-get-at aspects of conflict.

So, next time your client talks about “storms brewing”, having “lost his bearing” or “feeling adrift”,  stay with the metaphor,  dabble in little linguistic magic and do some great coaching.


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Conflict avoidance may on the surface sound like a “kind” thing to do but believe it or not, it is often this particular conflict response that lies at the root of festering tensions, chronically unproductive workplaces and breakdowns in personal and organizational communication.  Indeed the effect of this apparently “harmless” conflict response can often be as destructive as open hostility and confrontation.

An avoidant style of conflict response may stem from a combination of psychological factors and cultural attitudes towards conflict: there might for example be an underlying belief that conflict is bad, that harmony is always the preferred mode of interaction, that gender defines who gets to express disagreement and how such disagreement is expressed or that one’s status in a hierarchy determines the right to assert oneself.  Avoidance of conflict may be driven by a desire to be “liked”, by fear either of exposing one’s feelings or of the consequences of such feelings being exposed,  by economic concerns for keeping one’s job, privilege or status, or simply by a lack of skill and experience at addressing conflict openly.

Conflict avoidance expresses itself in multiple and often very subtle ways and since it is non-confrontational and often cloaked in what is commonly perceived as non-aggressive and even “nice” behaviour,   can easily be misunderstood or not recognized for what it truly is.

Avoidant behaviour presents a wide range of symptoms.   These include dragging one’s feet, stonewalling, postponement or deferral of decisions, constant shifting of the goalposts, ambiguity, denial that something is wrong,  expressions of emotional distress when conflict is addressed and non- communication or withdrawal under the guise of a shy or timid personality.

The results of conflict avoidance on closer examination have nothing “nice” or “kind” about them at all:  they include poor decision-making when it does happen,  acquiescence or accommodation of whichever party is prepared to step up and act, costly and damaging delays,  a state of limbo or stagnation, a breakdown in communication, a spirit of mistrust und uncertainty as well as exaggerated, inappropriate or aggressive outbursts through long-term suppression of conflict.

Like all conflict response styles however, avoidant behaviour is not always all bad.   On the contrary, an avoidant conflict response is appropriate when:

  • confrontation or another form of conflict resolution is more damaging than avoidance.
  • avoidance allows the parties to stand back from conflict in order to reassess the situation and to return to it in a more constructive manner
  • the conflict is not yet ripe for resolution due to a lack of information
  • there is another more effective means of resolution available

and inappropriate when:

  • an immediate decision is crucial and necessary
  • it would prevent resolution or lead to further damage through withholding of information or action
  • co-operation amongst individuals is essential for the functioning of a greater whole such as is the case amongst board members, on teams, within groups or other interdependent structures
  • avoidance results in needs or emotions being suppressed or topics not addressed which will at a later stage definitely damage relationships

So,  if your preferred conflict response is avoidance, ask yourself where this preference comes from and what impact your avoidant response might be having on those around you.  And if you are getting  nowhere  with an issue that needs to be dealt with, look around and see if there aren’t conflict-avoiders at work,  find a way to address the issue (and perhaps the avoider) constructively,  and in that way move it along towards resolution.

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I wonder whether the royal wedding planners considered the services of a conflict coach for Kate and William, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as they prepared to sail their boat into the choppy waters of marital life?

I am pretty sure they didn’t, for like most young couples, the thought of conflict with the prince or princess of one’s dreams couldn’t be further from one’s mind as one plans that happiest of days.

And yet, conflict skills will prove immensely useful in years to come and will, more than any other aspect of marital life, determine just how happy and successful the union is.  It may come as surprise to most, but ultimately, it is a couple’s ability to deal with conflict well, that determines the success or downfall of a marriage.  No boudoir secrets, no great recipes or aphrodisiacs and no amount of wealth or good fortune – the bottom line is how well you’re able to fight with each other.

So, what are the skills that might make up the conflict toolbox for those about to tie the knot?

  • Know and understand your own and your partner’s conflict response style before you embark upon married life. There are no “good” or “bad” styles per se, but simply inappropriate responses based on using the wrong style in the wrong situation.  Knowing your own style allows you to understand when it is useful to use and when not; knowing your partner’s style, allows you to predict how he or she might react in a certain situation and to take a different approach.
  • Learn to step back before conflict gets out of hand.  In this way the wounding that can arise through emotional outbursts is avoided, emotions which are running high are given time to settle,  and the couple have time to begin to reflect on the conflict and to approach it differently a second time round.  Take “time-out”, do whatever it takes for you to cool off and come back when you feel ready to continue constructively.  By reacting instinctively, we become part of the problem; by stepping back, we become the first step on the road to resolution.
  • Become an expert at listening to your partner.  Being a good listener sets you way ahead of all other competitors when it comes to winning the race for constructive conflict resolution.  Through listening you symbolize your willingness to understand and resolve differences.  Being well listened to results in a drop in blood pressure, heartbeat and aggression and creates a willingness to reciprocate understanding for the other.
  •  Separate the person from the problem. To do this you need to distinguish between the interests and positions in an argument:  it’s not what you each say you want but why you want it that is important.  “What” you say you want is the position, “why” you want it, is the interest (or need) behind the position.   And the goal of constructive conflict resolution is to meet the interests that drive our struggles with each other.  As long as our needs are not understood and met, we will continue making demands (positions) until conflict takes on a life of its own and runs away with us.
  • Watch your language!  Get into the habit of speaking only for yourself in a conflict – use sentences that start with “I” and not with “You” and with content that only relates to yourself.  If you’re assuming to know and to tell your partner what they are feeling or thinking without them having told you so expressly, you’re way off track and heading into a thorny thicket.  Avoid words like “always”, “never” and “keep” as well as name-calling.  And insulting language  in any and every form, is absolutely taboo.
  • Learn to apologise and to mean it.  That means that the “sorry” word is not enough.  For an apology to be meaningful it has to describe what you have done, to show that you understand the effect of your actions and to show a willingness to avoid such behaviour in the future.  A mumbled “sorry, didn’t mean it” won’t wash and a “sorry, but if you hadn’t….” is a backhanded accusation disguised as an apology.  “I’m sorry for saying what I did.  I can see that you were really hurt by it and I won’t speak to you in that tone again” is more like it.    If you’re speaking about yourself in your apology and how you intend to avoid a repeat of the situation, you’re fine; if you’re apportioning blame or adding up scores, you need to start again.

And finally, kiss, embrace and show your love for each other – because ultimately that’s the reason you’re together.  As the song says, “We always hurt the one we love” but if we truly love, we have to become experts at resolving our differences quickly and avoiding lasting damage to the relationship.

Entering a marriage with a sturdy set of conflict resolution tools at hand, is the best possible start a young couple could have and is a gift that I would certainly give the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge if I were a fairy godmother.

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