Constructive Conflict
Published in the UK

Dynamic Living™
A monthly stimulant for people who live thoughtfully and with purpose
Editor: Christopher J. Coulson
March/April 2004
Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.




FROM THE UK: 0800-949-6030.

FROM NORTH AMERICA: 1-866-761-1392






In this month's issue:

A Principle of Dynamic Living

Constructive Conflict

or, Something Good Might Come Out of This

by Steve Wille and Bill Kuehn

[MY INTRODUCTION: To many, the word 'conflict' summons up pictures of antagonism ranging from a defiantly protruding lower lip to scenes of actual war. Yet without conflict there'd be no progress at all because there'd be no need to find new solutions, whether creatively or destructively.

In this article, Steve Wille and Bill Kuehn approach the issue of conflict creatively, categorizing individual approaches to resolution and showing how they may - or may not - work together. Wille and Kuehn work with organizational teams and have oriented their words toward them. However, their wisdom is of value to us all because we're all capable of recognizing ourselves - and, probably more clearly, our partners - in their descriptions.

I have no connection with Wille and Kuehn beyond enjoying what they write here. May I wish you many happily creative conflicts . .cjc]

Steve Wille and Bill Kuehn are co-founders of Tough Teams, a training company that works with organizations that want successful projects, and leaders who want to get their people behind a common goal. Their proud claim is: "We take your team beyond conflict resolution and conflict management with our flagship class, Thriving On Conflict™."

They write:

Some of us wish that conflict would go away, but think about it for a moment: have you ever experienced better results after the storm of disagreement?  Isn't this better than pretending everything is okay when it’s not?  We want to resolve conflict, hoping we can get everyone to agree, but that doesn’t always happen.  So what do you do in a conflict situation when intelligent people disagree and they are both right? What if they are both wrong?

A good place to start is to take a look at what drives us to conflict. Abraham Maslow wrote about the human hierarchy of needs.  He said that once basic needs are met we set them aside and higher level needs become the center of attention.  The most basic need is survival.  At this level we are totally self-centered, and we have good reason to be.  We would do just about anything to meet our need for food, water, and shelter—even if it leads to conflict with other people.  Once these basic physical needs are met, we operate at a higher level, meeting the needs of our family and community.  Now, the conflict is between my group and another group.

In the workplace, you don't see people too worried about the basic needs for survival and security, but you do see the higher level need for achievement.  At first, one might think that the achievement need would lead to cooperation.  However, conflict occurs at this level because we each want to get the job done right and we don't all agree on what this means.  The conflict can be intense because there is a great deal riding on it.

Conflict is part of living; it is neither good nor bad.  The challenge is to make conflict constructive.  In our workshop, Thriving on Conflict, we do an exercise that demonstrates unconstructive conflict that accomplishes nothing:  two people face each other and the only thing they are allowed to say is, "I'm right." They repeat this phrase back and forth, and  typically, they say it louder and with more passion. It’s fun to watch and see what people learn from this. Talking louder with more emotion doesn’t help; they get nowhere.  This is typical of many unconstructive conflict situations: people get on the defensive and don’t go anywhere positive.

We use an assessment from Human Synergistics™, called the Lifestyles Inventory - Conflict, which allows people to see how they typically respond in a conflict situation.  Responders fall into three categories:

Constructive Responders
Defensive Responders

  • Constructive responders, who:


    • View conflict as an opportunity
    • Treat opponents as equals
    • Have an objective beyond winning
    • Benefit regardless of outcome

  • Passive/defensive responders, who:
    • View conflict as threatening
    • Avoid getting involved
    • Try to calm troubled waters
    • See conflict as unnecessary and destructive

  • Aggressive/defensive responders, who:
    • View conflict as threatening
    • Become adversarial, ready for battle
    • Try to overpower or outwit opponents
    • Need to win
Briefly, constructive responders view conflict as an opportunity to make things better, whereas the two defensive responders view conflict as threatening.

The Constructive Approaches

There are four constructive approaches to conflict, and they all work.

The Pragmatic Approach:

Essence: Let's look at the facts and figure this thing out.

Whatever the situation, pragmatists will ask, "What can be done?" They leave out the emotions and don't dwell on the past, saying things like, "Why did you mess this up?"  They want the facts and are willing to let the facts lead where they lead, and they will accept any idea that works, whether it is theirs or their opponent's.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Pragmatists believe that conflicts of interest are to be expected and can be useful in achieving goals and practical solutions to problems. Because Pragmatists are able to disassociate their self worth from the outcome of a conflict, this style typically results in successful resolution.]

The Self-Empowered Approach:

Essence: Here is what I am doing about it.

Self-empowered people take ownership and responsibility.  They don't cast blame on others; they start by working on things they control.  These people do not see themselves as powerless victims. Rather, they see a crisis as a challenge and an opportunity, and typically, they find solutions that no one thought were even possible.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Self-Empowered people take control of their own lives by setting objectives which are achievable regardless of a conflict's outcome and demonstrate respect for their opponent's interests.]

The Relationship Builder Approach:

Essence: First, let's get to know each other.

Before dealing with the issues leading to conflict, these people want to deal with the person; they want to make a human connection.  On Monday morning when they get to work, they are likely to ask, "How was your weekend?"  For them, this is a genuine question; they really want to know.  They know from past experience that a human connection can get them through the tough times.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Relationship Builders show a strong concern for building and maintaining relationships. They believe that as long as people value their relationships, they will find ways to work out their differences.]

The Conciliator Approach:

Essence: I know we can work this out.

The conciliator's number one belief is the old expression "win/win."  Their first move is to figure out how the other person can win: if I can help you get what you want, you will help me with what I want. This is not to be confused with lose/win, where I give in to you to make you happy at my expense. It is critical to the conciliator that both parties walk away from the conflict feeling that their needs were met.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Conciliators believe that people are basically well intentioned and want to work through their differences in reasonable and fair ways. They tend to view conflicts between individuals as natural and important. People can work together to find reasonable ways to handle their differences.]

Constructive summary

In summary, all four of these approaches allow you to view conflict as an opportunity.  The pragmatic and self-empowered approaches create new ideas, breakthroughs, and success where you have not seen it before.  People who use the relationship builder and conciliator approaches often improve relationships by connecting with others and having meaningful conversation that leads to success.

The Passive/Defensive Approaches

There are four passive/defensive approaches to conflict. All are designed to build a protective barrier.

The Avoider Approach:

Essence: Time heals all wounds.

Avoiders figure that if you wait it out, the problem will go away.  The problem is that time does not heal all wounds; some wounds become infected. In moderation, avoidance is a useful strategy, but if you avoid every conflict, fear and resentment can build because you are not doing anything to address the underlying problems.  If you find yourself in this category, we suggest that you take another look at the constructive self-empowered  style.  If you speak the language of personal responsibility, you start believing in your abilities and stop being the victim.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Avoiders believe that conflict with others is unnecessary and destructive and are likely to withdraw or flee from conflict situations. Their denial and flight can escalate an opponent's hostilities, frequently resulting in a more serious conflict situation than was originally the case.]

The Accommodator Approach:

Essence: I lose and you win so you will like me.

Accommodators have a strategy of winning by losing so that others will like them.  To a limited extent, this works very well: accommodators are liked, but, unfortunately, they are not always respected, and by giving in too easily and not taking a stand, they miss opportunities.  The difference between the accommodator and the  relationship builder is the latter has learned that you don’t have to lose to be liked. 

If you find yourself accommodating to your own detriment, continue to use your great human relations skills, but don't always give in; support your side of the issue.  Whether you win or not, you will walk away with the satisfaction of having been heard.  Don't be surprised if you win more than you thought you would.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Accommodators see their self worth as dependent upon others' approval and acceptance. They approach conflict situations by attempting to smooth over differences, never taking a stand that will put them at odds with others.]

The Regulator Approach:

Essence: If we do it for you, we will have to do it for everyone.

The rules are the regulator's defense, and  to the regulator, the rules are more important than the results.  Rules were written for a reason, but there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  If you hide behind the letter of the law, you become rigid and rules can actually work against you.  What happens when you have to take action and there are no rules? Are you going to just sit there?  We suggest instead that you take a look at the constructive pragmatic style.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Regulators attempt to control conflict by appealing to rules, policy and authority, doing what they are told or what's expected regardless of their own interests.]

The Insulator Approach:

Essence: The way my boss [or other significant third-party] feels about it...

The insulator finds a base of power and hides behind it.  It’s like having a bodyguard.  The problem is that insulators often become groupies rather then developing their own skills, and if the bodyguard leaves, they are lost.  They show great loyalty to the powerful person, but it’s not always a two-way relationship. Insulators are at risk of becoming the proverbial "yes man”, and they are easily replaced when their base of power moves on.  If you are in this category, take another look at the self-empowered constructive style, and  start speaking for yourself.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Insulators build relationships with those they believe are powerful enough to insulate them from conflict's effects. By running from conflict and depending on others to shield them, they perpetuate their fears and inadequate coping skills.]

Passive/Defensive Summary

As a general observation, when a passive/defensive person wants to improve, there is a knee-jerk reaction to do exactly the opposite.  For example, a person who is quiet at meetings might try speaking loudly and banging on the table.  Here is a warning: the aggressive/defensive styles don't work that well either. Read on . . .

The Aggressive/Defensive Approaches

There are four aggressive/defensive approaches to conflict resolution, all based on the use of a preemptive attack.

The Dominator Approach:

Essence: Do it my way.

When dominators enter the room and join the meeting, they try to take control.  Right or wrong, they know where they are going, and they expect you to follow.  They are on the offensive, believing that this defends them from other approaches that would cause them to fail.  They have a need either to control others or to do it themselves; power is important, and they will work hard to get it. 

We have a suggestion for the dominator: look at the constructive relationship builder approach.  By showing some genuine interest in the other person, you will  soften the effect of your aggressive approach. Furthermore, you may find people more willing to follow your lead because of the supportive way you treat them.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Dominators reflect the belief that people are basically motivated by power and control. Their strategy is to accumulate power and use force to pursue their interests. The tactics employed by dominators incite combative action and escalate conflicts quickly.]

The Escalator Approach:

Essence: When I throw a tantrum, I get what I want.

No matter what happens, the escalator's first reaction is to get upset; whatever the conflict level, they raise the intensity several notches.  To make themselves look good, they attack other people, but unfortunately, this is self-defeating. 

If you are an escalator, we suggest you look to the conciliator for an example of a constructive approach.  Understand that most people are well-intentioned, and find a way to see a positive aspect to your opponent’s position.  Sure, there may be bad intentions, too, but if you focus on the other person’s viewpoint and interest, you are more likely to have  positive results.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Escalators believe that acceptance and respect are gained through constantly demonstrating one's competence. Escalators intensify conflict more frequently and quickly than any other conflict style; their strategy is to assume the role of critic and prosecutor. This style moves conflict in a dangerous direction, creating a highly adversarial climate of attack and counterattack.]

The Competitor Approach:

Essence: I win, you lose.

The competitor is the exact opposite of the accommodator—he or she sees winning as an opportunity to be respected and liked.  The problem with both the accommodator and the competitor is a matter of degree; a little competition and a little accommodation can be good things.  With the competitor, though, things can get out of hand when winning becomes the only goal, and other people may be torn down. 

Remember, our goal is to get work done, and when other people are invalidated nothing gets accomplished.  The key is to keep competition fun, uplifting, and a way for us to improve skills.  We recommend that the competitor become more pragmatic and look instead at what you are trying to accomplish; don't equate your importance only with winning.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Competitors assume that conflicts are contests by which one can either gain or lose status. They are inclined to engage in those conflicts which will glorify them most. Their position of superiority tends to escalate legitimate differences into win/lose contests and parties lose sight of the value of pursuing mutual interests.]

The Perfectionist Approach:

Essence: It isn’t good enough.

The first thing to recognize about perfectionists is that they are great people to have on the team because they do things well.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to do things right, unless it gets out of hand.  If a client doesn’t want perfection, taking more time to perfect every single item delays the project and may even cause it to be abandoned because it never gets done. 

Another problem is the effect that perfectionism has on the team: if you focus only on what is wrong, you risk de-energizing other people.  People can lose interest, and then you end up having to do it all yourself.  We suggest a more pragmatic approach.  Establish a point at which the work is acceptable, and look at what you were trying to accomplish in the first place.  Perfect the things that need perfecting, and ease off on the rest.

[Human Synergistics™ adds: Perfectionists set impossible goals which they pursue compulsively and have difficulty accepting failure. Their blind persistence only serves to incite opponents and escalate even the most simple conflicts into frustrating wars of attrition.]


Let's pull all of this together.  When you get up in the morning, you know that there is going to be conflict today.  You have a choice; you can be constructive or defensive.  We all learned our defensive approaches years ago, and they actually work at protecting us, which is why we often jump to them when we face conflict.

To have  positive results, however, there are  better choices:

  • Pragmatic: Let's look at the facts and figure this thing out.

  • Self-Empowered: Here is what I am doing about it.

  • Relationship Builder: First, let's get to know each other.

  • Conciliator: I know we can work this out.

We conclude our workshop, Thriving on Conflict, with a graduation exercise. This exercise provides an opportunity to try constructive conflict styles that may be a little foreign to each person.  It’s fun to watch dominators play a supportive role to people who have been reluctant to put forth ideas.  We have seen competitors accommodate others, and accommodators become just a bit more competitive and speak up for themselves.  The point of the exercise is to practice new approaches so that in the real world they become natural.

There is no magic wand to prevent conflict, but we have four constructive approaches that work. Remember, with constructive conflict, something good might come out of this.

Constructive Conflict Resolution Approaches
Defensive Conflict Resolution Approaches




Copyright © 2003 Bill Kuehn and Steve Wille. No part of this work may be reproduced without permission. For more information, visit http://www.thrivingonconflictcom

Note: The 12 conflict styles are drawn from LSI Conflict™, Copyright © 1990 Human Synergistics, Inc.  Used with permission.

Readers interested in attending a "Thriving on Conflict" workshop in the UK should contact Clayton Ainger who delivers the workshop on behalf of Tough Teams there.


A Parting Reminder

"If you ask me what I have come to do in the world, I will reply: I'm here to live my life out loud." - Émile Zola, French writer at whose funeral Anatole France declared: "He was a monument of the human conscience."


Explore the Archive

Take a look at some of the intriguing subjects and points of view explored in the back issues of Dynamic Living. Just visit: for a full listing.



If this issue of Dynamic Living™ was sent to you by a friend and you wish to receive your own copy, you can subscribe by completing the form below and clicking the "Submit" button. If the "From" address above is "" you are already subscribed. To unsubscribe, please enter the same email address shown in the "TO:" line of this email, select the 'Unsubscribe' button, and then click "Submit". Thank you.

First name Last name E-mail address

Subscribe            Unsubscribe



Are you with AOL?

If so, as you upgrade to AOL 9.0, you will find a number of new spam controls aimed at keeping your in-box clean. These controls create a greater distinction between e-mail from the people that AOL customers know and those they don't by putting incoming email into one of these folders: everyone, people I know, bulk senders, and/or unknown senders.

To ensure you continue to receive 'Dynamic Living™' please put it in the “people I know” category, or it may not get through. Here's how:

A ) Add the 'Dynamic Living™' mailing address - - to your address book, or

B) Simply reply to this issue. If you reply, AOL will automatically put this address in your address book and 'Dynamic Living™' will be considered “people I know.”




Publisher's Statement: Dynamic Living™ explores aspects of life and living that affect gifted adults and other thoughtful and insightful individuals. It is for all those who approach life in a distinctly questioning way.

This issue is being sent to you in response to your interest in Dynamic Life Coaching. You may have subscribed through a website relating to the different issues of personal awareness, development and growth that affect gifted adults and those who share the challenges of gifted adults. You may also have subscribed through a website devoted to a specific form of developmental adaptation common to gifted adults, such as using eating behaviors as a way to manage emotions. If you have been subscribed in error, please use the form above to unsubscribe.

No commissions are earned on any recommendations or links included in this ezine.

Comments and suggestions are very welcome and should be sent to

Copyright ©2004 by Christopher J. Coulson. All rights reserved.

Contact Christopher at: 4, Eaton Manor, The Drive, Hove, East Sussex BN3 3PT, UK

Telephone: toll-free from the UK: 0800-949-6030; or toll-free from the USA:1-866-761-1392. Callers from other countries can use either number but they will be charged at the appropriate international rate. They should therefore call whichever is the less expensive connection.
You may also leave messages at the USA number: 505-474-6235.

Christopher J. Coulson