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In this month's issue:
A Principle of Dynamic Living
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
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
Thriving On Conflict™."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 . . .
There are four aggressive/defensive approaches to
conflict resolution, all based on the use of a
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.
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
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
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.
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.]
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.
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
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
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
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
To have positive results, however, there are better
look at the facts and figure this thing out.
is what I am doing about it.
First, let's get to know each
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
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
Defensive Conflict Resolution
Copyright © 2003 Bill
Kuehn and Steve Wille. No part of this work may
be reproduced without permission. For more information,
Note: The 12 conflict styles are drawn from LSI
Conflict™, Copyright ©
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
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