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What’s Your Conflict Style? Exploring Your Style and Some Tools to Help.

Do you remember your last argument? If so, how did you respond to it? Unfortunately, conflict is a part of our human experience, however, it's how we navigate it that matters.

Thinking about your last argument, do you feel you could’ve handled it better? I know I've grown in the way I manage it, however, I'm definitely not perfect. There are times that I react versus respond to a situation. This said, there are some tools that have helped me manage conflict over the years and hopefully it will help you too. The first is learning about conflict styles.

Like different love languages or attachment styles, we can have different conflict styles. Knowing our styles, and the styles of others we care about or work with, is helpful to understand and contextualize certain ways of dealing with conflict.

Years ago, I was first introduced to a version of conflict styles. There were five different types: the director, the cooperator, the compromiser, the harmonizer, and the avoider. The director being someone who will kick things into gear during a fight and tell others what to do or how to do it. The cooperator has the reflex to listen and offer solutions to a conflict so that it can be a win-win situation. The compromiser will meet the person or persons in the middle, making sure some of their needs are met. The harmonizer wants peace at all costs and will give up their needs to keep the peace, and the avoider avoids conflict at all costs. Most of these are self-explanatory by their label, however, here’s a diagram of Kraybill's Conflict Style Inventory for more details:

We tend to have dominant conflict styles in low or high stress situations (often not the same); however, we can respond with a different style depending on how we perceive a situation. Thomas Kilmann's conflict styles version is similar to Ron Kraybill’s: competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding.

Based on this, I'm more of a cooperator/collaborator. This said, I identify with other styles in some situations. Unfortunately, my style doesn't do so well with avoiders. So, it's not surprising that if there is conflict with an avoider, the relationship will most likely not continue. It's not that I don't understand and have compassion for other people's styles, it's just that continuing a relationship and the value placed on it cannot be one sided. It boils down to compatibility even in conflict styles.

Sharing these styles with some of my clients has helped them not internalize a conflict or take sole responsibility for one as was their pattern. Yes, sometimes one person can initiate a conflict, however, it’s generally a dynamic between two or more people. These styles, and having a conversation about it, also reassured a client that his fiancé will not distance herself from him when they get into an argument. Again, it can be very empowering to understand all the dynamics at play before, during, and after a fight.

Speaking of fight, I believe conflict styles are similar to stress responses and perhaps they were conceived from the different stress responses.

Our stress responses (fight, flight, freeze, fix/fawn), and subsequently our conflict styles, are usually products of our old brain (our limbic system). They can also be affected by parenting, however. If your primary caregiver, whether mother, father, or someone else, was a fighter then you most likely fight when stressed. This is most likely your stress response with your kids if you have any according to parenting author and speaker Dr. Shefali Tsabary.

The good news is that we can be more mindful of this (new brain) and use tools to help.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Compassion. Being compassionate that we all have different styles and responses can take the sting out of a conflict and change the tone of it. Even if it's not compatible with your own style or response, or whether you want to continue the relationship or friendship, it's helpful to understand and not take it personally.

  • Respond versus react. Responding typically requires you to pause and be more thoughtful of your words and actions than reacting (old brain). Try to remind yourself to respond versus react when you sense you are getting upset.

  • Pay attention to physical cues. Becoming aware of your physiological responses to stress, anger, or conflict (e.g., flushed cheeks, shortness of breath and tightening jaws) can help you choose more adaptive responses such as removing yourself from the situation and saying you'll be back instead of blowing up.

  • Create a list. To let off steam or not have it weigh on you, create a list of all the points for future discussion or all the ways you feel wronged. It helps you relieve some of the anger or frustration because you got it all out.

  • Use "I feel" statements. When airing out a conflict best to stick with "I feel" than "you" as "you" typically accompanies a generalization e.g. "You always do that" and it's accusatory by nature. People are generally more receptive when you use "I feel" statements or variations of it e.g., "Strictly speaking for me."

  • Counting to 5 or more. If you need a tangible tool to respond than react, try counting to 5 or 10. You may think it's a long time but generally 5 seconds is a small pause and can help you recalibrate enough to approach things differently.

  • Fix or feel? When conversing with a spouse, partner, or friend, to help prevent an argument, you can ask them -when being told something that bothers them - if they want you to help fix what they are saying or feel what they are saying.

  • Ask what's more important. Is being right more important or the relationship? Going back to agendas and conflict styles, reflect if your agenda or ego is more important than your relationship to the other person. I'm not saying you should keep the peace and not have your needs met, I'm suggesting considering the relationship and the value it brings to you or not.

Hopefully, there are one or two tips here that can help you regulate and prevent a rift from happening or at least not internalize it. If someone ghosts you, it’s most likely their way of dealing with conflict or stress. It may not align with how you would approach a situation; however, you most likely value the relationship, and were willing to invest in it by talking it out, whereas the other person doesn’t.

At times when I feel angry, I try to remind myself that underneath my anger is hurt. I’m mad because I feel wronged in some way and for me to feel that hurt than just be in a blaze of fury. It also gives me the space to consider whether I want to cooperate, collaborate, or fix a situation or relationship. We tend to automatically act out of our default styles and responses, during conflict or stress, that it can be difficult to evaluate whether we want to continue something or not (maybe not so difficult for avoiders 🙂). Creating healthy boundaries is just as important as how we navigate conflict.


Ps. If you feel you would like more support with this (either your style or a situation), apply here to see if I can help.

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