• geoffashton

From calm to storm and back - how to manage conflict well

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

How do you manage conflict? When you find yourself in a disagreement to what extent are you focused on winning the argument, keeping the peace, living to fight another day, or getting to the root of the dispute? What’s more important to you – the issue or the relationship?

The wider benefits of understanding your conflict style

Understanding your own conflict style and approach is not only valuable in its own right. It can also provide a basis for broadening and deepening your own Emotional Intelligence, in particular awareness of what’s happening within yourself, with others, and the general environment in which you find yourself.

From calm to storm and the space in between

Of the many excellent models and approaches to draw on, I make extensive use of the Riverhouse Press Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory. As well as outlining different conflict styles it helpfully focuses attention on different approaches to which you may default when you are in different moods. How I respond to conflict when I am calm and relaxed is quite different to what happens when the calm gives way to what Riverhouse describes as “Storm.” Taking the inventory test helped me realise that my own personal transition from Calm to Storm is often very fast. If I am to manage that transition well, and make good choices about how to respond to situations that precipitate that change, I need to identify early warning signs that I am headed out of my calm mode. Because getting “stormy” is quite unusual for me, it can have a positive shock effect when it happens. But it can also damage relationships if not managed quickly, and Riverhouse provide plenty of practical suggestions for exploring how to manage your conflict approach in both calm and storm, and in the transitions between the two.

Issues and relationships

When managing conflict, a straightforward idea to keep in mind is the extent to which you are focused on the issue or the relationship. It has been rightly said that you can win an argument and lose a friend. Alternatively you can be so focused on the relationship that conversations you need to have – about the issue that needs resolving – are deferred or ignored. These headline ideas can be the basis for the deeper reflection you may need to be having around the question: “What’s really going on here?” The basis of a disagreement may be purely practical – you are using different data, or interpreting the same data in different ways. But there may be more going on. Questions of status and position may be being raised, or you may feel that giving way on what would appear to be a minor matter is opening the door to other challenges that are more serious. Good coaching helps reveal the deeper issues – insights which create opportunities for exploring different strategies that you can employ.

Getting into the situation whilst standing outside of it

An exercise I sometimes encourage with clients is to re-live a conflict experience in “real time.” Drawing on Gestalt theory and CBT, we talk about the situation in the present tense rather than the past and help the client experience it both as a participant and as an observer. There needs to be a high level of trust between the coach and client to engage in this process, and examples need to be chosen carefully. Used well and appropriately it can be a deeply insightful and powerful reflective process. The skill of being both in a situation and to be able, mentally, to position yourself outside it as an observer can be a huge advantage in any situation involving disagreement.

The conversation you need to have

Reading this piece may also cause to reflect on conversations you need to have but have been putting off. I’ve written about that here. A third party conversation is a brilliant way to get perspective on specific conflict situations, or generally how you approach disagreements.

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