Two Step for Conflict Avoiders

When voices rise and conflict escalates, do you step forward and engage?  Or step back and assess? This post is for people who favor the latter, and for those who live and work with them.  I’ll give you another two-step for conflict resolution, a practical strategy when engagement is difficult. 

Some Conflict Avoidance is Good

Let’s start by honoring “step back and assess” as a response to conflict. Life brings endless friction. We are confronted, goaded, and obstructed from every corner. It’s hard to get through even a day without someone or something in our face.

In chronically contested space, engaging all challengers is impossible.  When someone gives you the finger for your unexpected shift of lanes while driving, do you pull over to talk things through?  Hardly.  What would be the point?  You shrug, mutter to yourself, ignore the jackal, and drive on.

So the arts of skillful avoidance are essential to survival: Silence, distance, non-involvement, non-responsiveness, impassiveness, circumspection, studied neutrality, inaccessibility, biding your time.  All have a place as strategies to avoid battles not worth the cost of fighting or for which we are poorly prepared.

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Intro to Conflict Styles Podcast

Organizational psychologist and podcaster Meisha Rouser has posted an interview, "Exploring Conflict Styles with Ron Kraybill".   In a 25 minute conversation you get an overview of key concepts of conflict styles and why it's important to pay attention to them.


Use This Powerful Force for Change

By adopting practices of interaction largely stripped of symbols and moments to engage Depth, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful source of energy for creativity, connection, and change available to us.
Are you exploring the power of symbols in your work in conflict resolution and human development?

I am moved by an email I recently received from Samaritan Inns, which serves homeless people. “At Samaritan Inns, during every counseling session, we sit out one empty chair. Every client knows that this chair represents the person who isn’t here yet. This is the next client that walks through our doors and onto the road to recovery.”

That empty chair is a potent symbol of hope. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to place it, or to explain the meaning of its presence. It will be forgotten during most of an intense counseling session.

Yet it serves as a tangible, here-and-now reminder of things every person in counseling benefits from remembering. He or she is not the only one who suffers. The journey of recovery awaits, for all, whenever they choose to begin it. There is hope for things to get better.

As a symbol, the empty chair invokes these things without preaching, without words. It speaks silently, by its mere presence, to the depths that reside in all human beings but often remain untouched.

The Call to the Deep is often abused. All of us have been subjected to people who shout the Call or try to impose their interpretation of it on others.

As modern people we've rightly reacted to such manipulation. But we’ve also thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In adopting practices of interaction stripped of symbols and moments to engage Depth, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful source of energy for creativity, connection, and change available to us.

The Deep that resides within each human being (or “beyond”, if you prefer) offers its power only to those who seek it through hopeful choice. Loud proclamations, angry condemnations, and invocations of guilt obstruct access to this place.

In today’s  world of competing narratives we’ve exhausted the power of words to call upon that place of deep knowing where we hear and remember Depth.  I’m quickly bored and rarely moved by verbal strategies to take us there. I’m refreshed, intrigued, and inspired by non-verbal ones.

Movement, symbol, sound, smell, silence.

If you were to place an empty chair in your classroom, workshop, session, or meeting, what would you want it to symbolize?

With what symbols do you or might you remind the people you work with that they are not alone in their pain, that “this too shall pass”, that warmth and love still exist even if we don’t feel them right now, that moments of “better” will come, that forgiveness is possible?

What strategies and practices have you experimented with, or better, built into the routines of your work or life that invite all present to the River, that place of the Deep where human beings meet hope, light, and possibility for fresh beginnings?

Can We Market Peace?

Conflict resolution and human development people could learn a lot from business marketers.  We have a message and tools that address critical challenges for human beings.

We should learn from the best practices of those who are successfully using modern tools of communication to influence others.  At this time, those are online business marketers.

True, online marketing is often shallow and manipulative.  Yet, for better or for worse, its success in influencing people means we have to understand it.  Amidst all the hype, we can learn valuable insights about how to communicate.

I follow a small number of online marketers who meet all of the following criteria:
1) They have a track record of success in reaching others in their business efforts;
2)  They are in the school of marketing thought and practice known as inbound marketing, which says that the best way to be a successful marketer is to truly meet genuine needs of your clients.  If you do this, and use effective strategies to become visible and interact with them, clients will come, say the inbound marketers.
3) They demonstrate a commitment not just to making money but also to actively doing what they can to make the world a better place.  I especially respect those personally involved in philanthropic efforts.

Among these is Neil Patel, who blogs at   He's wonderfully strategic, pays great attention to detail, and he works hard at communication.  His writing is simple, clear,  and accessible, with that odd blend of humility and self-confidence that characterizes many successful agents of change.  I have no relationship to him, financial or otherwise.

Here's a recent blog post:

If you are involved in any kind of effort to educate or bring change to human beings, read it!  It's one of the better summaries I've seen on communicating for impact.  I immediately changed the title of a recent blog post after reading his second point.

If you are thinking of using the web to reach people, you might sign up for Patel's site and pay attention to the stuff he sends.  He has studied every step of the journey of interaction with people and refined what he does to increase the odds that in the end you will decide that he's got what you need and will buy from him.  You can learn a lot by observing how he seeks to win your trust.

OK, he's selling services, to income-generating businesses.   His strategies are designed to reach people deeply motivated by desire.  That's different than communicating for social change or peace.

Peace, we know, is not a commodity.  It can't be marketed.  It's a gift that follows good choices and habits of mindful living.

But. Desire is certainly at the heart of most human choices, and that is not all bad.  And there is no denying that misdirected desire is a great enemy of peace.  So we better learn how to work in the presence of this powerful drive and, when we can, harness its energy for good.

I get useful ideas every time I read Patel or other web marketers like Perry Marshall, Michael Stelzner, and Pat Flynn and I think change agents everywhere can learn from people like them.  But there is an overwhelming amount of stuff out there.  We need to help each other separate the wheat from the chaff.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about:

  • To what extent can we adapt highly refined strategies from people like Patel across into efforts for peace, justice, human development and care for the environment?
  • What strategies and resources from the marketing world have you found useful?
  • Where have you been disappointed by things you've tried to apply from marketers?

Conflict as Spiritual Path

Conflict style awareness is truly useful in day-to-day management of differences.  It's easy to learn.

But not so easy to do!

Easy:  Learning the basics of conflict styles.  Do this in a few minutes with this free "Intro to Conflict Styles".  You can figure out your own conflict style almost as quickly by taking a conflict style quiz (such as my Style Matters; the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or even a cross-cultural one).

Challenging:  remembering, in the heat of conflict, to use those great conflict resolution strategies.  We are hardwired by nature with a tiny set of responses when we are frightened or angry: flight, fight, or freeze.  Those three simple responses enabled survival in the jungle and you can witness them any time you want in the animal world.  But they have limited use for human beings today.

To build partnerships and solve problems in a complex world we need additional options for responding, and the ability to choose rather than merely react.  We acquire these capacities, not by relying on instinct, but by thought, practice, and reflection.

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Conflict Styles Training at Distance

[Written three years before the pandemic, this post is more relevant than ever now that most training is online.]

A challenge conflict styles trainers often face is limited time in workshops or little face-to-face access to people needing training. What then?

Here are options that can still bring good results, sometimes even better than a relaxed face-to-face workshop:

    1. Use the online version.  The online version of the Style Matters inventory is optimized for remote users and has an onsite tutorial that supports self-study.   

    2. Have them start at home.  Have people take the inventory at home before they arrive at a training event.  Both online and print versions of Style Matters are self-explanatory, so you can instruct your users to come to the workshop with the inventory already taken and a score report in hand.  Bingo, you just saved at least 15 minutes of precious workshop time! In your workshop, start with the Intro to Conflict Style slideshow (see Free Resources in top menu on the front page of and continue with input on topics covered in the Trainers Guide.

    3. Maybe you're working remotely with people and can't even gather them into a workshop.   Have them take the online version and review the score report on their own.   Then schedule a Zoom call and discuss results, using one of the exercises described on the webpage, Ideas for Discussing Conflict Styles with Others.

    4. Do a series, not a one-off event. In all circumstances, you will have the greatest effect on relationships and the culture of an organization or group if you interact with participants repeatedly across time rather than in a one-off event.   An online series will probably have more impact than a single face-to-fact event.

    5. Assign independent work. Can't even do a web conference?  You could have an individual, a team, or a whole group take the inventory and work through the inventory on their own as individuals.  Then assign them to have a series of conversations based on assignments/topics you create for them drawing on the above resources.  If you want to be really thorough, you could ask them to send you a written summary of key insights they learned from the experience.  In that case, make it a conversation by replying to their summary.

    6. Journaling. With any of the above, you could have people do journal entries, just for themselves, or to share with you as trainer.   Ideas for topics: 

- "Key Insights about my conflict styles that I learned from taking Style Matters" 

- "Three things I want to try to do differently with others in my group (and why) as a result of learnings from Style Matters" 

- "Reflections on a week/month of effort to apply insights from Style Matters in relationships to others"

- "My strengths and weaknesses in conflict styles - reflections following taking the Style Matters inventory".

- "Two successes and two challenges I faced this week in applying insights from the Style Matters inventory."

- "A personal response to Principles of Wise Response to Conflict

In all cases where you are working with reports or reflections sent to you, if your purpose is to facilitate learning, make at least some reply to journals, even if only a few sentences. If you fail to do this, the writers are more likely to experience your presence as that of an authority figure to whom they are reporting rather than as a coach. The coaching role, of course, is generally more likely to facilitate reflection and learning role than an authority figure role.

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Don't Resolve Conflict, Utilize It

If you like the conflict styles framework and want compatible tools to build the capacity of your organization or team, check out the trove of short videos by Dr. John Scherer.

Don't Resolve or Manage Conflict, Utilize It

For example,  in a 6 minute video clip on  "Conflict Utilization", Scherer explains why you shouldn't  be too quick to "resolve"  or "manage" conflict. Odds are you will end the conflict prematurely and thus lose an opportunity to talk deeply, think carefully and make necessary changes.

In the last two minutes Scherer lists 4 concepts and tools valuable for helping groups and team use conflict well:  The Pinch Theory, Three Worlds, The Four Languages, and Polarity Thinking.  He dedicates a short video to each of those concepts on the same site.

I especially recommend the video on polarity management.  That's a powerful tool that I've found dramatically effective in certain conflicts. It should be in the toolkit of all who resource organizations and their leaders.

John Scherer is an esteemed elder in the field of organizational management and change who brings wonderful clarity and humanity to everything he does.  He has posted 100+ free short videos over the last two years on organizational management and change management, many with valuable tools for making conflict a positive experience.

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Trainers Guide to Conflict Styles


Just re-released: my Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshop. Now 38 pages in the 2017 edition, it's still free.

Like earlier versions, this one gives step-by-step guidance for trainers.  My aim is to make it easy for anyone with basic group leadership skills to lead successful conflict styles learning.

New in this edition are sections on training supported by online tools.  With a third or more of the US workforce working from home, multi-platform environments and extensive online interaction are the norm for many.  Trainers tooled only for live classrooms are obsolescing.

If you're in a hurry, just hit download and abscond with the goods!If you have a few minutes for some history, read on.

Kudos to TKI

I'll always be grateful to Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, creators of the venerable Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, for turning me on to the conflict style inventory. Though their inventory was proceeded by Jay Hall's and others, with the TKI I discovered the power of conflict styles for training.  To me, if not Adam and Eve, they're the Abraham and Isaac of conflict style inventories.

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Trump and Conflict Styles

We can Learn a Lot from Trump about Conflict Styles

The weekend brought a textbook example of under-use of conflict avoidance and its costs.

It started on Friday when Rep. John Lewis picked a quarrel with Trump. "I don't see this President-elect as a legitimate president,"  he announced in a press statement.  Saturday Trump fired back with tweets.

In the context of the long holiday weekend honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday, the exchange echoed thunderously in the media.

Result?  Lewis’ book sales skyrocketed.  By Sunday leading newspapers were carrying reports that his books were in the top 20 list of booksales and Amazon had sold out all copies of his best known work.

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Too Ticked to Talk Nice


You can't do conflict resolution without doing anger management.

Anger is an emotion that everyone needs.  Don’t wish it away.  It provides resources essential to self-protection and survival.  It helps us respond quickly, with high energy, to dangerous or unpleasant situations.

But that doesn't mean it's fine to rant when you're pissed.

Talk About Anger in a Non-Angry Way

Researchers in several fields find that expressing anger in an angry way feeds the problem.

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Things fall apart. How to respond?

These are scary times, and it's not just COVID19.  Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory.  Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers.  Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace.  It is not exaggerating to say that  the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.  

What can we do about it?  The causes are many; there will be no single solution.  High on the list of essential responses, I believe,  must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus.   But how?

Our methods of making decisions and resolving conflict are out-dated.

Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, "the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis." (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)

Like it or not, there's no going back to the old ways of leading and managing.  We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels. 

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How Does Conflict Style Shape Destiny?

I spent much of the last month writing new text for the score report of Style Matters. That’s the 10 page personalized report from the online version of my conflict style inventory, whose numbers, with my reflections thereon, go out to users after taking the inventory.

Commanders in military establishments, janitors in neighborhood associations, freshmen at Bible colleges, and pretty much everybody in between read (and I like to think, ponder) this thing; according to logs on our server, nearly 365 days a year.

As usual in our multi-religious family, I did both Pesach and Easter celebrations. Sort of. But mostly, while others congregated for holidays, I wrestled epiphanies in text on my laptop.

And got new hope and vision as I remembered why conflict resolution continues to grip me. Here my traditionalist and my modernist, my believing and my agnostic, my monastic and my populist selves meet. Conflict, or at least reflecting on human responses to it, remains holy ground to this once Mennonite farmer, now aging peace process facilitator.

Conflict Style Awareness is More than Technique

“Conflict management starts with self-management,”  we say on the Style Matters frontpage.  The lone boatman there launches his journey to an unknown destination, symbol of the journey that peacebuilding can launch us on.

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Two Conflict Style Workshop Designs

Trainers often ask: how much time to budget for a conflict styles workshop?   It depends!

Traditional Pencil and Paper Format

In traditional pencil and paper training format, you might calculate

  • Handout booklets and give quick instructions - 5 minutes
  • Taking inventory - 10-15 minutes
  • Tally numbers - 5 minutes (each person tallying their own)
  • Explaining core concepts and interpreting numbers - 10-30 minutes
  • Small group and large group discussion - 20-60 minutes

That would be enough to cover the basics of conflict styles in 80-120 minutes.  You could easily do a lot more, of course, if you have another hour or several more.   See my Trainers Guide, available as a free download, for ideas.   

Conflict Styles Training with Digital Support

Online tools open another scenario that many trainers like because it pushes individual activities outside of workshop time and allows the trainer to dedicate more classroom time to discussion.  

Using the online version could look something like this:

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Can You Lead in Emergencies?

Can you lead in times of emergency?  Don’t think that's for someone else.  Life exempts none from this call.  

Unless you're a hermit, a time will come when you too must act and lead in the face of danger, no matter your rank or station.

And now is the time to prepare.

Directing Stars in Emergencies

In times of grave threat, tough decisions must be made and actions quickly taken.  What protective measures to take?  Must you flee?  What to carry with you? Who gets priority for assistance?  What about those who won't budge?  Where to shelter and how to get there?

Professional emergency responders such as police, fire, medical, and transportation structure decision-making and action in tight chain-of-command hierarchies.   Superiors decide and give orders; subordinates obey.  

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Infographics on Online Training


If you expect to do conflict styles training with Style Matters online, take a minute to scan our new infographics.  They show two different options for getting users pre-paid to the inventory and tracking who has taken it.  

Both get users to the inventory with minimal effort for you or them.  Coupon Access requires no setup time for the trainer.  The Dashboard has more tools for user management but takes 30-60 seconds per user to setup and manage.

Coupon Code Access


Choose Coupons if your priority is minimal setup.   You just send out an email with instructions and the access code to your users, and they show up in your workshop with score report in hand.   It has one function in addition to getting users to the inventory quickly and easily: You can monitor who has taken the inventory with the Coupon Manager.  Your only time requirement as trainer is editing the suggested text we send you to forward to your users and emailing it to them. 

       Order Coupon Access for $6.95 per user.

       Login to Coupon Manager.

Choose Dashboard if your priority is ability to manage user experience.    You can see all your users on the dashboard and delay delivery of the score report to users, view score reports, print, and email them;  monitor who has taken and not taken the inventory, send reminder notes with a single click, create aggregated score reports for a group, etc.

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Pyramid of Conflict Resolution Skills


The Pyramid of Conflict Resolution Skills

What is the connection between interpersonal conflict resolution tools like my Style Matters conflict style inventory or the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and big conflicts of our world, like ethnic and religious violence or threat of nuclear war?

There is in fact a connection between what happens between human beings at the smallest level every day and what happens between nations.   We can't build a peaceful world until parents, teachers, and leaders see this connection.  We must all act on it and teach others about it.

Below is a Pyramid of Competency to show the many layers of competence - and how they relate to each other - that are required for humans to live together peacefully.   I use it at the beginning of training on almost any conflict resolution topic to locate it on a map of "the big picture" of peace skills.  I also use it with individuals eager to pursue conflict resolution skill development to chart a pathway for learning. 

If you took my Style Matters conflict styles inventory or the Thomas Kilmann, you've already given some attention to the second level, "Interpersonal negotiation and conflict resolution".

Ponder this pyramid and you get some clues about why, despite all the progress humans have made, and all the institutions we've created, we're still barely out of  the Dark Ages with conflict resolution.

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Teambuilding Exercises

Isolation and polarization are big threats today.    We can't take collegiality and community for granted.  We have to work steadily at renewing them.

Part of the requirement of leaders now is to recognize that times have changed.   We must strategically work to create these essentials that in times past seemed to come naturally.

So here's a marvelous collection of blog posts on team building on Human Resources Today.  I particularly like this group of teambuilding exercises.


Conflict Styles in Spanish

We're pleased to announce that, thanks to many requests for it, the Style Matters conflict style inventory is now released in a Spanish translation.  A direct translation of the English version, the Spanish conflict styles edition is now available in PDF format.  In the coming months we will bring it out in the online version as well.

In contrast to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and other conflict style inventories currently available, Style Matters is designed to be suitable to users of diverse cultural backgrounds.  The inventory offers users a choice of instruction sets for users, one worded for people from Low Context Cultures and the other for users from High Context cultures.  

Click here to purchase the Spanish PDF for $9.95, a one-time purchase.  To train with it, trainers then buy user rights, one per user, at a price of $3.95 each, in order to photocopy and use the inventory.    Click here for Style Matters in French.


As a social enterprise, Riverhouse seeks to make our products available regardless to cost.   If $3.95 per user is simply not realistic for your circumstances, contact us.

New Trainer's Guide

If you're planning a workshop using Style Matters Online, see the new Training Outline for Style Matters OnlineThis is a 5 page trainer's guide for a workshop 1-2 hours in length with users who've taken the online version of Style Matters and have its detailed score report in hand.

Don't miss, of course, our long-standing primary training resource, the Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops. That's a comprehensive 40 page guide you can download free, covering a variety of issues in conflict styles training. 

But the large guide is oriented to the print version of Style Matters.  This new 5 page addition is specifically for the online version of Style Matters and assumes participants each have a printout in hand of the 8-10 page score report created by the online version. 

We made significant upgrades in 2017 to the score report of the online version.  These make it easier than ever to lead an engaging workshop on conflict styles, even without previous experience as a conflict styles trainer.   

Our algorithm examines each user's data in multiple ways, identifies patterns, and responds with detailed suggestions for maximizing a user's responses to conflict resolution.   Only a very experienced trainer in a workshop setting with a good bit of time would be able to match the thoroughness and depth of this digitally-created score report.

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Plan Teambuilding Now

It's easy in team settings to get so focused on performance, planning, and budgets that you forget the single most important factor in productivity and in people's sense of satisfaction on the job: relationships among colleagues.   

No matter how good everything else is, it's hard to be productive and feel content with your job if relationships are rotten.

Good relationships rarely happen by chance.  They happen by choice, when people choose to do stuff that facilitates friendship and connection.   Good leaders know this and make it a priority to plan activities that build relationships and  to incorporate them these plans into ongoing organizational life.   

There's a bunch of ideas for team building on this page of the Human Resources Today website.

Recently a trainer wrote me about how pleased she was with her experience leading a conflict styles workshop as a teambuilding exercise with a small group of colleagues.   She used this outline in designing a short workshop on conflict styles with Style Matters Online

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