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Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Appease? What's Your Conflict Style?

Most people have a typical style for handling interpersonal conflict, though we all have responded in each of these ways, depending on the circumstances. Don't beat yourself up if you see yourself in the styles described's what we've learned works for us. There are usually better ways that we're not used to using (more about that in a bit), but it's smart to start with understanding your style, so that you can watch for it to come up...that's the first step creating a new and improved way of handling conflict. As you become more aware, you can start trying a different way of being in conflict. It takes time, so don't get impatient with or criticize yourself! There are very few people who are competent in handling conflict, but it's not hard to learn how to do it. It takes practice and some risk-taking...more on that below, too.

Some people tend to want to win through dominating (fight), which usually guarantees a win-lose outcome, and often results in lower morale, commitment, and engagement on the part of the losers. This style is characterized by a high concern for oneself and one's "rightness" and lower concern for others. Keep in mind that this style can be overt - physically domineering, speaking loudly, arguing - or more passive, expressed by the cold shoulder or behind-the-scenes maneuvering, for example. The positive side of this style is the drive to get decisions made quickly and definitively.

Others want to avoid or withdraw from conflict (flight), hoping that the storm blows over and all will be right again soon, or that others will decide and the conflict will be defused. Those who operate using this style have a low level of concern both for others and for themselves. The downside is that conflicts stay unresolved, often simmering or festering until they explode or become very costly or time-consuming to resolve, and can leave people exhausted, and with low engagement, sometimes even hidden resistance. The positive aspect of this style is the ability to stay out of the cross-hairs, to not make enemies, and to not have to engage in tension-inducing situations.

If you're someone who freezes, you're likely to follow the loudest or most dominant voice, readily agreeing and not offering any critical information or alternative ideas. The result is that vital data may be left our of the decision-making, and the team's outcomes may be compromised. This style is motivated by a intermediate level of concern for oneself and a high concern for others, the motivation is a fear of disapproval for asserting oneself, and a desire to quickly defuse tension. The positives of this style include remaining on good terms with most people, getting to a decision quickly, and an emphasis of the common ground among positions.

Then there are the compromisers (appeasers), looking for outcomes acceptable to everyone, but in the process, these decisions are often not very acceptable to anyone because so many concessions have been made. Innovative options are not explored due to the desire to find a middle way. An intermediate concern for oneself and others are motivators for this style. The positives here are a desire to keep everyone happy and find a way to engender buy-in by all.

So what really works? Attending! That means surfacing the concerns of all team members, with ground rules that require a respectful manner of exchanging ideas. It takes self-regulation, some finesse, and a little more time, but usually more innovative decisions get made, often one that a larger share of the team are aligned with, and which produce better outcomes.

An "attending" leader wanting to get to collaboration through conflict listens carefully to explore each stance, looking for the value and positives that all can buy into within that stance, as well as the negatives that all can agree they'd like to avoid. Once all voices are (really) heard, not just dismissively brought up, a leader who is competent with using conflict productively has set the stage for the team members to surface ideas that are alternatives to those already proposed, tweak proposed ideas so they address concerns, or to see the situation in a different light so that a previously undesirable option has more appeal. Still have questions, or want to explore/experiment with learning this skills? Check out our playshops for leaders and teams link at

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