Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Conflict and Confrontation: How Do You React?

Meeting the Bear Face to Face

In workshops, I have an engaging (well, people do seem to enjoy it) story about what to do when you come face to face with a bear. I use meeting bears as a metaphor for encountering conflict.

I ask the class participants for a show of hands: Are you supposed to curl up in a fetal position and play dead? Do you spray them with bear repellant? Do you run? Do you shoot or throw rocks? Do you walk in the woods with bear bells, hoping the sound will scare any bears away? Each of these behaviors can be compared to how we deal with conflict.

For example, do we avoid it and pretend it’s not there (fetal position)? Do we verbally “spray” the other person with our anger? Do we get out of the way? Do we go on attack? Or my favorite: I would like to just walk through life with my bear bells, hoping conflict will avoid me.

When I lived in Alaska, I went to a seminar presented by Fish and Wildlife troopers to tell me how to live with bears. I lived on a dead end dirt road in the boonies, where hunters would park their beat-up trucks and go into the woods to hunt for deer and bear. I’m sure I was the only house in Alaska without a gun.

What I learned was that with black bears, you are supposed to raise your arms up high and look as big as you can. That way, the bear will acknowledge you as the bigger bear, and leave you alone.

While hiking the Summerland trail, I came face to face with a black bear. My sweetie and I like this trail, and you may have read another story I wrote mentioning it. We usually see marmots on this hike, and one year we saw mountain goats. We were about ½ hour into the 9 mile trail when we came around a slight curve and Bart said “Oh wow”, rather quietly. I looked up and lumbering toward us on the trail was a medium sized black bear. While we stopped, the bear just kept on walking straight for us.

That was a little disconcerting. We stepped to the side of the trail behind a fallen tree, which protected us to right above our knees. While Bart rummaged in his backpack for his whistle, I momentarily felt at a loss as to what to do. After the initial surge of fear when I realized the bear wasn’t going to leave the trail for us, I just felt helpless.

I moved my arms in a sweeping motion. “Go on. Go on, now. Shoo.“ I tried to convey to the bear that it should move off the trail. The bear continued mellowly walking toward us for a few steps, then as it closed in on us at about 30 feet, veered off the trail and started walking into the woods toward Frying Pan Creek. Just then Bart found his whistle and blew it, a weak, shrill sound that didn’t even reach a marmot cry. The bear didn’t react, just continued on it’s way down the slope.

Whew! We recovered and continued on our hike. Ten minutes later, I said, “Hey, we were supposed to raise our arms above our heads so we looked really big to the bear.”

How many times had I relayed that tidbit of information to a roomful of workshop participants? Do you think I remembered my own advice when the time actually came to use it?

Forgetting good advice often flies out of our heads in the heat of an encounter. Under stress, we react, and revert to natural behaviors, not learned ones. Unless we have trained ourselves to behave in a certain way, we are likely to fall back on old behaviors that may or may not be the best way to handle a situation.

A study of the four behavior styles reveals how people will likely react when their hot buttons are pushed. As their behaviors align with their dominant styles, people can be pretty predictable.

Controllers (also known as D’s, Reds, and Drivers, depending on the behavior style system consulted) are likely to take over, dictate, suppress their emotions, blame and/or explode. Controllers are not afraid of conflict, in fact they are often the source of it. They will ask tough questions and make assertive statements with the goal of spurring action and getting results – not of actually causing conflict. However, for the other three styles, this often feels like provoking conflict or confrontation.

Persuaders (also known as I’s, Yellows, or Expressives) tend toward verbal attacks which may take the form of sarcasm and barbs, especially in the office where yelling is frowned upon. They also have a tendency to react emotionally and may cry, talk about the situation excessively, dump it on someone else, and then, may forget about it.

When Stabilizers (aka S’s, Greens and Amiables) are under a lot of tension, they will likely give in (and may later “get even”), avoid the situation or person, worry, wait too long to act, and tell others. They would prefer to avoid conflict and being relationship-oriented will have a very difficult time confronting the other about the stress they are experiencing.

When Analyzers (or C’s, Blues, and Analyticals) face conflict, they are more likely to withdraw – physically if possible. If they can’t leave the room, they will withdraw emotionally and verbally. They also tend to nitpick and try to prove they are “right”.

Essentially, two of these styles are more of the “fight” orientation (Persuaders and Controllers go on verbal attack or take over). And the other two styles tend more toward “flight”: Analyzers will withdraw and Stabilizers will avoid conflict and/or acquiesce. However, when pushed past their limits, each style will end up doing the opposite of what is their natural behavior. For example, if you see a Controller acquiescing, a Persuader withdrawing, a Stabilizer exploding, or an Analyzer going on verbal attack and getting over-emotional, you know they are out of control. These extreme behaviors mean it’s way past time to deal with the conflict in a constructive manner.

Although we all have elements of all four behavior styles, one is usually dominant. If you learn to identify others’ styles (and your own) you will gain a tremendous amount of insight into why they act the way they do and how to effectively communicate with them to create win-win situations and prevent unneeded stress and tension. Conflict is okay, in fact it is often a good thing, as long as everyone knows how to play fair.

If you’d like to learn more about how to deal with difficult situations and people, contact me for information on a workshop or coaching session. Understanding behavior styles is essential for creating positive influence and effective communication. It’s one of the most powerful tool’s in a manager’s toolbox.

And now when I tell my workshop stories, I can add one more metaphor for dealing with conflict: Shoo it away.

A baby black bear grazes the supermarket produce section in Ketchikan, Alaska, where I first learned how to live with bears.

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