Conflict Style: A Different Look at “Diversity”

How do you like your conflict?

It’s a silly question, right? Who likes conflict? But behind the question there’s a lot worth digging into. We might not like conflict, but we all do have preferences for how we manage conflict, called “conflict styles.” Understanding conflict styles, and how they vary across cultures, can make us better leaders.

Conflict style isn’t a kind of diversity we’re used to thinking about. At I-House we tend to think of diversity mostly in terms of national culture. Within the U.S., “diversity” often refers to layers of identity such as race, class, sexuality, gender expression, physical ability, religious beliefs, and countless others — a different but related sense of “diversity,” shaped by culture in ways that differ from national culture.

Even though conflict style isn’t usually front and center when we think of diversity, it’s an important way in which people behave differently from one another. On May 23, the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL) hosted a workshop for Board of Directors members, I-House staff, and various CIL stakeholders and partners, entitled “Managing Conflict Across Cultures.” Affectionately known as “MCAC,” this has consistently been the most popular of CIL’s workshops with external audiences, and we were excited for the chance to introduce this content in a new setting.

We encounter conflict every day, whether or not we call it conflict. For the workshop, we define conflict in a broad way. Two things matter: (1) there is disagreement, and (2) the people who disagree with each other care enough to have feelings of some kind. When we encounter conflict, the brain, shaped by millions of years of evolution, senses threat, which tricks the brain into thinking that our literal, physical survival is at stake. This in turn leads to the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, making rational thought extremely difficult if not impossible.

How we behave when our brains react this way defines our “conflict style.” Conflict styles vary along two dimensions: (1) How directly do I communicate, and (2) How emotionally expressive am I? Depending on how we come down on these two dimensions, we are said to prefer one of four “conflict styles” (based on research by Stella Ting-Toomey and Mitchell Hammer):

  1. Discussion (direct communication, emotionally restrained)
  2. Engagement (direct communication, emotionally expressive)
  3. Accommodation (indirect communication, emotionally restrained)
  4. Dynamic (indirect communication, emotionally expressive)

When we’re in disagreement with someone with a different conflict style, we will often see that person’s behavior in negative, stereotyped ways. For instance, people who prefer Discussion might view those with an Engagement style as “overly emotional,” or they may see Accommodation as a “passive-aggressive” approach to conflict. In the workshop, we focus on the brain’s tendency to make snap judgments like this, and we analyze the reasons for our reactions. Essentially, the brain notices a certain behavior (such as elevated voice pitch, a hallmark of emotional expressiveness) and decides in a split second whether it likes this behavior, based on what we care about most — in other words, based on our values.

Culture shapes values, and our sense of what is normal and acceptable — and, therefore, preferred conflict styles. For instance, in most (but far from all) U.S. workplaces, the Discussion style is preferred, as it is in many northern European countries. Accommodation is the norm in China, Japan, and elsewhere. Spain, Greece, and some other southern European countries prefer Engagement. In many parts of the Middle East, Dynamic is the norm.

As always with culture, these are guidelines, not rules. Every individual is unique. But it can be helpful to understand cultural norms, for two reasons. First, if my preferred style is different from the norms of my culture, I might run into trouble if I don’t adapt toward the cultural norm. Second, if I plan to work in a culture different from what I’m used to, it’s helpful to know the preferred conflict style of that culture, so that I can adapt my behavior in appropriate and effective ways.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is counteracting our negative stereotypes by actively and intentionally learning to appreciate the values that drive the behaviors we don’t like. For example, if my conflict style is Engagement style (direct, expressive), and it bothers me that my colleague with an Accommodation style communicates indirectly, it could be helpful to recognize that this person might be communicating indirectly because they value group harmony. I might still not like the behavior, but at least now I can understand it, and frame it in cultural terms — and not as a character flaw, which is a more typical way for humans treat difference.

As a bonus, appreciation calms the brain’s fight/flight/freeze reaction, and enables empathy and logical thinking.

From a leadership perspective, understanding conflict styles has many benefits, including:

  • Learning to manage our own negative reactions to the varied conflict styles of the people we’re leading, and shifting to an appreciation-based approach
  • Recognizing when our colleagues’ conflict styles are out of sync with cultural norms, and creating space for these colleagues to be their authentic selves — thereby fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging
  • Enabling us to guide our organizations toward resolving conflict more quickly, while strengthening human relationships

This gives just a taste of the many angles on managing conflict that we presented in the four-hour workshop. This fall, as part of CIL’s course on Global Leadership in the 21st Century, which includes many I-House residents, there will be a module specifically on this topic as well.

Diversity is everywhere, and not just where it’s obvious. The more we can dig beneath the surface and understand what motivates people to behave as they do, the more successful we will be — as leaders, as roommates, as friends and spouses, and truly in all aspects of our lives.

To learn more about CIL’s work at I-House and beyond, visit cil.berkeley.edu or email us at cil@berkeley.edu.