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Title: Conflict is for the Birds : Understanding Your Conflict Management Style

Author: Gayle Wiebe Oudeh & Nabil Oudeh

ISBN: 0-9731646-2-X

Summary:

Conflict is for the Birds uses bird metaphors to explain the five conflict management styles (competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodation, avoiding), how they are used, and how they relate to each other.

Writing Style:

The authors rely heavily on metaphor and, while examples cover both home and work, the assumed audience is in the workplace. Metaphors are really useful, as long as the reader understands them. Metaphors can simplify abstract or complex concepts, and allow touchy or complex concepts to be approached with less emotional baggage. The problem with metaphors is when they are understood differently than intended and when there are unacknowledged preferences, biases, experiences, likes/dislikes, prejudices, etc attached to them. Your milage may vary with regards to any particular metaphor. This book uses anthropomorphized (cartoon) bird behaviour.  Birders may cringe.

There are quizzes in this book and the results are used through out the text so they are worth doing when they are presented. I would suggest NOT writing your answers in pen on the book itself like the previous owner of my second-hand copy did. I suggest using a separate piece of paper or a pencil when doing the quizzes.

My Opinion:

The theory of five conflict management styles presented in the book is a standard theory that is one of the first things that gets brought up in conflict management classes.[1] The metaphor uses birds as stand-ins for conflict styles and places them on an axis of a “Focus on Self” vs “Focus on Others”[2] grid. Woodpeckers are competitive, Owls are collaborative, Parakeets are accommodating, Hummingbirds are compromising, and Ostriches are avoiding. The bird descriptive sections give a conflict scenario for each bird, main conflict characteristics, common tactics used, some motivations behind the characteristics and tactics, how conflict is experienced as that type, and some advice on when that style is useful, not useful, and how to deal with that style. There is also a section on what happens (and what to do about it) when styles collide.

One thing I particularly liked about this book is that it presents styles as preferences that are moved through. They call this a “flight pattern”. This isn’t a set personality type (i.e. “Bob is a woodpecker and will never behave like anything other than a woodpecker”) but rather as a preference for certain types of default patterns (i.e. “Bob tends to default to Woodpecker at the start then then moves through Hummingbird, Owl, Ostrich, then Parakeet. Bob knows this, as do the people he works with, so the keep it in mind that Bob’s first answer will always be hard even if he may later bend and this is particularly hard on his employees that also start in woodpecker”). It presents people as having defaults, but being able to move from them and giving advice on that.

The five conflict styles is pretty standard in conflict management and communications. It shows up everywhere. What this book is bringing to the table is presentation and focus.  If bird metaphors don’t work for you… there is definitely another book or website or explanation out there that uses something different and focuses on it in a different way. The theory can be either useful (if taken as descriptive and flexible) or restrictive (if taken as set personality types that can’t be changed).

Evil Overlord Assessment:

Pigeonholing people is a wonderful tool for evil. If you make it about WHO-THEY-ARE (unchanging) or WHO-YOU-ARE rather than behaviour then you can justify anything. (“I HAVE to get my way BECAUSE I’m a woodpecker.” Or “There is NO USE getting their opinion BECAUSE they are an ostrich.”) It doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t (or you are or aren’t) because the answer is pre-ordained to be whatever you’ve decided. This tactic can turn any categorization system into a rigid hierarchy from which there is no escape. As an added bonus, assign GOOD or BAD judgements to categories. (“Hummingbirds are all Flighty Assholes who can’t make a decision.” Or “I’m an Owl so I manage conflict well.”) This combination will allow you to dismiss or highlight whatever you want without changing yourself.

Footnotes:

[1] Thomas - Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

[2] Other ways the chart can be presented include: “Assertiveness” vs “Cooperativeness”; or “Concern for Own Agenda” vs “Concern for Others Agenda”; or “Desire to Satisfy Own Concerns” vs “Desire to Satisfy Others’ Concerns”; etc. The way it is presented may affect how people perceive the value of each access. We tend to apply “good” to things we value positively and “bad” to things we value negatively. These options are meant to be descriptive and value neutral in this case.

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Title: Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most (Updated with Answers to the 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Difficult Conversations) 10th - Anniversary Edition

Author: Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

ISBN: 978-0-14-311844-2

Summary:

A general purpose handbook for understanding and managing Difficult Conversations from the Harvard Negotiation Project[1].

Writing Style:

This book is aimed at a general audience and its examples are pulled from work, home, and daily experiences. The language is simple and straight forward. It has a somewhat impersonal presentation style, snappy titles, and short sections. This book came out of a business/law school and is used in workplace conflict and communications training. The presentation of the book reflects that.[2]

It does not have a keyword index. Instead, the back of the book contains a “A Roadmap to Difficult Conversations” section which outlines the main ideas of every section in a few words. That is useful, but some people may find the lack of an index irritating. (I tried to look up “empathy”. I was annoyed that I had to dig through the Roadmap, then the text, so that I could reference it in an example.)

My Opinion:

This is an excellent book on its own or as a compliment to other communications and conflict books. I recommend it.

Its definition of a Difficult Conversation is simple: a difficult conversation is a conversation about anything you find it hard to talk about. These conversations may be awkward, uncomfortable, dreaded, uncertain, important, annoying, avoided, or about things we care deeply about. These are the conversations we wish we could wave a magic wand at or simply nuke from space. The book’s process is intended to make these conversations less painful and more successful.

The first part of the book breaks down Difficult Conversations into three concurrent conversations: the “What happened…?” conversation, the Feelings conversation, and the Identity conversation. It explores what each of these are, how to approach them successfully, and ways to make them blow up in your face. The middle section breaks down Difficult Conversations into a step-by-step walk through of what-comes-when and the skills to use in each part. The final section (in this edition) is a FAQ that addresses a variety  of (antagonistic) questions about the process (i.e. “It sounds like you are saying everything is relative. Aren’t some things just true, and can’t someone be just wrong?”). The entire book focuses on implementing a LEARNING STANCE and the CONTRIBUTION APPROACH in Difficult Conversations.[3] This stuff works. The book contains knowledge and skills that conflict professionals actually use and which doesn’t require both parties in the conversation to be on-board for them to work.

I wouldn’t call this a “self-help” book, so much as a “how-to” book. It is the kind of book which you could pick up 15 minutes before a Difficult Conversation and you would quickly get a few tactics that might be immediately applicable in said conversation. It answers the question “What do I do?” (i.e. Problem + Solution = Action) in every section, no matter how short the section.

It is a process and applications type book. It will appeal to a problem-solving mindset as it focuses on behaviour changes (via changes in goals and thinking) and treads very lightly on issues of self-awareness and other complicating issues. It acknowledges that these are important in a similar manner to a house-building manual acknowledging that a “good location” is important. It acknowledges that “good location” is something you should consider when “building a house”, but it doesn’t go into these in depth. This will be especially appealing to the “I just want to build a FUCKING HOUSE, DAMNIT! I don’t want to waste my time with useless SHIT!” crowd. Which is fine. This book is well targeted for that attitude[4].

However, even the best built house will have problems if it is built without regard to its surroundings[5] and this process isn’t a MAGIC BULLET that will be the SOLUTION TO ALL THINGS allowing you to bypass everything that makes you UNCOMFORTABLE. If you come at this book with that attitude, I invite you to imagine me demonstrating my EVIL LAUGH in your general direction. Good tactics and strategies are built on a backbone of good intel. This book assumes you have some skills in “Know Thy Landmines” and that shit. Or that you will work at learning those skills.

Evil Overlord Assessment:

In the Mirror Universe, this book would be about “How to Pick Fights” and would map out how to be positional, confrontational, avoidant, and competitive instead of using a better option. We would be able to ensure that we shoot ourselves in the foot with the greatest of ease! (All the things outlined under “normal behaviours that people do” in this book. All the “before” parts in the examples.) In the Mirror Universe, guaranteed-to-blow-up things would be preferred methods of creating conflict in difficult situations. The Right way of doing things… Are you sure you aren’t living in the Mirror Universe?[6]

Footnotes:

[1]  Harvard Negotiation Project

[2] If you can’t find it in the self-help or psychology section of your local bookstore, then check the business section.

[3] I have a very strong bias in favour of the learning stance (curiosity) approach to conflict. That’s what Insight mediation is all about (my training).

[4] Chapter 9 is filled with tools that are useful for performing empathy, but only the last two paragraphs of the chapter directly use the word “empathy”.

[5] When I was a teenager, I read Pierre Berton’s series on the building of the Canadian transcontinental railway. He told a story about locomotives disappearing into a swamp and the company building more tracks over top of them. Applying “fixes” to conflict and relationships may not work as expected… not because the processes (locomotives) aren’t well built, but because it was in a swamp. Sometimes you have to build in swamps. That happens.

[6] Quick, check for unnecessary goatees!

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