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Stop Avoiding Conflict: Learn to Address Disputes Before They Erupt - Book Review

by Patricia Porter, Lynne Kinnucan
April 2016 Book Cover

Patricia Porter has a new MiniBük out, and we should all be glad. A companion to her 2014 Stop the Dreaded Drama: 55 Tips for Ending Destructive Conflict, Stop Avoiding Conflict: Learn to Address Disputes Before They Erupt, expands this territory by focusing on the sabotaging effect of conflict avoidance. It provides detailed analyses of disputes and suggestions for actions. It is specific, multi-layered in its approach, as well as concise and reader-friendly.

It is also five inches tall, making it easily available on a moment’s notice.

Together the two MiniBüks are an instant-rescue team for the layperson in conflict. For fast reference, each tip in Stop the Dreaded Drama is only a few sentences long; Stop Avoiding Conflict goes into more planning and strategy but is equally accessible.

Both texts are meant for immediate reference, but Stop Avoiding Conflict is also an excellent guide for setting up difficult discussions. It comes straight to the point by focusing on specific behaviors that actually trigger conflict by avoiding it, and how you can deal with conflict avoidant people in any setting.

Take the example of the feuding neighbors:

“In your close-knit neighborhood, families hang out together during National Night Out, go to Homeowner Association meetings, and chat at community garage sales and holiday events. Still……” and with that, Porter, a gifted storyteller, lands us smack in the middle of multiple disputes. Fortunately she provides us not only with strategies, but also reflections on the process and, in a preface, a succinct analysis of conflict avoidance including triggers in the brain, behaviors you are likely to see - and why - and then successful ways to deal with them.

Porter notes avoiding conflict is both a choice and an approach. We may choose to pretend it is not happening and then deal with it by acting that way. But how do we deal with people who take this action course, and how do we deal with it in ourselves? 

And an office setting provides scenarios -- including one where avoidance may be a good choice and one -- such as one where a boss’s sense of self or authority may be threatened (with the potential for a lizard brain response) or employees do not feel heard – where it might be a bad choice. A co-worker may have to deal with someone who is annoying but who may not have the communication skills, or the ability, to make a needed change. Sometimes, says Porter, avoiding conflict is both a choice and an approach for dealing with a tough situation. She offers a list of questions to ask oneself to determine if, indeed, an intervention is worth it.

Conversely, a boss may choose to deal directly with disgruntled employees before a situation gets out of hand. The following is the opening part of the simple and highly effective strategy that Porter suggests, setting the tone and opening the way.

1. First and foremost, acknowledge the concern the other person brings to you. Simply say: “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”

2. Use language that demonstrates empathy, like, “It sounds like this situation has crossed the line for you and others, and now you need my support.”

3. Be careful not to assume needs. Listen carefully and ask a question such as “What do you need from me?”

Deceptively simple; highly effective. Instead of reacting from the protective lizard brain, the boss puts the executive function of his brain to work with this strategy and sets a tone of welcome and mutual cooperation.

Just as avoidance is a choice, so is courage a choice. As in the other situations, Porter brings us scenarios, strategies and useful questions to ask ourselves; practicing courage and knowing what tools to use and when. “Courage is a choice,” Porter writes. “Being courageous and fearless takes practice; it requires vulnerability; it means making hard decisions and it requires action.”

Because she is dealing with the anxiety and dread surrounding conflict, courage is a theme that runs through both books. In 55 Tips, “Conflict Avoidance” reaches into that part of us that doesn’t want conflict at all, and explores how conflict works in the limbic and executive parts of our brains. “Analyze the Conflict”- the thinking stage - is followed by an equally thoughtful analysis of oneself and the other party’s emotions in “Overcome the Conflict Dread”. The acknowledgment of the underlying dread brought to the table is invaluable in helping to prevent conscious and unconscious behaviors that can sabotage the discussion. “Got Perspective” is followed by “Prepare for Difficult Conversations” and then how to establish a structure for this.

Stop Avoiding Conflict addresses “the courage it takes to get out of the destructive storm,” and offers “10 Courageous Steps to Develop This Muscle: strategies to build your courage muscle to deal with conflict more effectively.”

It may be the least urgent and most important chapter in the book.

The book’s analysis of the conflict avoider is followed by a strategy (look for behavioral clues,), then a breakdown of the strategy (a list of clues ranging from the overt such as slamming a door, to the hidden, simply not responding at all), strategies to deal with those, and even suggestions of what to say – in short, everything one would look for in a mentor.

Like 55 Tips, it is seamlessly divided into action phases, beginning with how to recognize conflict avoidance, moving on to the role of fear in passive-aggressive behaviors, and from there how to shift conflict-avoidant thinking, change its behavior and interact with conflict avoiders.

Porter has a talent for organizing complex situations into clear, manageable bites. Each section contains a point she is trying to make; scenarios to illustrate her point; and specific suggestions on what to say and actions to take. A space is provided for notes and reflections.

In 55 Tips, the suggestions are organized for quick reference into seven categories, loosely following the stages of mediation, but often with a personal touch, such as in “Anchor a Strategy with a Tangible Object” (Tip #17), in which she shares her own. She also helps the reader recognize his or her own emotional traps and offers quick and thoughtful ways to deal with them, such as in Tip# 15 “Tame the Lizard Brain”: “When intense emotions take over due to a conflict, your brain enters survival mode the reptilian (lizard) protecting you from what you believe is a threat. By vocalizing how you feel, such as ‘I am frustrated,’ or, ‘I am really disappointed,’ you are shifting activity from the emotional center to the rational part of your brain.” (Italics mine)

I, for one, didn’t know that vocalizing shifted intense emotions to the rational part of my brain, where I might take charge of them and I’m glad I read this.
This tip works well with Tip # 44, in the section on establishing a structure for the difficult conversation, “Be Responsive, Not Reactive” which shows you how to do this. It also works well with another hugely useful section, “After the Conversation,” in which Ms. Porter emphasizes the importance of providing a safety net so that the work may continue even when further problems arise.

The book promises that “You will learn from real-life stories and specific examples about how to recognize the behavioral clues and the underlying motivating factors that drive us to react this way,” and it lives up to its promises.

What’s interesting about both books is that Porter’s quick tips often prompt a state of quiet reflection about how we ourselves are acting and feeling and, through this, help us gain useful perspective and strategies to deal with the other person.

But the real genius of these two little books is their distillation of decades of conflict intervention wisdom into a remarkably succinct and powerful tool for (a) putting out conflict fires and (b) showing how to stage future conflicts to prevent them. It is the how-ness of her book that makes them so impressive, something like having one’s own personal mentor in the room.

Who are these books for? For couples, families, managers, employees, neighborhoods, colleagues, friends. If you’re a conflict intervenor, they can be a stop-gap filler, something to give to that person who keeps wanting your advice. If you’re caught in the middle of someone’s dispute, these are for you. If you’re having your own, these are for you.

But most importantly, if you want the tools to go into conflict with “courage, confidence and competence,” these are for you.

Biography


Patricia Porter

Pattie Porter, LCSW, is the Founder and President of Conflict Connections, Inc. in San Antonio, TX. She provides workplace and business conflict resolution services including mediation, conflict management coaching, team facilitation and training throughout the U.S. She is the host of her own Blog Talk Radio show called The Texas Conflict Coach.

Lynne Kinnucan

After serving for seven years as writer for former Governor Richard F. Celeste, Lynne trained as a mediator, working in the United States and Canada.  In Canada she pioneered mediation coaching program for males with a history of violence during her tenure as representative of the Queen’s Court in London, Ontario. 

As Director of Sections at the Association for Conflict Resolution in Washington DC, she established ACR’s Crisis Intervention Section, a forum where state, federal and local law enforcement from around the world could share strategies, research, and best practices with professional lay mediators and crisis interveners.   A core part of this was the Crisis Intervention News, featuring in-depth explorations of the field with the major hostage negotiators in North America and the U.K.

She currently serves as program director for the Women’s Center of Huntington, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to serve all women with workshops, support groups and leadership training programs. (www.womenscenterofhuntington.org)

 

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