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Use of the Myers-Briggs Conflict Pairs in Assessing Conflict

by Dale Eilerman
May 2006 Dale Eilerman
The ability to recognize conflict triggers, understand interpersonal dynamics, and determine how to intervene in a conflict is essential in facilitating effective outcomes. These are components of the assessment phase of conflict management and are important first steps to take before moving into interventions. One of the best and most commonly used tools to assist in this process is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. Use of this instrument can help an individual or team develop awareness of their preferred approaches to conflict and offer opportunities to identify alternative methods that may increase the likelihood of performance improvement. Author Patrick Lencioni recommends the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® in his popular business book entitled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® identifies personality traits and “conflict pairs” that have an impact on interpersonal dynamics and conflict triggers. This tool has been used for over 50 years in helping individuals and teams examine conflict. Factors such as culture, context, and personal experience are also important variables in determining the way that individuals approach and handle conflict and must also be taken into consideration. In 2003 Consulting Psychologists Press published a booklet entitled Introduction to Type and Conflict, written by Damien Killen and Danica Murphy, which presents ways that differences in Myers-Briggs type characteristics, including “conflict pairs”, contribute to dissonance between individuals. The following is based on information from this booklet.

The Myers-Briggs identifies an individual’s preferred choices in four sets of dichotomies: Introversion – Extroversion, Sensing – Intuition, Thinking – Feeling and Judging – Perceiving. The combination of characteristics that are most preferred within each dichotomy becomes our “type”. For example, a person with a preference for Extroversion (E), Sensing (S), Feeling (F), and Perceiving (P) would have a type designated as ESFP. While differences between each set of dichotomies can lead to dissonance, research has shown that the greatest areas for conflict exist among the last two pairs: Thinking-Feeling and Judging-Perceiving. For this reason these are considered the “conflict pairs”.

I will use two stars from the popular TV show American Idol to demonstrate conflict pairs. Anyone who watches this program is aware of the running conflict between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. While some of this may be staged for TV interest it is likely that the Myers-Briggs differences in their conflict pairs also adds some reality to the friction in their interactions. Paula’s conflict pair is probably Feeling-Perceiving (FP) while Simon’s preferences seem to be Thinking-Judging (TJ). In fact their total Myers-Briggs type appears to be the opposite of the other with Paula likely being ESFP while Simon presents as INTJ. Additional explanation of the conflict pair characteristics will help to understand the differences in the way Paula and Simon evaluate and make decisions about the performers in the talent contest.

The Thinking (T) and Feeling (F) conflict pair demonstrates where an individual prefers to focus their attention when experiencing conflict. When facing challenges the Thinking types want to fix the problem and the Feeling types are concerned about the impact of the problem on people’s thoughts and feelings. Conflict accentuates the difference in decision-making style leading to differing expectations and misunderstandings. This is especially true when the Thinking or Feeling preference is very clear or strong.

A person with a Thinking preference will take an objective and information driven approach by focusing on:

  • What the conflict is about – the facts
  • Opinions and principles
  • Analyzing and tolerating differences
  • Succinct delivery when addressing conflict – concern for persuasive data
  • Maintaining a firm position in attempting to resolve the conflict

A Feeling oriented person will take a different perspective and focus on:

  • Who is involved – the people
  • Needs and values
  • Accepting and appreciating differences
  • Tactful delivery when addressing conflict – concern about the impact on others
  • Ensuring that there is give and take in resolving the conflict

It should be apparent that two parties who take these opposing perspectives will approach the same situation with different priorities. Most people have the ability to appreciate both the thinking and feeling points of view but when under the stress of being in a confrontation are likely to “dig in their heels” and hold firm to preferences consistent with their type. This creates the classic battle between the “insensitive jerks” and the “bleeding hearts”. Thinking types just want to fix the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible while the Feeling types want to ensure that everyone’s thoughts and feelings are being considered. In American Idol Simon’s critique of the performers is typically direct, unemotional, based on objective technical qualities and communicated without compassion. Paula is often visibly moved by the emotion, energy, and connection that she makes with the performers and is expressive with her feelings. She is supportive when giving negative feedback to contestants in an attempt to soften the blow and provide encouragement.

So, what do we do when faced with a conflict in mediation involving Thinking and Feeling oriented people? Ideally each party can actively listen to the other and be willing to include their “non-preferred” judgment in their assessment of the situation. When asking each party to present their perspective it is best to start with the Thinking side of the equation and identify the facts and realities. Once these are agreed upon it is easier to move to the Feeling side of the equation to empathize and consider the impact that a decision will have on those involved. This process will likely enable the Feeler to become more objective and enable the Thinker to take time to consider the subjective aspects of the problem at hand. The result will be a more balanced assessment which will increase the likelihood that the parties will reach some agreement.

The Judging (J) and Perceiving (P) dichotomy is the dynamic which presents the greatest tension between people, particularly when these preferences are very clear or strong on the Myer-Briggs scale. This preference determines how a person makes decisions and acts on the judgment that they formed in their Thinking or Feeling oriented assessment of the situation. Perceiving people do not like to make quick decisions and desire more flexibility than that of people with a Judging orientation. Judging people want to come to conclusions and have difficulty with the spontaneity and lack of closure demonstrated by Perceivers.

A person with a Perceiving preference responds to conflict by:

  • Seeking clarification
  • Working it through
  • Focusing on the present
  • Being concerned primarily with the input of the participants
  • Experiencing satisfaction once the conflict is being addressed

Judging people respond to conflict by:

  • Seeking resolution
  • Sorting it out
  • Focusing on the present and future
  • Being concerned primarily with the output from or outcome of the situation
  • Experiencing satisfaction once the conflict is over

Judging people can become impatient, frustrated and irritated with Perceiving people when trying to resolve a problem or make a decision about what to do. On American Idol, Simon frequently shows annoyance with Paula’s ambivalence or reluctance to be firm and direct in describing her “in the moment” assessment of a performance. She sometimes expresses a desire to see another performance before making a final decision, wanting to buy more time. Simons’s critique, on the other hand, is clear, decisive, and often based on his future-oriented assessment of the performer’s ultimate ability to be successful in the contest. He wants to move forward. When attempting to mediate a dispute where Perceiving and Judging differences are involved it is best to have the Judger exercise some patience to “hear out” and clarify the desired outcomes of the Perceiver. Once the variables and options have been considered it will be easier for both parties to make a decision and move to agreement and closure.

When put in combination conflict pairs further describe a person’s typical style in dealing with differences. Simon’s strong Thinking-Judging style often appears to be insensitive and draws the wrath of the other stars of the show as well as the contestants and audience. Consistent with the T-J conflict pair, Simon operates from a cognitive perspective and is organized and decisive in his expression. His approach can be seen as critical and blunt. However he is often very accurate in identifying the candidates who will do well in the American Idol voting. Paula’s Feeling-Perceiving conflict pair causes her to operate from her emotional reactions about a performer or to statements made by Simon. She is sensitive and attuned to the impact the contest is having on the performers. Her approach can be dramatic, emotional and sentimental. Paula is also able to identify the candidates who will be successful on the program but may continue to support some weaker performers that she likes personally as she does not want to have them leave the contest.

It is clear that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® conflict pairs can help to assess and understand the interpersonal dynamics occurring between two people who are having differences with each other. When the preferences described by the conflict pairs are strong and overused it is likely that the differences can become conflict triggers that escalate and cause polarized positions. Resolving the dissonance requires both parties to be receptive to hearing and understanding the position of the other. Using the Myers-Briggs conflict pairs to help with this mutual understanding can be helpful. Using the conflict pairs to gain an appreciation of alternative positions and their basis can lead to a cooperative decision and a more productive outcome.

Biography


Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance.  He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation.  Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning for a behavioral health organization in Dayton, Ohio.  He is also a part-time instructor at the University of Dayton and Wright State University.    Dale can be contacted at 937.219.4996 or dale@conflictsolutionsohio.com.



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