Blog Post No. 47
12th April 2017 – Updated on 3rd February 2021
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2017
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Handling conflict skilfully: Knowing your personal style…
In this blog I am going to do a ‘rave review’ of a short and simple quiz that shows us how we handle conflict in our current relationships. Some quizzes don’t give us many insights about ourselves when we’re interacting with other people, but this one strikes me as giving us a clear mirror which shows us how we deal with pressure from others.
The quiz, created by Virginia Satir, outlines the five main ways of handling conflict with others. She created a system of conjoint-family-therapy, and was a pioneering therapist who showed that families play a significant part in the development of the problems of individuals, and that blaming individual family members for their problems was unfair, because the problems the client showed up with were learned and created in the family.
Understanding how we deal with conflict at the moment
The great thing about this quiz is that it shows you a range of patterns that people play out when they are dealing with interpersonal conflict. The strategies used vary from constructive to really unhelpful and ineffective.
If you complete the quiz below, and you look at your results, you’ll be able to see your current favourite approach, and how to change your behaviour if you are not happy with the result.
Here are the five ways of handling conflict which Satir identified:
PLACATING – Pacifying, calming or appeasing behaviour. (Appeasing means to make someone calm and less hostile by giving in to their demands).
BLAMING – Holding someone to account, condemning or accusing them.
DISTRACTING – Diverting, changing the subject, cracking a joke for entertainment, etc.
COMPUTING – Assessing, analysing, and theorising about what you are experiencing.
LEVELLING – Being frank, open, honest, and above board. Telling the truth as you see it.
So this quiz tests how you react when life gets difficult: particularly during interpersonal conflict.
Your ‘blaming’ score shows how far you are liable to blame other people when under stress. Your ‘placating’ score shows how much you tend to placate or appease. Your ‘distracting’ score shows how much you tend to distract yourself and other people from the problems being presented. Your ‘computing’ score shows how far you tend to cut off from your feelings. Your ‘levelling’ score shows how far you tend to react creatively and flexibly.
Here is the quiz: Read through this list of 20 statements. Write down the statement number of any statement with which you strongly agree. (You will need these numbers to mark your resulting score).
Choose as many statements as you like from the list if you think they reflect you or your views. You should choose at least seven statements.
- Conflict is something I try to reduce as soon as possible.
- If someone’s going to tell me something I don’t want to hear, I’ll quickly and smoothly try to change the subject.
- Conflict is healthy if it means the people involved solve a problem.
- It’s important that people know who’s responsible for a mistake.
- Catching people off-guard with a compliment is a good way to ease tension.
- I’ve been told I can be unemotional.
- I’ve been told that sometimes I let people take me for granted.
- I can get stressed but I try not to let it affect my life too much.
- Avoiding taking responsibility for my actions is a good way to shift blame.
- In the past, I have taken the blame for something when it wasn’t my fault.
- I can keep my head clear by distancing myself when those around me are getting edgy.
- Hopefully, people know that once a conflict with me is finished, we can then move on.
- I’ll fight my corner at all costs to make sure I can hold my head up high.
- I dislike being shouted at, so I’ll usually try to soothe the situation.
- If I’m clever and funny enough I can keep conflict at bay.
- If something bad happens, I cut off from my emotions; it feels safer to not let my guard down.
- I’m not scared to confront someone – but I do to do so without making the other person feel bad.
- Getting over-emotional during conflict is no way to solve problems.
- I have a long memory when it comes to remembering others who’ve crossed me in some way.
- If I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would, some ‘social flirting’ keeps people off my back.
Now that you’ve chosen at least seven statements as being ones that you agree with, please draw a grid like the one below, and write in the numbers. Then tick those numbers you’ve chosen above.
Here is the grid, containing a worked example.
Which column has the highest score?
The one with the highest score is your favourite strategy, followed by the next lowest number.
In the example in the grid above, we can see that ‘distracting’ is the style most often chosen, followed by ‘placating’ and ‘blaming’. So this person would be called ‘a distractor’, for shorthand description.
Virginia Satir’s conflict categories:
When things get tough in our lives we choose one or more of these personality patterns. Here is more of an explanation of these styles of behaviour:
Step on a placator’s foot and they will be the one to apologise. Placators know that peacemakers get blessed – or at least don’t get trashed. And so a typical placatory will soothe, please and pacify.
More females than males tend to be placators. They tend to dislike disagreeing with people – even if they are being criticized.
The aim of the placator is to get others to be nice to them – and, as placators tend to be externally influenced, they’ll therefore probably go along with whatever the other person wants. They’ll hold eye contact, smile a lot, and nonverbally ask for forgiveness. They apologize a lot.
If a blamer steps on someone’s foot, they will expect the other person (whose foot they stepped on) to apologize. This is because a blamer’s classic move is to shift the responsibility away from themselves, and there are many ways of doing this: They can nag; they can sulk; they can shout; and they can hit out. Or they can pretend that it’s not a problem and then launch a surprise attack a few hours later when everyone thinks the worst is over.
Did they step on someone’s foot? No. A distracter will state that they weren’t even there. They’ll smile, or crack a joke, or say what lovely weather it is today, and do everything in order to deflect attention. Their favourite phrase is this: ‘It wasn’t me’.
When a ‘computer’ steps on someone’s foot, they simply won’t register the fact. They are the one who just doesn’t seem to feel anything, and doesn’t respond emotionally to what’s happened. They simply shut down their feelings – and can’t understand the suffering of others, if it is (or seems to be) illogical or irrational. Or just plain ‘emotional’!
A computer style used by a person may seem like they are responding calmly to a crisis. But they are panicking just as much as anyone else. It’s just that they are trying to handle their panic by cutting themselves off at the neck. And actually, that’s just as bad an idea as placating, blaming or distracting, because they are missing out on the information or motivation their body is trying to give them.
So they will take action, but over-rationally. They’ll respond, but insensitively.
A leveller who steps on someone’s foot will notice. Then they’ll move back. Then they’ll ask if there’s anything they can do. They won’t grovel, dump or look the other way – and they won’t cut off from their feelings. They’ll be genuinely regretful – but unlike people who run the other four personality sub patterns, they won’t go into a spiral of defensive responses.
So a leveller is going to be the one to hang in there under stress or in conflict, and simply get things sorted. They will strike a balance between thinking and feeling – and that means that they will:
(a) Face up logically to the problem; and:
(b) Have the emotional energy to sort it out.
Whether at home or away, they’ll have the space to listen to other people, take into account everyone’s needs and find a solution.
Anyone who works with a leveller, marries a leveller, or has a leveller for a friend, therefore has an easy life. They know exactly where they stand with a leveller, and consequently feel secure. They know that if any problems arise in their relationship then the leveller will tell them. (They will not whine, sulk, push the problem away or deny their feelings).
The bottom line is that the more positive your upbringing, the more likely you are to be a leveller. (Or you could have some corrective experiences, in social relationships or therapy, later in life).
Learning to level
It might now be obvious that all of the ‘types’ could benefit from learning how to level with others: or to speak up and describe what is happening, and how they experience it.
Being a heavy-duty placator, blamer, computer or distracter isn’t a particularly good idea. Not only do these personality sub-patterns feel uncomfortable to actually use, but they will not be appreciated by a boss, or by friends or close family.
Of course, everyone runs a bit of the four more unhelpful personality sub-patterns, at least some of the time. This is not surprising, because we learn ways of behaving when we are young that seem to work. And at school, skills at maths and English and other subjects are rated much more highly than the ability to deal with people effectively and skilfully.
IQ (or the ability to take logic tests) is rated much higher than EQ (or the ability to read one’s own emotions; the emotions of others; and to communicate about both). But when we’re an adult, the limitations of our lack of skill in handling conflict start to become much clearer. Virginia Satir’s therapeutic advice was to shift your behaviour towards helpful ‘levelling’.
The limitations of the different ways of handling conflict will now be outlined:
- If you tend to be a placator:
- You may think it’s a good sub pattern as it seems to smooth things over.
- In fact, you won’t get what you want – plus you can drive people crazy by always apologising.
- If you tend to be a blamer:
- You may think it’s a good sub-pattern because at least no one shouts at you.
- In fact, it alienates people – plus by shifting responsibility, you give away your power.
- Instead, to move towards being a leveller, learn that the world’s not out to get you and that temper tantrums don’t work.
- If you tend to be a distracter:
- You may think it’s a good sub-pattern because it gets you off the hook.
- In fact, you never get to face problems – plus you never take responsibility for things. (And taking responsibility is the first step in solving most of our problems!)
- Instead, to move towards being a leveller, learn to face up to it when other people challenge you. Then either take their criticisms on board, or stand firm in believing you’re OK.
- If you tend to be a computer:
- You may think this is a good way to behave, because it keeps you clear of messy emotion.
- In fact, you miss out by ignoring feelings – plus you may come across as hard hearted. If you cannot read another person’s emotions, then you cannot really understand them or communicate effectively with them.
- Instead, to move towards being a leveller, allow yourself to pay more attention to what others are feeling; and take their emotions into account. (You might need some coaching in the labelling of emotions; and understanding how to manage them in yourself).
Learning new behaviours
As you can see from the quiz above, the behaviour of someone who is a ‘leveller’ is the ideal style of communication that we can work towards, if we want to work well with other people, and have loving, healthy relationships.
But it ain’t easy! We never stop learning how to deal with people, and this quiz should help you to know the strengths and weaknesses of your personal style.
The ‘levelling’ approach reduces conflict; and also reduces stress in our bodies, because we are dealing with problems as they arise and are facing up to them.
The reality is that we can’t change other people – only ourselves! (And that, as you most likely know, is not easy!)
But we can earn our own self-respect – (which as Lord Roseberry said, is worth fourteen times more than the approval of other people) – and be a really good role model for our children and other people in our environment.
Virginia Satir’s model helps us see where we are operating from; and also what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to dealing with conflict constructively.
In my opinion, this quiz, presented above, is very useful. It raises our self-awareness, and gives us specific ways of behaving which are very useful for us if we spend a lot of time dealing with people in the work environment, or in our family life. These insights are very helpful for our own personal development, if we want to take on the challenge.
See what you think. Try the test out and see if it’s any use to you. Consider whether you could benefit from moving towards levelling. And if I can help, you know where I am!
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