Friday, December 28, 2007

Six Styles Under Stress

As you begin to feel unsafe in a conversation, you start down one of two unhealthy paths. You either move to silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool). If you know a few of the common forms of silence and violence, you can see safety problems when they first start to happen. In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler write about six styles we use when we're under stress, so that you recognize the patterns, step out, restore safety and then return to dialogue - before the damage is too great.

Six Styles Under Stress
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler identify six Styles Under Stress:

  • Masking. Consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching are some of the more popular forms.
  • Avoiding. Involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
  • Withdrawing. Means pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation or exit the room.
  • Controlling. Consists of coercing others to your way of thinking. It's done through either forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation. Methods include cutting others off, overstating facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.
  • Labeling. Is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
  • Attacking. You've moved from winning the argument to making the person suffer. Tactis include belittling and threatening.

Silence Patterns
Silence patterns consist of any act to purposefully withhold information from the pool of meaning. It's almost always done as a means of avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of meaning. Methods range from playing verbal games to avoiding a person entirely. The three most common forms of silence are masking, avoiding, and withdrawing.

The silence patterns:

  • Masking
  • Avoiding
  • Withdrawing

Examples of Silence Patterns
  • I think your idea is, uh, brilliant. Yeah, that's it. I just worry that others won't catch the subtle nuances. Some ideas come before their time, so expect some, uh, minor resistance. (Masking)
  • Oh yeah, that'll work like a charm. Offer people a discount, and they'll drive all the way across town just to save six cents on a box of soap. Where do you come up with this stuff? (Masking)
  • How does your new suit look? Well, you know that blue's my favorite color." (Avoiding)
  • Speaking of ideas for cost-cutting - did you see Friends last night? Joey inherited a bunch of money and was buying stupid stuff. It was a hoot." (Avoiding)
  • Excuse me. I've got to take this call. (Withdrawing)
  • Sorry, I'm not going to talk about how to split up the phone bill again. I'm not sure our friendship can stand another battle. (Withdrawing)
Violence Patterns
Voilence patterns consist of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool. Methods range from name-calling and monologuing to making threats. The three most common forms are controlling, labeling, and attacking.

The violence patterns:
  • Masking
  • Avoiding
  • Withdrawing
Examples of Violence Patterns
  • There's not a person in the world who hasn't bought one of those things. They're the perfect gift. (Controlling)
  • We tried their product, but it was an absolute disaster. Everyone knows that they can't deliver on time and that they offer the worst customer service on the planet. (Controlling)
  • Your ideas are practically Neanderthal. Any thinking person would follow my plan. (Labeling)
  • You're not going to listen to them are you? For crying out loud! First, they're from headquarters. Second, they're engieers. Need I say more?" (Labeling)
  • Try that stupid little stunt and see what happens. (Attacking)
  • Don't listen to a word Jim is saying. I'm sorry Jim, but I'm on to you. You're just trying to make it better for your team, while making the rest of us
    suffer. I've seen you do it before. You're a real jerk, you know that? I'm sorry, but someone has to have the guts to tell it like it is.(Attacking)

Which Patterns Do You Use Under Stress?
Here's some questions to check which styles you use under stress.


  • Rather than tell people exactly what you think, do you sometimes rely on jokes, sarcasm, or snide remarks to let them know you're frustrated?
  • When you have something tough to bring up, do you sometimes offer weak or insincere compliments to soften the blow?

  • Sometimes when people bring up a touchy or awkward issue, do you try to change the subject?
  • When it comes to dealing with awkward or stressful subjects, do you sometimes hold back rather than give your full and candid opinion?


  • At times, do you avoid situations that might bring you into contact with people you are having problems with?
  • Have you put off returning phone calls or emails because you simply don't want to deal with the person who sent them?


  • In order to get your point across, do you sometimes exaggerate your side of the argument?
  • If you seem to be losing control of a conversation, do you cut people off or change the subject in order to bring it back to where you think it should be?


  • When others make points that seem stupid to you, do you sometimes let them know it without holding back at all?
  • When you're stunned by a comment, do you sometimes say things that others might take as forceful or attacking - comments such as "Give me a break!" or "That's ridiculous!" ?


  • Sometimes whnen things get heated, do you move from arguing against other's points to saying things that might hurt them personally?
  • If you get into a heated discussion, are you known to be tough on the other person. In fact, does the person feel a bit insulted or hurt?

It's Almost Unfair
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write:

"It's almost unfair. The bigger the deal, the less likely you are to bring up your newly acquired skill-set into the conversation. Like it or not, if your adrenaline is flowing, you're almost guaranteed to jump to your Style Under Stress."
Keys Take Aways
Here's my key take aways:

  • Know the patterns. Knowing the patterns is half the battle. Knowing your styles under stress is a key to improving. Once you recognize your own reactions, you can shape your behavior to be more effective.
  • Identify silence versus violence patterns. I think extraverts or more assertive or aggressive individuals will lean towards violence patterns, while intraverts, or passive individuals will move to siolence patterns. While there's exceptions, this is the pattern I've noticed.
  • Use the patterns as a vocabulary. I think the power of patterns is efficient communication. Whether you're using them for yourself or for others, having a name for a pattern helps build and share knowledge.

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