Out of the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Revised: September 12, 2014


Please Be Patient... 

To be experts in conflict management we need to ask "What are my own needs, defenses, values, beliefs, blind spots?  How can I be more self-disclosing, less defensive, a better listener, more creative, more flexible?"

Many years ago I coached a family business CEO (Bob) and President (Helen) who had different worldviews and different levels of trust in each others' capability. Bob, an Enneagram Seven, saw his younger sibling as "too hard-working, too focused on the details and not enough on our strategy." Helen, an Enneagram Six, saw her older brother as "ignoring the business," more interested in chewing the fat with customers than in doing the paperwork required to administer his part of the organization. (Sevens often look to the organization's future; Sixes want to make sure all the bases are covered.)

With their input, I started the consultation with a review of conflict management dynamics. Filley pointed out as long ago as 1975 (Interpersonal Conflict Resolution) that while we have a choice between behavior that (1) defeats one or both of us or (2) provides mutually beneficial solutions, we also have unconsciously learned patterns of competition, dominance, aggression, and defense. The use of problem-solving skills, on the other hand, appears to require conscious effort to develop and practice.

All the sources I researched concurred that each needs to treat the other's concerns as legitimate if they expected the same consideration in return. Rather than interpreting each other's motives through their own filters, they needed to listen and learn to show empathy, promote equality, be descriptive, creative, collaborative, and spontaneous.

I told them it's common to protect one's self-image by strategizing to keep things within our own control, becoming defensive when we feel threatened, acting on our assumptions, and using either/or thinking. In fact, the most common and most unproductive trap in approaching conflict is trying to change the other person. In a very real sense the only person you know you can change is yourself.

Ironically, in my work with Bob and Helen I didn't practice what I preached. After three meetings I abruptly terminated the consultation because I thought Bob was being dishonest. Although I'd emphasized the importance of open communication, he continued to say one thing in private and another in our meetings with Helen.

Bob's behavior hooked me. Instead of confronting him and modeling the conflict resolution skills we'd rehearsed, I obsessed over his behavior for days. I blamed him for the failure of our work together (citing to myself the many successes I'd had in similar circumstances and by the way protecting my self-image and avoiding what I anticipated as a difficult confrontation). This is how dysfunctional patterns keep repeating themselves.

If I'd stepped aside for just a moment when I became aware of my own anxiety, I could have asked him why his behavior was different in meetings than in private with me. I could have asked myself how his behavior was threatening me, what investment I had in certain outcomes. I could have told him I felt frustrated, and why, and asked him to work with me to improve our relationship.

Bob and Helen might never have been able to work better together (I heard they did eventually split). But he'd have had a powerful model of approaching conflict constructively.

I did tell Bob by phone that his behavior was inconsistent and I wasn't sure he was serious about doing the work. I also said I'd work with him in the future after he'd practiced the skills he'd agreed to in private with me ("I'll call you," he said...). But notice I wasn't talking about our relationship or what I brought to the interaction that caused me to react so strongly.

I once saw a bumper sticker: Please be patient...God isn't finished with me yet. I try to be patient with myself, to stay in the process, to remember to "step aside," when I can, from my own defenses and preconceptions. I hope you will be equally patient with yourself.