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The Way of Conflict: Elemental Wisdom for Resolving Disputes and Transcending Differences

The Way of Conflict: Elemental Wisdom for Resolving Disputes and Transcending Differences

by Deidre Combs

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The Way of Conflict teaches strategies for using ancient wisdom and modern techniques to confidently engage in any dispute and reach a balanced resolution. This groundbreaking book integrates the wealth of conflict skills found throughout the world’s major religious and indigenous traditions with the latest scientific systems and conflict resolution theory. It


The Way of Conflict teaches strategies for using ancient wisdom and modern techniques to confidently engage in any dispute and reach a balanced resolution. This groundbreaking book integrates the wealth of conflict skills found throughout the world’s major religious and indigenous traditions with the latest scientific systems and conflict resolution theory. It uses the cross-cultural metaphor of the four natural elements — earth, water, fire, and air — to identify the innate conflict personality types and propose a productive path through the chaos of conflict. Combining her extensive experience as a licensed mediator and corporate trainer with wisdom gained from years of spiritual study, Combs uses assessment tests, anecdotes from indigenous and religious traditions, and illustrative folktales to show how to quickly assess a conflict and implement an appropriate resolution strategy.

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The Way of Conflict

Elemental Wisdom for Resolving Disputes and Transcending Differences

By Deidre Combs

New World Library

Copyright © 2004 Deidre Combs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-924-5


Discovering Your Elemental Nature

He who knows others is clever; he who knows himself is enlightened.

— Lao-tzu

Blaze, Gene, Edina, and Amy probably feel familiar to you. We work with them, live with them, and at different times we appreciate what each has to offer. For example, we will seek out a Blaze when we need enthusiasm or vision poured into a project. Edina's loyal support is welcomed when we want diligent care for the details. A Gene is just the ticket when we need a sympathetic ear, and an Amy creates clear organization and structure when needed. Together, the four friends create a balanced organization.

We might also recognize the unique stress-related attributes that the friends display. Everyone has a distinct battle style. For example, you may quietly look for cover or passionately drive a point home. You might instantly articulate the "perfect" solution or hold back an opinion and methodically pose questions. Depending on the dispute and your default method, you too might resort to the outbursts, sulking, insensitivity, or inertia described above.

This chapter explores individual default conflict approaches. Knowing not only your own but also your opponent's unique playing style can be a powerful conflict tool. I used to work with a man I'll call Saul. Quiet by nature, he was respected for his fine attention to detail and his methodical approach to problems. Saul would say he is a simple man with simple needs; he loved to play with his kids and watch football. When conflict struck, Saul stopped in his tracks. He'd ask questions, analyze options, and wait. Cross him, and he'd hold a grudge for what seemed like eons. In comparison, a fellow co-worker, Jeannie, was busy most of the time. She was like a bird, flitting from project to project, eating sporadically in between. In conflict, Jeannie looked for fast resolution and would talk a mile a minute trying to accomplish this goal. In contrast to Saul, who saw and remembered every detail, she would simply not notice that she might have offended someone and forgot about previous outbursts.

To develop a creative solution to conflict with Saul, I had to be willing to slow down and look at the situation in detail. However, to work with Jeannie, I was best served by talking quickly and not taking her lack of sensitivity personally. "Know the other and know oneself, then victory is not in danger," says The Art of War. By understanding their elemental personalities and monitoring my own fiery disposition, I was able to select an appropriate approach with each to find a winning solution.

Everybody is all right really.

— Winnie the Pooh

Although identifying unique personality types might appear to be a fairly recent leadership innovation and woman's magazine phenomenon, it is actually a universal tool that has been used among indigenous and religious traditions for thousands of years. A common cross- cultural method uses the natural elements (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air) to distinguish at least four main personality types. For example, determining that you are an Air or Water person will help you to define how you are best treated in most Chinese healing disciplines, Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and Native American shamanism. Buddhist and Hindu initiates choose spiritual practices based on their elemental proclivity. Taoism assigns the elements to the roles of mother, father, son, and daughter to explain each archetype. For example, the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, associates the father with air and sky and the mother with earth.

When you are connected with a natural element, you exhibit traits similar to that element. For example, people who contain more Earth exhibit personality traits that are inherent in rocks, mountains, or soil. These folks move more slowly and are observant of their physical environment. Often strong and grounded, an Earth person can be compared to a glacier at times. Whereas an Air person will blow in and out of a room in conflict, an Earth person may follow the famous refrain in Maya Angelou's poem, "Our Grandmothers": I shall not, I shall not be moved.

You are unique. Just like everyone else.

— Anonymous

There are many explanations of how we become connected to an element. Chinese and African teachings say that your birthday or year of birth determines your elemental personality. In the Sufi mystical tradition, it is where you were conceived that drives who you become. Some Western psychologists explain that we lead with a particular element because when we were children it was reinforced by our family or community.

Although the natural elements typing system is not commonly used in mainstream Western culture, it is hidden in our language. In a 2002 interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, President George W. Bush unknowingly revealed himself as a classic Fire personality: "Sometimes that's the way I am — fiery," he said, adding, "I can be an impatient person." He alluded to his "instincts" or his "instinctive" reactions a dozen times during this interview. "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals," Bush said. "There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace. ... The vision thing matters. That's another lesson I learned." Not only does Western culture use elemental language to describe our base personality types, but it is also found in the educational models of "learning styles" or "multiple intelligences." We refer to physical (Earth), emotional (Water), spiritual or creative (Fire), and mental (Air) intelligence. The educational system has embraced this approach by identifying and accommodating these different types. We acknowledge our Water students by fostering emotional intelligence in the classroom. We include kinesthetic or movement exercises to clarify theories for our more physical Earth-based pupils.

Sobonfu Somé, a spiritual leader and author from the African Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, reminds us that although we are naturally born with one or two elements predominant, the healthy person nurtures all the elements within her or him. In Western terms, we are all physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental beings. We need to create internal balance by fostering all four elements. Using the metaphor of war, there is not one right or wrong way to fight; rather, the more flexible and robust your army, the more sure will be your victory.

Regardless of how our conflict style is derived, think of the four elemental approaches as different tools in your toolbox. If we unconsciously reach into that box for our favorite implement without considering which would be best for a particular job, our choice might yield mixed results. Often we are surprised that our habitual yelling or intimidation isn't able to fix every situation. Sometimes it might, but other situations call for waiting and listening.

And so the general who knows the military is the people's fate star, the ruler of the state's security and danger.

— Sun Tzu,

Art of War

While you read this chapter, pretend that you are a general surveying your troops before battle. What resources are available to you, and when and where are they best used? Where are your weak points, and how do you guard against attack? What camaraderie, or esprit de corps, exists among the troops? When we understand our own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities in conflict we can implement our best strategy of attack and stay engaged until the solution that serves all the players emerges.

I designed the following self-assessment test to help you identify your elemental conflict style. Personality tests often try to define the indefinable. We are each complex, ever-changing beings. This test should not box you in but instead lend you insight into your innate gifts and help you to identify additional skills that you might wish to foster.


Answer the six questions below by ranking your responses horizontally from 1 to 4. Assign the highest value to your most common response. Then total your responses vertically. You may wish to complete this quiz with your professional environment in mind first, then retake it with personal relationships in mind.

you cannot step twice in the same river. Everything flows and nothing abides. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

— Heraclitus of Ephesus

Totaling columns A to D on this table will yield different scores. Each column corresponds to an elemental type, as described below. The higher the total score, the more of that element you may contain. It is common to have two strong elements.

The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going.... Feet on earth. Knock on wood. Touch stone. Good luck to all.

— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Earth is connected to the physical. Those of us who are Earth people rely on our bodies and our five senses. We are observant and have a great gift of noticing subtle details. We are comfortable with the rational. We prefer to let things sit and are patient and diligent. We are strong at implementation and appear stoic or unmoved in crisis.

Earth's strength — and weakness — comes from holding ground. We can stand strong in the face of new ideas or overwhelming emotions. We slow down and calmly describe the world as we see it. Push me if you can. You can wear us down, but we move and change on our own schedule. However, we may wait too long or hold a position past its potential. We need ample time to process new information. In the story above, Edina is clearly an Earth person.

POSSIBLE STRENGTHS: Earth people are observant, pragmatic, and even keeled. They nurture and ground an organization and are loyal and supportive.

POSSIBLE WEAKNESSES: Earth types can be stubborn and hold grudges. They can procrastinate and let valuable opportunities pass by. They often thwart progress by denying that issues exist or by refusing to change.

First we need to roam and learn from nature itself. To dabble, wade, dip, wallow, and splash. Toss pebbles or pick them up. Sleep by the water until it sounds in our dreams. See our faces in a pool and look beyond. Then, study hydrology.

— C. L. Rawlins


Water is the realm of emotions. The well or pool has long been seen as a symbol of our emotional body; Water people dive into its depths. Those of us who are Water people are empathic and gentle. Of all four types we are the most able to flow with the situation. Water has the gift of changing form when pressed by fire (it becomes steam), air (it becomes ice or snow or it evaporates), or earth (it easily shifts and flows around the obstacle). In conflict, we know how to get out of the way: catch us if you can.

Trying to describe the force of our emotions can be very frustrating. Not only do we feel our own response but we are also tapped into everyone else's emotional landscape. This torrent of feelings can put us into a sullen or discouraged state. In general we hate conflict because of the emotional toll it takes on us, and we like to just flow away. We need freedom and lots of space before we'll engage. In the story above, Gene brought powerful Water energy to the business team.

POSSIBLE STRENGTHS: Water people are flexible and comfortable with chaos. Still waters run deep. They are tuned into the morale and emotional health of groups.

POSSIBLE WEAKNESSES: Water types have a tendency to bail out of relationships or to become depressed when conflict hits. Highly sensitive, they interpret everything as a personal assault. They are sometimes unwilling to be honest for fear of damaging feelings, and thus they withhold valuable information.

Thus, pictures which wildfire creates of itself are at least bi-visual, part of fire's process of procreating its meanings. So as the fire at the top of the ridge slithered through the rocks, it stretched itself out ... using its tongue as a torch to cut through obstructions.

— Norman Maclean,

Young Men and Fire


Fire is a symbol of the spirit and of creativity. If we are Fire types we are enthusiastic players who are passionate about our relationships and ideas. We are unwilling to be pinned down. Once ignited, we love a wild and exciting battle, complete with sparks and flames. Blaze, the protagonist of the story above, is full of Fire.

Since fire is formless, we are always looking for the biggest picture or a boundless container. A battle is never just a battle; it is part of a larger issue that can be a bit overwhelming. If fed carefully, fire burns bright and warm, but stand clear when we heat up, or you'll get burned. We attack and are surprised when we run off the other players. We need to have our perspective acknowledged to remain vibrant and under control.

POSSIBLE STRENGTHS: Fire people are imaginative and enthusiastic. They bring life into failing projects or organizations and care deeply about the group and its future.

POSSIBLE WEAKNESSES: Their frustrated ranting can offend or incite others. Fire people may move into others' territories without respect for boundaries. They are easily overwhelmed and hard to predict and can be explosive.


Air is associated with the mind. We Air people are recognized for objective rational thinking; we understand the world using structured systems such as law, philosophy, mathematics, or psychology. We understand how to create processes and organization. We wish to resolve disputes quickly. We are sharp, fast-talking, and love lively debate. In the story above, bright and busy Amy has strong Air energy. Like a dog after a bone, our minds gnaw on a dilemma and are unwilling to let it go. An issue can occupy all our thoughts and attention, becoming an obsession. We talk first and ask questions later. It is often difficult to understand the emotions of others since we rely on our minds to make sense of the world. We need others to fully engage and match our arguments in conflict.

I loved the prairie, even while I feared it.... Still in my dreams I can feel the force of that wind.

— Pearl Price Robertson, "Homestead Days in Montana"

POSSIBLE STRENGTHS: Air people are great communicators and problem solvers. They can fit complex situations into applicable frameworks and are articulate and willing to offer an opinion.

POSSIBLE WEAKNESSES: Air types may need a reality check on the viability and emotional implications of proposed solutions. They may not realize that others disagree with or misunderstand their reasoning.


Identifying the Team's Personality

We don't accomplish anything in this world alone ... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.

— Sandra Day O'Connor

When people gather together for any reason, they form a team. In some cases, a group comes together only to discuss or resolve an issue, and then it disperses. On a playing field, for example, athletes gather into squads, play the game, then head back to the lockers. With families, corporations, and other communities, however, a single team might stay connected through countless experiences and challenges.

Like individuals, teams also have elemental personalities. One collective might choose generally to avoid conflict, while another will be all sparks and bickering, and another might need large blocks of time to process information before acting. When we are lost in conflict it is helpful to back up and look at the forest through the trees, to see the entire team beyond its individuals. When I am consulting or mediating a dispute I begin by mentally "backing up" to see all the participants as a single entity, even if they are taking opposing sides of an issue. Because a team acts like a living, breathing creature with its own distinct personality, I treat it as another player in conflict.

To give an example, our friends the Smith family love to be outdoors. Their home is welcoming, and they are great hosts. They enjoy hanging out reading, watching TV, or playing games. If you wish to create conflict with this family, be consistently late. If you'd like their company, give them ample notice, and they'll know you respect their commitments and calendar. Once I understood that the Smith family was an Earth "team," my relationship with them improved drastically. Time integrity, a strong Earth trait, is as important to them as being connected to the outdoors.

To use another example, Selby Tool is a creative, responsive organization. If the customer says she needs a new type of screwdriver, they'll make it. Unfortunately, that might be the only screwdriver of that type that anyone will ever need, so Selby must absorb significant retooling costs. Regardless of who runs their operations, Selby Tool seems to enthusiastically follow their customers down wild rabbit holes, which drives some of Selby's employees crazy and out the door after a few years. When I consulted with Selby, knowing that they led with Fire, I knew it was critical that the company articulate and commit to a clear direction to hold onto employees and bring back customers.


Excerpted from The Way of Conflict by Deidre Combs. Copyright © 2004 Deidre Combs. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Deidre Combs developed The Way of Conflict through extensive research and a national workshop series. She grounds the system in twenty years of corporate experience, a decade-long mediation and coaching/consulting practice and fourteen years of parenting. She began a full-time corporate career at IBM in 1985 and soon became a project manager in IBM's Healthcare and Global Services divisions; successfully managing a variety of technical, subcontract, and marketing teams over the next seven years. In 1992, she founded Combs and Company and became a credentialed mediator. Combs and Company, Inc. provides facilitation, conflict strategies, training, and executive and team coaching services. Combs and Company's clients include IBM, SolCom Incorporated, Land Mine Survivor's Network, Montana Public School Administrators, Montana State University, Young President's Organization, American Leadership Forum, US Postal Service, and US Forest Service among its many corporate, start-up and non-profit clients. She is also a doctoral faculty member of University of Creation Spirituality, a master's degree instructor for Naropa University, and an interfaith minister. She lives with her husband and their three children in the Rocky Mountains.

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