Conflict without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability

Conflict without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability

by Nate Regier Ph.D.

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Make Conflict Your Partner for Positive Change!

Clinical psychologist and transformative communication expert Dr. Nate Regier believes that the biggest energy crisis facing our world is the misuse of conflict. Most organizations are terrified of conflict, seeing it as a sign of trouble. But conflict isn’t the problem, says Regier. It’s all about how we use the energy.

When people misuse conflict energy, it becomes drama: they struggle against themselves or each other to feel justified about their negative behavior. The cost to companies, teams, and relationships is staggering. The alternative, says Regier, is compassionate accountability: struggling with others through conflict. Discover the Compassion Cycle, an elegant model for balancing empathy, care, and transparency with boundaries, goals, and standards. Provocative, illuminating, and highly practical, this book helps us avoid the casualties of conflict through openness, resourcefulness, and persistence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781523082605
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 04/24/2017
Edition description: 2nd ed.
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 336,197
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Nate Regier, PhD, is the CEO and cofounder of Next Element, a global training advisory firm specializing in leadership communication and building cultures of Compassionate Accountability. He is a former practicing psychologist and holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas.

Read an Excerpt

Conflict without Casualties

A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability

By Nate Regier

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Next Element Consulting, LLC
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5230-8260-5




"A problem only exists if there is a difference between what is actually happening and what you desire to be happening."

— Ken Blanchard

At the most basic level, conflict is a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any given moment. Conflict is everywhere. I want my latte in my hands before 7:50 a.m. so I can get to work on time, and the line is long at Starbucks. I want my team to come together around our strategic vision, and they have lot of questions. I want to feel rested tomorrow, and I also want to stay up tonight to watch three episodes of my favorite show on Netflix. I want to be recognized for my hard work on a project, and my client criticizes it. I want to feel settled about a decision, and my gut clenches whenever I think of it. I want to feel confident that my sales team will positively represent our brand in front of customers, and they question each other's integrity. I want to feel safe in my house, and I am afraid because two families in my neighborhood have been victims of recent break-ins.

What happens when conflict occurs? Where do you feel it? Does your heart rate soar? What about your stomach? Does it churn or tighten up? Perhaps your hands get cold and clammy or your neck gets hot. Does your hair stand up on the back of your neck? Maybe you notice racing thoughts or extreme emotions. Some people shut down. Some people lash out. Some people have learned to take it in stride. But for most of us, conflict is stressful. The more conflict we experience, the bigger the emotional, physical, and psychological toll it takes on us.


Before evaluating whether conflict is good or bad, or how we should respond to it, it's important to recognize that conflict generates energy. That energy shows up in a variety of ways. It could show up in racing thoughts and fantasies about what to do next. It could show up in increased heartbeat and flushed face caused by increased cortisol levels in the bloodstream. It could show up as an overwhelming desire to fight back or run away.

Conflict generates energy, pure and simple. And conflict is unavoidable. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that conflict is part of the grand design of the universe. I'm convinced that conflict is a necessary part of our human experience. Humans are created to be different from each other. Because of this we will inevitably have different needs, wants, and pursuits. When these come into contact with each other, conflict occurs.

Conflict is energy. Conflict is unavoidable. The only real question is: what will you do with the energy created by conflict? How will you spend it?


Our experience working in thousands of interpersonal conflict situations shows that when conflict occurs, human beings struggle. We spend the energy struggling. That struggle seems to take one of two forms: we either struggle against or we struggle with.

Struggling against is a process of opposition and destruction. It's about taking sides, forming camps, viewing the struggle as a win-lose proposition, and adopting an adversarial attitude toward resolving the discrepancy between what we want and what we're getting. Struggling against is everywhere. It's in politics and religion. On the news. On social media. Look no further than a typical Facebook post to see self-righteous, moralistic, opinionated, and dogmatic attitudes that create and maintain polarized "us vs. them" struggles.

Struggling with is a process of mutuality and creation. It's about seeing the solution as a two-way street, viewing the struggle as an opportunity for a win-win outcome, and adopting an attitude of shared responsibility for resolving the discrepancy between what we want and what we are experiencing.

"The purpose of conflict is to create — Michael Meade

A friend of mine, the poet, psychologist, mythologist, and musician Michael Meade, says "the purpose of conflict is to create." Wow, that's a strong statement! I agree. If conflict is inevitable and it generates energy, and if creating something new requires energy, then all the pieces are in place. The determining factor is whether the energy of conflict will be used productively to create, or destructively to tear down. That choice is up to us. Each one of us has the power to transform the energy of conflict into a creative force.

This notion of conflict is quite different from what I was taught in school, and even what I see in most leadership literature. Conventional wisdom says that conflict is supposed to be managed, reduced, or controlled. Why? Because most people are accustomed to struggling against during conflict. When we ask people what's the first thing that comes to mind when they think of conflict, they nearly always use phrases like, "very stressful," "people get hurt," "nothing good comes out of it," "I avoid it if I can," or "I gotta win." We rarely hear an enthusiastic endorsement of conflict as a creative force. We also rarely meet a leader who has mastered the art of positive, generative conflict.


Two critical concepts in this book, and in our entire philosophy of transformative communication, are Drama and Compassion. You will see these themes repeated, expanded and applied throughout this book and our work at Next Element.

Drama is the result of mismanaging the energy of conflict. It diverts energy towards the pursuit of self-justification, one of the strongest human urges and one that almost always gets us into trouble.

The word compassion originates from the Latin root meaning "co-suffering." Com means "with" or "together" or "alongside." Passion means suffering or struggling. Together, these reveal a process of struggling with others.

Compassion is the result of people taking ownership of their feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and choosing to spend the energy of conflict pursuing effective solutions that preserve the dignity of all involved. Compassion is more than care and concern for others. It's about the willingness to get in the trenches and struggle together as an equal with others.

The greatest change agents in history, those who have made the biggest positive difference, have practiced this kind of compassion. From Gandhi to Mandella, Mother Theresa to Martin Luther King, each has struggled with instead of against. The next chapter unpacks the dynamics, behaviors, and consequences of drama, which is what happens when people struggle against themselves and each other.




Everyone loves stage drama that entertains and excites. Unexpected plot twists, heroes and heroines, bad guys and good guys. Alternatively, there's interpersonal drama that hollows out your stomach, makes you want to scream, and sucks the life out of you. Easy to sense and difficult to get a handle on, interpersonal drama is one of the most costly drains on relationships and productivity.


Welcome to Drama Corp. It was Wednesday morning and the operations team assembled for its obligatory staff meeting. Fred, the Chief of Operations, was frustrated and critical of Sally's performance, saying things like, "You obviously don't care enough about your work." Sally looked down and said nothing, even though she had nothing to do with what had happened. Others in the room went silent and kept their heads down. Jim whispered to Sally that after the meeting he'd help her learn how to get on Fred's good side. For the rest of the meeting, everyone nodded in apparent agreement with whatever Fred said, and kept their own ideas to themselves.

After the meeting the drama continued and deepened. Brett found Sally in the break room and reassured her that it wasn't her fault. "Fred is just a jerk who has no idea what he's talking about," he scoffed. Jim stopped by Sally's desk and reminded her that he was on Fred's good side and had some advice for her. Meanwhile, Fred popped into Greta's office asking if she had noticed Sally's poor work as well. For the rest of the day, everyone from that meeting was preoccupied with what had happened, and the circle of drama grew. Lunch and break room interactions were tense. Side conversations and private text messages filled the office.

Fred spent more than an hour reviewing the employee conduct manual to see if he could write Sally up for insubordination. He just knew she was up to something bad. He wrote an email to HR asking for guidelines on documenting behavior. Sally felt angry all day, and was short-tempered with her teammates. Throughout the day she texted with several friends, including a few who didn't even work at Drama Corp, about what a jerk Fred was and how she couldn't wait to get out of there. One friend offered to check for openings at his company. Jim withdrew to his office and began plotting how to get more attention for his own projects in the next meeting.


It's easy to identify the behaviors of drama: gossip, secrets, triangulating, retaliating, blaming, avoiding, turf wars, blowing up...the list goes on. A working definition that helps us get a handle on the concept is a bit more difficult. Here's what we've come up with:

Drama is what happens when people struggle against themselves or each other, with or without awareness, to feel justified about their negative behavior.

Drama is about struggling against. There's always a winner and a loser. The fight may be internal, between people, or involving companies and nations. Relationships in drama are usually adversarial.

Drama happens with or without awareness. How each person behaves in drama is predictable and habitual. It's highly predicted by personality and amazingly consistent from day to day. Because we tend to learn these behaviors in childhood, we've likely been practicing them our whole lives.

Feeling justified is the modus operandi in drama. If I'm in drama, my ultimate motivation is to be able to say, "See, I was right!" How much time do you spend in your head, or with your allies, rationalizing the negative things you do? Think back to a time when you made a poor decision or treated someone badly but didn't want to take responsibility for your behavior. What did you do instead? I bet you spent a lot of energy trying to justify it. It's the only way we can sleep at night! This is why drama has such a negative impact on productivity: people are spending enormous amounts of energy trying to feel justified.

Drama is all about negative attention behavior. Humans need attention. Period. If we don't get it in positive ways, we'll get it negatively. It's the next best thing, and far better than being ignored. In my first book, Beyond Drama: Transcending Energy Vampires, I outlined the six types of positive attention and their negative attention counterparts.

Drama is fueled by myths. Dr. Taibi Kahler discovered four false beliefs that fuel distress, drama, and miscommunication. He called these false beliefs Myths because they are very believable and drive our behavior, yet are literally false. The myths are:

You can make me feel good emotionally.

You can make me feel bad emotionally.

I can make you feel good emotionally.

I can make you feel bad emotionally.

We are often reminded by the therapists among us that, "Nobody can make you feel a certain way." Technically true, yet difficult to believe when drama strikes. Kahler's Myths help understand the nuances of how we stray from the basic existential position of "I'm OK. You're OK." These four myths are the driving force behind drama. Throughout this book I will show how one or more of these myths lurks behind so many of the negative behaviors and interactions that lead to destructive conflict. Recognizing and replacing these myths with the principles of compassionate accountability is unbelievably invigorating and freeing.


Dr. Stephen Karpman loves sports. He is also an internationally acclaimed psychiatrist, author, therapist, and former athlete himself. As early as 1965, Karpman was doodling circles and symbols trying to figure out ways that a quarterback could outsmart the defensive halfback in football, or how offense beats defense in basketball. As the quarterback for the Delta Tau Delta fraternity football team at Duke, he would trick the defense by looking at two different receivers, then throwing to the third. Score! He also developed a matching set of fakes in basketball: a little fake, a big fake, then a third way to score. He went on to develop a sophisticated model of how games get played out in human interaction, discovering that it all comes down to triangles and roles. An offense lures a defense into expecting a certain role from the players who are interacting through triangles. Without notice, one or more of the players switch roles, leaving the defense wondering what happened.

Off the court, people do the same thing! We play one or more "expected" roles. And then, seemingly without notice, we switch, inviting confusion, frustration, guilt, and other nasty emotions that influence people to do what we want, in order to get what we want. The difference is that in real life, the switch causes a lot more problems than allowing a few points or missing a screen.

To explain what he discovered, Dr. Karpman developed the Drama Triangle, a model that describes how three different negative roles play off each other to keep us all guessing and, in the process, perpetuate unhealthy behavior. For this innovative work, he was awarded the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award by the International Transactional Analysis Association. One of the most elegant and practical models of how people interact in distress, the Drama Triangle has been an inspiration for our Leading Out of Drama® conflict communication methodology, as well as for our online Drama Resilience Assessment (DRA™). According to Karpman, it takes three to tango. Let's meet the three roles of drama.


At Drama Corp, Fred is the Persecutor. In drama, he resorts to criticism, questioning motives, accusations, and insults. This behavior is driven by the belief that he's OK and others are not OK, so therefore it's OK to behave this way. Whether he is aware of it or not, he has adopted the myth that he can make others feel bad to get what he wants. Fred justifies his behavior with statements like, "Sometimes you just have to show them who's boss," or "You gotta bring the hammer down or they won't respect you." Or he might declare: "They deserve it. I'm going to teach them a lesson."

Fred projects rage, arrogance, and righteous indignation to intimidate others, who most often just go along with him. Rarely does anyone confront Fred on his behavior because they are afraid of him. Even Greta, his executive peer, implicitly validates his position by agreeing or avoiding confrontation. Fred doesn't realize that he's sacrificed respect for being feared. Yet, deep down in places he doesn't want to talk about, he knows he's a tyrant. He's miserable, his family is miserable, and his people are looking for a ticket out of his department.

Fred spends a lot of energy justifying his behavior by seeking out others, like Greta, to agree with him about how worthless Sally is, or by looking to catch Sally doing something wrong in order to prove his belief that she's not OK. His self-justifying tunnel vision leads to a delusional view of reality in which people are essentially stupid, lazy and uncommitted, and will take advantage of you if you don't keep them in line. When Fred attends leadership trainings, he only "hears" things that support his view. He picks and chooses tools that perpetuate his adversarial tactics, and assiduously avoids any responsibility for his behavior.


Sally, along with several others in the Drama Corp staff meeting, play the role of Victim. In drama, Victims overadapt, surrender, lose assertiveness, accept blame for things they didn't do, and internalize the negative energy around them to avoid conflict and rejection. They are driven by the belief that others are OK, but they are not OK, therefore it's OK for people like Fred to mistreat them. Whether she's aware of it or not, Sally has adopted the myth that others can make her feel bad to coerce her into doing things, or they can make her feel good by approving of her or showing pity. She allows Brett to align with her against Fred in private because it helps her feel better but doesn't hold her accountable to do anything different. One of the most typical signs of drama is when people continually gossip and vent to feel justified, but take no responsibility for changing their behavior.


Excerpted from Conflict without Casualties by Nate Regier. Copyright © 2017 Next Element Consulting, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part 1 Conflict with Casualties: Drama Is Killing Us 7

Chapter 1 Conflict: The Big Bang of Communication 9

Chapter 2 Drama: Misusing the Energy of Conflict 13

Chapter 3 But I'm Just Trying to Help!: Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences 33

Part 2 A Framework for Positive Conflict: Compassionate Accountability can Change the World 45

Chapter 4 Compassion: Not for the Faint of Heart 47

Chapter 5 Compassion and the Cycles of Human Civilization: Will We Get It Right This Time? 75

Part 3 Conflict Without Casualties User Manual: Putting Next Element's Compassion Cycle to Work 87

Chapter 6 Violators Will Be Prosecuted: Three Rules of the Compassion Cycle 89

Chapter 7 Warning! Drama Approaching!: Three Leading Indicators 103

Chapter 8 It's All about Choices: Three Choices to Move 111

Chapter 9 Coaching Accountability When There's No Drama: Match and Move 129

Chapter 10 The Formula for Compassionate Conflict: Confronting Drama with Compassionate Accountability 147

Chapter 11 Conflict without Casualties: Preparing to Struggle with 163

Appendix A Personal Development Guide 181

Appendix B Preparing for Conflict: Building My ORPO Bank 191

Notes 195

Glossary of Terms and Phrases 197

Index 201

About the Author 207

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