We talk and write a lot about the importance of Perceptual Style in understanding conflict. With good reason! Our Perceptual Style is the most important factor in Perceptual Style Theory (PST) in determining how we see the world. Notably, differences in Perceptual Style are often at the core of conflict. However, Perceptual Style differences are not the only contributor to conflict – in some situations, style differences may not be the most important.
Our Preferences for Interaction (PFI) can be equally important in helping to understand why we find ourselves in communication disconnects and conflict.
I was thinking about this the other day after my wife and I headed out to the yard to tackle some spring clean-up projects. We were excited, as we often are, but as so often happens with us, we were soon irritated and frustrated with each other. As a result, instead of working together, we ended up annoyed with each other while working in parallel.
This is especially frustrating for me because I never encountered this problem during the 33 years of my first marriage. My first wife (who passed away from breast cancer eight years ago) and I worked in the yard together, for the most part, with little or no conflict.
But as I indicated, this has happened to my current wife and me many times before, and it has baffled me because, although she is Methods and I am Activity, I knew that was not the root of the issue. On a walk around the block, while we were both in good moods, we started talking about it in one more attempt to figure out what was going on.
We quickly realized that the conflict was not at the level of what we wanted to accomplish and what it should look like. Since we married, we have changed the landscaping completely, and we consistently agree on what plants are going where and the look we want.
We did discover a minor Perceptual Style conflict at the task level. Being Methods, my wife likes things a lot “cleaner” than I do. While I like things neat, I have also learned that it doesn’t matter how clean you get things, there is no getting landscaping or yardwork done “once and for all.”
My Activity response is to accept what I consider to be a reasonable level of “finished,” knowing that the wind, sun, and rain will all combine to move it towards greater entropy very quickly. While she accepts this concept, my wife still has a tighter level of “finished” than I do, and I think this is due to her Methods Perceptual Style.
Our solution to this has always been for me to do the heavy lifting while she attends to the finishing details. We discovered this early on, and it has always worked well for us.
Having confirmed that there was no conflict in what we wanted to accomplish and we had a suitable compromise at the task level left only one possible suspect: Project management.
By project management, I mean quite simply, “Who is managing the workflow”? Practically, this translates into who determines how the project needs to be done, the steps involved, and the order of those steps.
This is where the Preferences for Interaction concept helped us understand the frequent irritation and exasperation with each other. We both want to be the project manager, have strong ideas about workflow, and our workflow plans conflict with each other.
So, what are Preferences for Interaction?
Interaction between people can be broken down simply in three distinct ways:
Transactions – interactions designed to make agreements and trades.
Operations – interactions focused on doing and accomplishing.
Resources – interactions focused on facilitating yourself or others.
You do all three regularly, but you have a distinct order in your preference for some types of interactions over others. Your preference strongly influences the skills and behavioral roles you’ve become good at and prefer to do.
You demonstrate your preference by naturally gravitating towards activities associated with one category over the other two.
If Transactions is your favorite, you might be the person who loves social gatherings because they offer so many opportunities for bargaining, convincing, settling arguments, mentoring, selling, networking, and persuading others.
If Operations is your thing, your interactions probably revolve around getting things accomplished, planning, organizing, delegating, troubleshooting, and managing/overseeing.
And, if you have a preference for Resource interactions, you may spend a lot of time researching, teaching, counseling, sharing, advising, coaching, defining strategies, and connecting people.
The degree of preference for each category varies from person to person, but there is always an ordered preference. It’s important to remember that your natural preference isn’t right or wrong; it’s just yours!
When my wife and I looked at our conflict through the lens of PFI, it suddenly all made sense. My strongest PFI is Resources. It is fundamentally what I do for a living as a consultant and psychotherapist, but I have a very strong Operations PFI as well. Transactions is a distant third and has always been my Achilles heel.
The PFI of my first wife and I meshed around our shared preferences – she too had a strong preference for Resources, but Transactions was second, and Operations was a weak third. She looked to me to take the management position, and she preferred to let me arrange steps to get things done together.
The PFI of my current wife and I don’t mesh in the same way. Her first preference is Operations, and it is much stronger than either her Resources or Transactions preferences. She and I clash because we both want to take the management position and, with our difference in Perceptual Style, our approach to Operations is very different!
So, not only does she resist any attempt on my part to take the management role due to her strong Operations preference, but she also frequently disagrees with the process I create and the steps I initiate due to our Perceptual Style differences. From her Methods perspective, my steps are not logical, and they are way too broad and general.
We have only recently gotten to where we could talk about the conflict without getting defensive or emotionally activated. Getting past the “I’m right, and you’re wrong” perspective is crucial to resolving or managing a conflict!
As we head outside, instead of asking, “What are we going to do?” I let her know what I want to work on and ask her what she will focus on. While we are still working in parallel, we consciously do so without irritation or frustration.
Whenever people interact, conflict, disagreement, and irritation are inevitable. Knowledge of Perceptual Style and PFI will not prevent conflict, but it can give you powerful tools, including a language and a different perspective, to help you find resolution and balance.