Are you a shark or a teddy bear? How understanding conflict styles can help you overcome fights with friends and family

Are you a shark or a teddy bear?  How understanding conflict styles can help you overcome fights with friends and family

Teddy bears are the self-sacrificing type. Credit: Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock

For all the joy they bring, families and close friendships often involve conflict, betrayal, regret and resentment. Prince Harry’s recent memoir, “Spare”, is a reminder that those closest to us often have the most power to hurt us. It describes power struggles, conflict, challenging family dynamics and decades of guilt, jealousy and resentment.

This type of conflict can feel impossible to resolve. Moving around isn’t easy and sometimes it won’t happen, at least in the short term. But psychology has helped us understand more about the breakdown of intimate relationships and what factors are most likely to resolve.

Throughout life, it’s hard to avoid getting hurt, upset, or in conflict with people we love. It is an inevitable part of most lives and learning to negotiate it is a more useful and realistic goal than avoiding it. The first step is to understand what makes relationship conflict so difficult and the different approaches people have to it.

Canadian psychologists, Judy Makinen and Susan Johnson, used the term attachment injuries to describe the types of wounds that are caused when we feel abandoned, betrayed, or abused by those closest to us.

These wounds are so acute because they call into question the safety, dependability or loyalty of these people. They trigger a multitude of emotional and behavioral responses, including aggression, resentment, fear, avoidance and reluctance to forgive. These responses evolved as self-defense and are rooted in our personal history and personality.

But the pain can linger indefinitely, continuing to influence us from the shadows. So what have psychologists learned about how people heal, move through hurt and even learn and grow from it?

Turtles, sharks, teddies, foxes and owls

Much research has been done studying conflict resolution. Social psychologist David W. Johnson studied conflict management “styles” in humans and modeled the normal ways in which we respond to conflict.

He argued that our responses and strategies for conflict resolution usually involve an attempt to balance our own concerns (our goals) with the concerns of the other people involved (their goals and the preservation of the relationship). Johnson outlined five main styles or approaches to this balancing act.

“Turtle” withdraws, abandoning their own goals and relationships. The result is usually a frozen, unresolved conflict.

“Sharks” have an aggressive, strong action and defend their own goals at all costs. They tend to attack, intimidate and overwhelm during conflict.

“Teddy Bears” tries to keep the peace and the fine things safe. They drop their own goals completely. They sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.

“Foxes” takes a compromise style. They involve sacrifices made on both sides and see compromise as the solution, even when it results in less than optimal results for both sides.

“Owls” adopts a style that sees conflict as a problem to be solved. They are willing to solve it through whatever solutions both parties offer a way to achieve their goals and maintain the relationship. This can take a lot of time and effort. But owls are happy that the struggle will last.

Research has suggested that our conflict resolution styles are related to our personality and relationship history. For example, people whose early attachment experiences have taught them that their feelings are unimportant or invisible may be more likely to develop conflict management styles that instinctively minimize their needs (eg, the teddy bear).

Some psychologists have also suggested that our conflict management styles can be modified in long-term relationships but do not change significantly. In other words, while teddies may have the ability to develop conflict management characteristics that are indicative of other styles, they are unlikely to turn into sharks.

Psychologists Richard Mackey, Matthew Diemer, and Bernard O’Brien argued that conflict is inevitable in all relationships. Their research found that the length of a relationship depends greatly on how conflict is handled, and the longest-lasting relationships are those where conflict is accepted and both parties deal with it constructively.

So, while a relationship between two sharks may last, it is much less likely to be harmonious compared to a relationship between two owls.


Forgiveness is often recognized as the ultimate goal in relationship conflict. Jungian analysts Lisa Marchiano, Joseph Lee and Deborah Stewart describe forgiveness as reaching a place where we are able to “hold in our hearts the magnitude of the harm done to us and the humanity of the hurt at the same time”. That is not an easy place to come to because it can feel like we are lessening our suffering by forgiving someone.

Psychologists Masi Noor and Marina Catacuzino founded the Forgiveness Project, which provides resources to help people overcome unresolved grievances. They include a set of essential skills or tools that they argue can help us find forgiveness.

These include understanding that everyone is observable (including ourselves); stop competing over who has suffered more; empathy for how others see the world and acknowledging that other perspectives exist; and to take responsibility for how we may contribute to our own suffering, even if it is a bitter pill to swallow.

As Mark Twain said it: “Forgiveness is the perfume that the violet blows on the heel that crushed it.”

Provided by An ComhrĂ¡

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The conversation

Quote: Are you a shark or a teddy bear? How understanding conflict styles can help you overcome fights with friends and family (2023, March 6) retrieved on March 6, 2023 from teddy-conflict-styles-friends.html

This document is subject to copyright. Except for any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. The content is provided for informational purposes only.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *