I accepted my first full-time teaching job at a middle school under some less than ideal circumstances. The social studies faculty member I was brought on to replace had been a star teacher, much beloved for several years. In a devastating turn of events, a few weeks prior to the new school year, she was hit by a bus—an incident made even more tragic by the fact it occurred while she was on the side of the road helping somebody else out.

I still remember the palpable somberness that filled the room when I interviewed for that position. “You ought to know something going into this job,” the principal and board members said. “She passed away last week and  her funeral was just two days ago.” A small monument had also been dedicated to her, placed in front of the school. The first year of teaching in conventional schools can be extremely daunting. That’s a given (46% of teachers report high daily stress). But I knew this tragedy was going to play an important role in my students’ and their parents’ lives for a long time. They had lost a dear member of their community. And, their expectations for what the school year was supposed to entail were going to cause severe moments of tension for all involved.

One such incident appeared during my second parent-teacher conference of the year. As teachers, we were stationed around the perimeter of the gym, each at individual tables with a few chairs positioned across from our own. Early in the evening, a parent marched up to my table accompanied by her children—both of them my students—and sat down. It was clear by the strain in her face that she was holding back a great deal of fire.

I immediately braced myself for what I expected to be an emotional onslaught. 

Following some customary pleasantries, she proceeded to outline, in charged tone and in no uncertain terms, many of the ways in which she felt I was failing to meet her expectations as a teacher. She listed off a timeline as to which projects I should have my students doing when, all with specific deadlines and guidelines. Feeling thoroughly attacked, but ever wanting to ensure she was being heard, I listened, agreeing when I believed she offered a reasonable point, and reflected back to her what I understood she was trying to communicate. The verbal barrage caused an intense discomfort in my chest. I’m not inclined toward conflict and tend to do whatever is necessary to diffuse a situation. A diplomat by nature, I provided her with more context as to what was going on in the classroom and agreed to a few demands she made. (Notably, I didn’t push back or challenge her.) Following this, she turned to each of her children—in a similarly commanding fashion—and began to chastise them. She fumed about all the things they were going to agree to do to “succeed in class” to be better students. They both complied, humbly agreeing to her unbending terms. I shook her firm hand, kindly nodded to my acceding students, and jotted down some notes as they walked on to the next parent-teacher appointment. 

The intensity of that interaction sat with me for a few weeks, gestating in my chest, flaring up internally whenever I’d see that parent around school. Functioning as unwilling proxies for their mother’s anger, interacting with these two students would trigger a reminder of the emotional toxin that had lodged itself inside me. The after effects of it all would mostly fade, but it took me months to exorcise the encounter from my system. 

[Read “I Respect Her But I Don’t Trust Her”]

What Is Tension-Reaction?

When our Behavior Style needs are not being met, it creates a tension-reaction inside of us that is often externally expressed. Each of us has a natural resting place when it comes to our patterns of behavior. In short, Persuaders are verbally gifted, enthusiastic, expressive, and enjoy working with others. Analyzers are precise, deliberate, data-driven, and seek perfection in the quality of their work. Stabilizers are accommodating, warm, loyal, and prioritize harmony above most things. Controllers are assertive, tend to make fast decisions, utilize conflict to overcome obstacles, and accomplish a great deal because of their action-oriented nature. 

Of note, if a person with any given Behavior Style has to operate for very long outside of their comfort zone—meaning their needs are not being met, either because of circumstances or due to someone not meeting those needs—they become stressed. Until we improve our interpersonal awareness and learn how to appropriately manage our needs or “flex our Behavior Style”—situationally and temporarily—we will tend to exhibit tension-reaction behaviors. 

Due to our deep craving to return to our natural resting spot, we tend to overextend our strengths. In turn, this often means that whoever is caught up in this tango of conflict with us is also likely to overextend their strengths. And down and down we go in this vicious cycle—an endless feedback loop in which we are failing to meet one another’s needs. 

[Read “Navigating Conflict Is Your Responsibility, Not Theirs”]

Each Behavior Style Has Knee-Jerk Responses to Stress

This frustrated parent was acting, in some part, out of a need for greater structure, control, and action. She held expectations as to what the curriculum and schedule were supposed to look like for her children. In her eyes, her children were not being given enough school work and clear enough guidelines were not being set. How were her kids supposed to succeed in life if they weren’t being “straight A” students taking advantage of every honors program possible? What kind of teacher doesn’t have their entire curriculum neatly mapped out for the year?

Conversely, I was a beleaguered teacher working sixty-hour weeks trying to ensure that my students were being provided the best educational experience I could offer them. Furthermore, I was focused on fostering a classroom environment that was open and flexible, where students felt they could develop personal relationships and explore their individual interests in ways less endemic to conventional schooling. 

Our differences weren’t just over educational philosophy or pedagogy. During our charged exchange, we both demonstrated tension-reaction behaviors as a way of trying to get back into our comfort zone. I acquiesced, and, in specific ways, gave in to her forcefulness. I didn’t want to go into “fight mode” or challenge her. I later went on to worry for weeks about the fall out (while mending my emotional wounds). I internalized the verbal affront and aimed on restoring whatever calm I could to the situation. She, on the other hand, took control of it. She unleashed her frustrations directly at me, made demands, and pointed the finger at all those she deemed were not “doing enough.” Her focus was on getting the results she wanted, regardless of her impact on me or her daughters.

Again, each Behavior Style’s tension-reaction response is to overextend their normal behaviors, which gives them the perception that they are meeting their driving need. 

Here’s a brief overview of the tension-reaction behaviors and driving needs common to each Behavior Style:

You’ll likely recognize that my response to the angered parent typifies that of a Stabilizer, while hers closely matches that of a Controller. 

[Read “Receiving Feedback Doesn’t Have to Be Painful”]

On Limiting Tension-Reaction Situations  

Now, what can we do to avoid tension-reaction situations, or, at least, more successfully navigate them? First, increase awareness regarding what our initial tension-reaction behaviors tend to be. It’s easier to do this when we know what our Behavior Style is. This doesn’t capture all of our initial responses, but it’s a great starting point. If we can identify these in ourselves, then we can better correct our course of action.

Second, identify the Behavior Styles of others so that we can know which tension-reaction behaviors to look for in them. As with ourselves, if we can take note of the early signs that another person is facing a stressful situation, then we can act accordingly to better meet their Behavior Style needs.

Third, exercise a willingness to adjust our Behavior Style to more frequently match the comfort zone of others. We have to be mindful so that we don’t deplete ourselves by going beyond our natural resting place for too long, but going out of our way to meet the Behavior Style needs of others goes a long way—even if it’s just a little bit more than we are currently doing. 

In a nod to Controllers—the Behavior Style most comfortable with conflict—we must acknowledge that conflict can play an important role. It inspires action, reveals problems stemming from poorly designed processes, and it uncovers the ways in which we are failing to help one another thrive. Alternatively, too much conflict undermines the culture and effectiveness of teams. And it drains the emotional well-being of individuals (especially Stabilizers, who typically prefer to avoid conflict the most of all the Styles). Rarely do we need to seek out conflict. It has an uncanny way of showing up in all the places we don’t want or expect it. 

Our aim should then be to avoid expressing tension-reaction behavior in ways that create a negative impact, and that starts with an increased awareness around the Behavior Style needs of ourselves and others. 

[Find Out What Your Behavior Style Is]