Knowing How You Respond to Conflict: Rhino vs. Hedgehog

When a difficult situation arises, what’s your default mode of approach? Are you willing to charge into the conflict, head-first? Or do you just want to curl up in a ball and make everyone go away?

Knowing your tendencies can go a long way in improving your response to conflict in all sorts of relationships. Nicky and Sila Lee, authors of The Marriage Book, offer two pictures of how people deal with conflict: becoming either a rhinoceros, or a hedgehog.

If you tend to be a “rhino”, chances are you’re willing to get aggressive when dealing with difficult issues. You’ll want to ‘have it out’ in a fight, rather than walk away from the problem. A rhino charges straight in, horn pointed and ready to attack.

But if you’re a “hedgehog”, you’re much more likely to want to avoid conflict. When things get challenging, you’ll want to stop the conflict by shutting down. A hedgehog curls up in a ball and sticks its prickly spines out so no one can hurt it.

Despite the radical differences in these two tendencies, each offers benefits and challenges to situations of conflict. Put simply:

Rhinos want to charge into the conflict. Pro: conflict needs to be dealt with; Con: not always in an aggressive way.

Hedgehogs want to avoid conflict. Pro: sometimes conflict is unnecessary and self-protection is important; Con: not always at the cost of avoidance or shutting out other people.

Whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, or a sibling or work relationship, all of us bump up against people who tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum from ourselves.

What’s to be done?

First, it helps to realize that the differences exist. If we’re a hedgehog working with a rhino, we might begin to appreciate that what we perceive to be aggression towards us personally is just the natural tendency of someone who doesn’t mind arguing.

Similarly, it helps to understand others so that we can try to accommodate them a bit more. The Rhino can begin to understand that her natural reactions might intimidate others and need to be tempered. The Hedgehog can realize that shutting everyone out might be confusing, and a request for some personal time to process the situation is in order.

Seeing the good in the other end of the spectrum also helps us to grow, as individuals, toward a more measured response. (Like all tendencies, knowing where you’re starting from can help you realize which direction to head.) A good friendship between a rhino and a hedgehog can make the hedgehog more confident in approaching conflict, and the rhino more aware of people’s need for personal space before facing a difficult issue.

What’s more, the beauty of a whole spectrum of behavioural tendencies is that it reveals there isn’t one single best way to be. Sometimes a situation calls for a more rhino-type of approach, while other times, a hedgehog-like response is more appropriate. Negotiating a pay raise, for example, needs more assertiveness, while stepping out of a dysfunctional relationship requires more firm boundaries and less engagement with the dysfunction.

A hedgehog might phone a rhino friend before a difficult meeting with her (aggressive) employer, while a rhino might phone a hedgehog friend before a tough conversation with his (co-dependent) brother.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever change from horns to spines, but whether we tend to charge in or curl up, we can always aim for more balance in ourselves while we appreciate the differences in others.