3 Hidden Risks and Assets We Bring to Every Conflict

 We bring a lot of mental and emotional “stuff” to our conflicts—things that we do without thinking about them consciously. I’ve thought a lot about this “unattended baggage” since my wonderful chat with Richard Atherton, host of the Being Human podcast. Richard asked me to go beyond the content on conflict that I share in my TEDx talk, “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It” (now hosted on TED.com). 

The Risk of Perceived Threat Can Get in Your Way

Unless we perceive some level of threat, we don’t usually identify a situation as a conflict. Nor do we normally perceive conflict when we’re absolutely confident we’ll win and therefore aren’t stressed about it; instead, we just assert our authority. But if we anticipate that we’re walking into a conflict, we always bring our automatic threat responses or fears about what will go wrong and harm us. We enter the conflict in a heightened state of alert and discomfort. We may be responding to potential threats we perceive to our decision, our position, our team’s needs, our ability to serve customers, what we believe is right, or our status and ego. 

Depending on our personal histories and our place in the hierarchy of the organization and based on our perception of threat vs. potential for success, we may fight too hard or cave too early. Those are habitual responses—we all have colleagues who fight a certain way, like using drama, making surprise announcements, or exhibiting visible (even if restrained) anger. And that’s before even addressing the content of the conflict! 

Before entering the conflict, assess the upcoming situation. It’s helpful to consciously identify the risks—whether to your personhood or your cause—so that you’re ready to manage yourself effectively. If it’s the same operations meeting you go to every Tuesday, remind yourself that nobody ever dies during it and you will survive it once again. Or you might determine that there really is a danger to you: perhaps if a decision goes the wrong way, it will mean a concrete loss to you or your team, or maybe someone involved in the conflict will actively mistreat you or others.

The Asset of Data Can Help You Make Your Case

Often, when we find ourselves in a disagreement, and no one happens to have the necessary data, the arguments swirl round and round. Under these conditions, the loudest voice or highest status wins, even when they don’t have the strongest factual position. But strength of opinion or volume of voice should not be the most meaningful force in a discussion if that opinion is wrong.

One of the best things you can to do be ready for a conflict is to address its underlying issues by assessing what data will be relevant, so you can bring it into the discussion in a way that is meaningful to the other participants. 

If you can anticipate where the discussion may go, do some prep work to find germane information and array it in a way that will be clear and as close to self-explanatory as possible. But if you end up being surprised by the discussion, or the pertinent data just wasn’t available in advance, call a pause on the meeting to check the facts or do the research. This is one of those rare times when it’s appropriate to turn away from the other parties and look something up on your phone or laptop.

The Asset of Skillfulness Can Help You Reach a Good Conclusion

No matter how strong your case is, if you present it unskillfully, it still may not be persuasive. Even worse, you can unintentionally offend someone with a casual misstep or inattentive comment like saying, “Well, I don’t care about that,” when what you really mean is that you’re neutral, ambivalent, or undecided about a specific point. It can be useful to agree upon techniques for handling charged situations, such as automatically calling for a break if anyone seems too stressed, tabling discussion when data is not present, acknowledging good points and committing to thinking about them further, or eliciting comments from quieter or more reserved group members rather than letting the same blowhards have all the airtime.

If a colleague behaves unskillfully, you can ask them to restate, and if you were the unskillful one, you can apologize and try again. Often a person who feels hurt by someone else’s statements recognizes that the harm was unintentional and doesn’t want to correct it for that reason. But even if the damage was unintentional, there was still damage done. Consider anyone who courageously raises the issue to be a helpful ally.

And certainly seek out feedback after the meeting about how you might have made your point more convincingly or been less abrasive or harmful. Whatever you and the group can do to strengthen communication skills will help with all of your exchanges, not just conflicts.

Working on your self-knowledge and self-regulation in response to the threat of conflict will mitigate your risk of missteps, and improving both your data usage and communication will make you a more effective and influential party to any conflict—and to all other interactions.

Onward and upward—

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