Preventing Conflict Escalation

Last Friday, I had lunch with John Morrow (@focusthefuture), one of the founders of Gazelle Lab. We talked about personal and professional relationships, among other things. We’ve both endured the hardships of divorce and fledgling businesses and survived to fight another day. One of the highlights of the conversation was a discussion of conflict, emotionally charged discussion, and the pitfalls one generally encounters in these sorts of situations. There were some great points that I’d like to share.

Note: if you prefer to be an asshole, lose friends, and alienate people, do the opposite of all this.

Beware the Adversarial Attitude

When you find yourself disagreeing with someone, it’s not necessary to convince them of anything. It’s not about changing their mind. It’s about changing your own. I don’t mean you must sacrifice your beliefs to appease anyone. Far from it, in fact. It’s not healthy to disrespect yourself by compromising your boundaries. Stand for what you believe in. However, there’s nothing to be gained through bullying or condescension, either. Judging someone else for having different beliefs is petty and immature.

Instead of rising to the occasion to “win the argument,” try the humble approach. Ask questions. When you hear something that sounds offensive or critical, ask the speaker to clarify. Express out loud that you may have misunderstood what they said and that you need help. Most people will see this as a genuine effort to honor their need to be heard. If they don’t, it’s a strong indication that they don’t care if you understand.

Feelings Are Always True

One of the most significant and common sources of conflict is the expression that someone’s feelings are invalid or false. Feelings are always true. They can sometimes evolve from misunderstanding, but at their core, emotions are fact. When someone tells you they feel a certain way, the worst thing you can do is tell them they’re wrong. This establishes a barrier between you that can be very difficult to break down. Only the individual experiencing the emotion can truly understand it. It’s your job as the listener to be respectful and courteous to the speaker. Thank them for being so bold as to share their feelings with you. They could just as easily have told you nothing.

Take Yourself Out of the Equation

At the risk of quoting Tron: Legacy, when you feel especially emotionally charged, your ego is probably interfering with your ability to express yourself clearly and hear clearly what others say. In that situation, take yourself out of the equation, and remember that it’s not about you. We often project our own agenda onto the words we hear others say. As we attempt to understand the words of others, we project our memories and experiences, effectively framing their words in a context we can understand. This is the opposite of “putting yourself in their shoes.” To stretch the analogy, it’s like forcing them to wear your shoes, even though they don’t fit. Maybe the best approach is to go barefoot. Focus on the facts.

Know When to Listen

We all have a need to be heard. Sometimes, people need to talk, and they don’t want feedback. Learning to determine whether a person genuinely wants to hear your thoughts and when they just need to vent is difficult, but well worth your investment. If you get the feeling that someone is venting, one easy way to confirm this is to simply ask them, “Do you need to vent or do you want advice?”

This simple question gives the conversation a set of rules. A good follow-up statement is “tell me when you’re ready for my input.” This gives your friend a sense that they leading the discussion, that you respect their need to be heard, and that you are interested in helping them on their terms. This offers a feeling of safety that will foster greater openness and fluid dialog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s