Just like spring breezes and pollen, conflict is in the air.
Contentious attitudes are everywhere. We find them in the media, in workplaces, in our social media feeds, in the streets, between friends, and at the dinner table. Civility and respect for other’s rights to have their opinions are beginning to feel as outdated as a wall calendar.
A number of people have shared how they’re struggling to stay calm and deal with the friction and discord swirling around them.
I’m struggling with that, too. You?
I’m also struggling with discovering I didn’t know people I thought I knew. It’s been hurtful to be on the receiving end of their unpleasant attacks. Their darkness tugs at some dark spot in me that cries out to respond in kind.
Lessons from a wise man
That feeling isn’t new. I experienced it back when I worked in labor relations and contentious was the flavor of the day, every day.
Joe had been a labor relations attorney longer than I was old and was willing to help me learn the ropes. The first lesson he taught me was how to disagree without being disagreeable; the second was not to make things personal by attacking others.
He believed conflict wasn’t logical or rational but rather emotional and relational. What we think shapes how we feel and act. For many, feelings become facts.
The same issues that lead to protracted conflict (e.g. values, status, and identify), are also the triggers of strong emotions. People who feel ‘unfairly attacked, misunderstood, wronged, or righteously indignant’ are typically overcome with emotion and respond with hostility and aggression. ~Michelle Maiese, Emotions, Beyond Intractability
Joe said only a silly person believed they could solve a conflict based in differences of opinion or perspective. He said people needed to accept that, in those situations, conflict is a fact of life.
Here’s his wise counsel for dealing clashes of interests:
- See conflict as something ongoing that needs to be managed; not exterminated like termites.
- Aim for a constructive, goal-oriented solution that gives everyone a small win.
- Strive for outcomes that improve performance.
- Look to advance the greater good; there’s something bigger than all of us out there.
- Accept that differences of thought, opinion, and perspective are both healthy and uncomfortable.
- Handled without skill, patience, or compassion, conflict can easily become ugly, leaving people frustrated and angry. Don’t go there. Find a way to let respect over-rule self-righteous anger.
- Take the high road and be productive, not the low, unproductive one.
That last point about making conflict either productive or unproductive is crucial. Conflict, handled constructively, can be an instrument of growth. Handled unproductively, well, too many of us have experienced unpleasant attacks—that sometime get so bad that relationships and friendships are lost.
Wondering which side of that productive/not productive line you sit on? Imagine you’re a party to a conflict that’s flared up because of differing principles and values. Think about what you would normally do when you feel your needs, interests, or concerns are threatened. Then take a look at the table below.
If more of your actions fall on the left side of the table, take a step back and reflect. It’s likely you’re not letting people feel heard, respected, or free to voice a dissenting opinion. Aren’t those things you’d want people to do for you?
How conflict makes us productive…or not
|Refuses to see other’s position||Open to exploring another point of view|
|Respond with anger or accusations||Respond calmly and respectfully|
|Becomes defensive||Acknowledges thoughts or feelings and doesn’t try to justify|
|Reasons or argues others out of their invalid thoughts and feelings||Approaches issues with facts, not emotions, saying when you do xx in this situation, I feel yy|
|Withdraws love and compassion||Continues to care and be compassionate|
|Nonverbal communications (facial expressions; posture; gestures; pace, tone, and intensity of voice) are hostile||Nonverbals are agreeable, pleasant, nonthreatening, and friendly|
|Focuses on winning and losing||Understands that success is more than a score or coming out on top|
|Passionately defends individual power and rights||Seeks mutual interests|
|Dredges up the past||Focuses on the here-and-now and the future|
|Refuses to let go of any contrary issue||Knows when to pick a battle|
|Makes it personal||Doesn’t let things become personal|
|Always goes with the gut; doesn’t see the need to research or seek to understand||Gets the facts from checking multiple sources|
|Denies being wrong||Shows courage and openness to being wrong|
|Co-mingles and conflates people and problems||Respects people, attacks the problem|
|Jumps to conclusions||Gathers additional information before deciding|
|Intolerant of differences||Welcomes differences|
|Refuses to negotiate or compromise||Aims for inclusive consensus|
|Is eager to escalate, exaggerate, or embellish||Stays level-headed and keeps to the facts|
|Demands my-way-or-the-highway allegiance||Commits to working together to work it out|
|Presumes that others will live up to and/or accept their expectations||Gives others room to have their own expectations|
Thanks to Joe all those years ago, today, whenever I’m facing a vocal someone who passionately sees things differently than I do and who’s starting to get under my skin because all they can say is that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong, I take a step back and think about their right to think differently.
I have to understand and respect that I’m never going to change someone else. Only they can do that.
I know I can’t control the other person’s response, but I’m in total control of mine.
I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good. ~Peter Cooper, industrialist and philanthropist
Image source before quote added: Pixabay