On Conflict

1 Feb

I’ve never liked conflict. When people become angry with me, within seconds I can feel my heart begin to pound. I get nervous. Imagine someone you care about getting angry with you right now. It’s amazing what happens; often our bodies will begin to experience the physical feelings as if the conflict was actually happening.

Take a deep breath. Move from your center.
Let’s play pretend. I walk into work late for the third time this week, and my boss has absolutely had it with me. He stomps out of his office and immediately berates me for being late.
“I can’t believe you’re late again this week. You’re always late!”
Am I always late? No. Do people behave this way when they’re angry? Yes. A lot of conflict plays out like a fisherman reeling in a big catch on a hook. The fisherman throws out the bait – you’re always late. Often in this situation, we take the bait. We get angry or we get scared, and we react.

This doodle is brought to you by the awesome Bika.

In Aikido class, I’m often told to move from my center. If I stand tilted forward, my balance can be taken and I’ll fall on my face. If I’m leaning back, I can lose my balance and fall on my ass. If I keep my feet flat on the ground, center pointed towards my opponent, I can stay upright.

Imagine that your center is a point in the middle of your body. I think of mine as being directly below my navel, the center in martial arts. My boss is screaming at me, red in the face because I’m late, and I take a deep breath. I imagine my breath pulling my nervousness and heart pounding down into my center, and I imagine letting those feelings go when I exhale. I can calm myself and move from my center, and I won’t fall on my ass.

Choose your reaction.
There are three ways to deal with conflict, with subtle variations on each method.

The first is attack.
I could choose to yell back at my boss.
“I can’t believe you’re late again this week. You’re always late!”
“You know I’m not always late! You’ve been piling more and more work on me, and I’m losing sleep over it.”
This can work in some situations, but often doesn’t, and is the most common response to conflict. Yelling back at my boss will probably not end well, and in day-to-day conflict can create a win-lose situation I would rather avoid.

The second is to do nothing.
My boss might be having a stressful week as well, and I could just stand there and take it until he’s tired of yelling at me. It’s choosing not to react at all. I might not feel great about it afterwards, but he’ll have let loose some steam and I’ll be able to go on with my work day. My boss will have gotten what he wanted, which was to yell, and may just forget about what happened. In the conflict with my boss, this could be a good response, since he’s in a position of power over me.

The third is to roll with it.
“I can’t believe you’re late again this week. You’re always late!”
“You’re right, I do seem to have a lot of problems with being on time, but I’ve noticed that you’re always very punctual. I’d really appreciate it if you could give me some tips on how to be on time.”
I’ve done a few good things in this example: I was sympathetic to my boss’s feelings, I complimented something he does well, and I asked him for help. People like to know that their feelings are being heard, that they’re not being dismissed. It’s that old adage of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When a customer screams at me after waiting in line a long time, I could be angry too, or I could imagine how I’d feel if I was in a hurry and waited somewhere for a long time. It doesn’t make their actions any more acceptable, but I can have sympathy and respond in a way that will help both of us.
Rolling with it creates a confluence. This may sound odd, but being sympathetic to angry people startles them. When we start a fight, what we expect is for the other person to fight back. Rolling with it often startles people out of their expectation of win-lose fighting. First, I chose not to fight back with my boss, and I validated his feelings. Then I asked for help. This tempers the conflict; my boss can then help me understand his tools for being punctual, and he can walk away from the situation feeling good about himself. Instead of spending ten minutes yelling at me, he can spend ten minutes helping his employee.

Who am I talking to?
In the conflict with my boss, the best solution was confluence. He’s someone that I have to interact with on a regular basis, and it was in my best interest not to make him angry, and to restore balance to the situation. If he’s a reasonable person, he doesn’t want to hate me or be angry any more than I want to hate or be angry with him.

A friend recently told me this story.
She was having a busy day, and needed to make a quick stop at the grocery store. The parking lot was full, and she knew she’d be in the store less than five minutes, so she decided to park her little prius in the triangle at the end of the first row of cars. As soon as she stepped out of her car, a nearby woman came up to her.
“That’s not a parking spot!” She said.
My friend responded with “I know,” and then went into the store. When she came back out, the woman was still standing there, but she wouldn’t even look my friend in the eyes this time. What happened?
The woman threw out the bait. She was angry over something that didn’t affect her, and she wanted my friend to feel guilty for her parking choice. My friend chose not to take the bait by simply saying “I know,” and then walking away. The woman wasn’t someone she knew or needed to have long term interaction with, so she chose to end the conflict with a variation of doing nothing. The woman probably expected a fight, and got a shock when she didn’t get one.

Restore harmony.
The reality is that most fights don’t matter. They never feel that way in the moment, but do we really need to yell at our spouse when the kids are screaming? Wouldn’t it be better if we could just let them know how stressed out we are, and that we’d really like their help?
It is better. The other person may not move from their center in response, but we always can. When we move from our center and choose our reaction, we’re in a position to bring that person out of their anger. We can remind them that we want to be on their side, even though we may see a situation differently. When they’re done being angry, they might understand that too. Sometimes, like the woman in the parking lot, they can even end up ashamed of their reaction. If the woman in the parking lot was someone that mattered to my friend, she could have asked her what she was feeling when she made that comment. You’d be surprised at how often people are willing to talk about it.

Sometimes, they aren’t. Know when it’s over. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. There are people who, given the choice to end a conflict, won’t want to end it. They won’t want to work with you at finding a solution. You can put up with it, or you can walk away. That choice will rest entirely on your shoulders, a combination of what you’re willing to suffer with, and how much they mean to you. Awhile back, I decided that there are people I want in my life, and people that I don’t. The people I want in my life are the kind of people that are willing to drink.

There are a lot of books about conflict resolution, written by people far smarter than I am. Here are a couple recommendations:
It’s All Your Fault by Jan Harrell and Alan Robins
Aikido in Everyday Life by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller

Now get out there, and restore some harmony.

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3 Responses to “On Conflict”

  1. Tami February 2, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    Fantastic post. Thank you!

  2. Claire February 2, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Thank you for reading it! It’s such a complicated subject and I think I could have gone and on, but this is the heart of resolving conflict, for me.

  3. Tami February 2, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Longer comment now – I have a bad habit of not commenting just because I don’t have time, so I’ve started sometimes leaving comment stubs so the writer at least knows it was read and appreciated.

    Anyrate, I am the SAME WAY about conflict. Some folks get angry, some get their heart pumping and get into a fine fettle – me, I cry.

    It sucks, because it’s not a useful reaction at all. In no situation does crying actually HELP a conflict. It doesn’t even make me feel better, which would at least make it make sense.

    That being said, I agree with the “ways to respond to conflict” you’ve got up there – many people I know resort to anger but two people angry at each other don’t actually resolve anything – they just get loud and say stupid stuff.

    It’s incredibly difficult, especially when I’m feeling singled out and defensive, to stay calm and find a way to communicate through conflict, but it is always worth the effort.

    Now, if only I could get my emotions to listen to my logic, I’d be SET.

    Reading things like this makes me revisit that automatic response, and reminds me that I need to work on it. So THAT is what I meant by my quick “thank you” above. ❤

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