Conflict: The Value of Time

When in the middle of a conflict, it’s too easy to get swept up in the rising tide of emotions and believe that the conflict must be resolved immediately. Our brains are evolutionarily wired to focus on the biggest threat, and a conflict is a threat. While it may not be a physical threat to us, the threat to our ego that we might be wrong is still very real. Our body’s response to a threat is a cocktail of chemicals that can make it hard to think.

Physiological Impact

If you perceive danger, in an instant, your body is going to release a set of hormones into your bloodstream to prepare it to respond – immediately. This so-called “fight or flight” response has been known for ages and the lead chemical in this cocktail is adrenaline. It’s a part of a set of signals to shut down the long-term processes – and thinking – and make all energy reserves available for addressing the current threat. (If you want to know more about the physiology of the threat or stress response, see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Our immune system shuts down, as does our digestive system, but that’s not the most disturbing and challenging aspect. What happens is we narrow our focus and stop looking for alternatives and solutions. (For more, see the book Drive.) In short, our body’s own approach to the stress of an eminent threat to survival creates challenges when the threats we’re facing are more psychic than physical.

While there are many chemicals released when we’re facing danger, adrenaline is the key actor in our inability to consider alternatives, and it has a half-life of about 20 minutes. That means creating space and time in a conflict may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Science of Relationships

John Gottman is famous for his ability to predict with 93% accuracy the ability for a couple to stay together after just three minutes. It’s three minutes of fighting, but with that, he can tell signs of whether they’ll make it or not. (See The Science of Trust for more.) One of his recommendations for improving the odds is to slow things down and more rationally consider the situation. This advice helps in part because of the decay of the adrenaline but also because it allows you to focus on what’s important.

One important point about the additional time and space to be created during or after a conflict is to not rehearse the conflict in your mind. Our brains are incapable of determining whether the threat is real and now or whether it’s something old and imaginary. This is why, while watching an action film or a horror movie, our pulse can jump sky high – our brains can’t make the distinction between where we are and what’s on the screen.

Let It Breathe

The advice, should we find ourselves feeling physically or ideologically threatened is to wait for the chemicals to dissipate. However, the advice is equally good when facing conflicts that seem less immediate and for which the reasoning is complex. Sometimes, a conflict isn’t really a conflict at all. It’s an artifact that the other person hasn’t had a chance to think about all the information provided to them to come around to our way of thinking.

As a result, sometimes the best thing to do to get a new idea supported is to allow the powers that be an opportunity to consider the proposal and decide that our approach is better than the old existing ways of doing things.

Either way, slowing a conflict down is good advice for any stage of disagreement.

 

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Conflict: Anger

If you’re in conflict for very long, you’re bound to get angry, but too few people have been taught what anger is and what to do about it – if you ignore the “get revenge” option. Anger is a core emotion that is a part of our shared human experience, yet at the same time, it’s something that we know very little about. There can be little doubt that anger doesn’t get the same attention as other emotions. For instance, fewer songs are written about anger than love.

Disappointment Directed

Buried in a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Eckman is a jewel that makes anger make sense. Destructive Emotions chronicles the conversation between the two and the Dalai Lama’s explanation that anger is disappointment directed. Every time we’re angry, we’re disappointed. We may be disappointed with ourselves or with someone else, but we’re disappointed.

For most, this concept takes a few minutes to be accepted as we seek to find times that we were angry yet not disappointed. Sometimes, we may point to situations where we believed we were angry but for which we can’t find a way that we were disappointed. Most situations are simple enough. Someone said they would do X but actually did Y. Or I expected people to behave in a trustworthy manner, but they proved I was wrong when they didn’t.

In other cases, the assumptions are buried so deeply that we can’t see they’re there. When someone cuts us off in line, we may be disappointed, because the other person doesn’t have respect for others. When others cheat, we may be disappointed because we expected the other person to be honest.

Expectations and Judgement

Disappointment is fundamentally based on the expectations we had that were violated and our judgement of that violation. You expect that if you drive downtown in a major city and leave the door of your car open with the car running, it will be stolen. If there’s anger in this situation, it will be directed towards yourself and why you didn’t realize the risk. It’s less likely you’ll be angry at the person who actually stole the car. Conversely, if you lock your car in your locked garage, and someone steals it, you’re likely to be quite angry with the person who stole your car.

The reasoning is based on your expectations of what will happen. When those expectations are violated, you judge the parties in the situation and use judgement to decide where to direct your disappointment and anger.

If you want to get better control of your anger, you’ll want to ground your expectations and suspend your judgements.

Grounding Expectations

No one is perfect. Because of that, mistakes will be made. This fundamental thinking about mistakes changes the default response when a mistake is made from one of disappointment and anger to one of reluctant acceptance. No one “likes” errors, but if your expectation is that, from time to time, they will be made, your expectations are adjusted to allow for them.

Grounding expectations about a lack of perfection in the world may not be a hard stretch. The hard part is when you expect something but it turns out that it’s not reality based. The greater you can ground your expectations in reality, the more effective you’ll be at keeping anger at bay and the easier it will be to suspend judgement

Suspending Judgement

A violated expectation is judged. Was the expectation right? Is the gap in the expectation reasonable? The problem is that these judgements often lead to anger instead of acceptance. If we’re willing to accept that the expectation was missed and that we can be disappointed in the outcome without judging who is at fault, we can avoid being blinded by anger.

Anger is, unfortunately, a part of our lives, but we can learn to ground our expectations and accept rather than judge. Perhaps we can live up to the ideal that Aristotle first spoke of: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

 

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Book Review-Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement

I stumbled across Buster Benson’s work through the cognitive bias codex – a listing of 200 or so known cognitive biases. That led me to his book, Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement. I’ve read several books on conflict and disagreement – and we teach on the topic – so I wasn’t expecting much. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a coherent response to an intractable problem.

Misconceptions

One of the largest things that we deal with when we teach conflict is to dispense with the myth that conflict is bad. Poorly handled conflict is bad, but conflict itself is what allows us to get better. We get better in our understanding and in the way that we work with others. When we handle conflicts poorly, we damage relationships, and we injure other people or ourselves. The key to learning how to view conflict more neutrally is learning how to address it more productively.

Benson’s second misconception is that arguments change minds. In the sense that we cannot, through our sheer force of will, change someone else’s mind, Benson is correct. However, at the same time, the appropriate application of conflict resolution techniques makes it possible to encourage others to reevaluate their choices and they can change their own minds. It’s a bit of semantics if you get right down to it.

His final misconception is that arguments end. His point is that often arguments don’t end, they’re buried underground. There’s an old joke about a man telling his therapist “Whenever we get into an argument, my wife gets all historical.” The therapist questions the man, “You mean she gets hysterical?” He replies “No, historical, she tells me everything I’ve ever done wrong.” In that sense, forcing an end to an argument causes it to move underground only to surface later whenever tensions are high.

Here, too, I think it’s about perspective. Some arguments end in understanding and acceptance. When that happens, people don’t tend to get all historical and bring up the past unnecessarily.

Biases, Biases

Before delving into the techniques for managing conflict, it’s important to acknowledge how we got here. We have conflict in our world, because we either hold different values from someone else – or we have a different perspective. That’s what we teach in our workshops. On the values front, we often start by referring to Jonathan Haidt’s foundations of morality from The Righteous Mind and continue through Steven Reiss’ work in The Normal Personality and Who Am I?. On perspectives, we generally teach Chris Arygris’ Ladder of Inference, and how we can all see the same thing and end up believing different things based on the data we extract, the meaning, assumptions, and beliefs we ascribe to that data. (See Choice Theory for more on Argyris’ Ladder of Inference.)

Benson’s refrain from the book is that biases cannot be avoided or eliminated. We must accept that they happen and work to compensate for them. While it would be nice if we could just cut them out, the reality is that it’s simply not possible. Biases exist because we need them to be able to cope with the massive amounts of information we have coming at us every day. (See The Organized Mind for more on our coping with information and Emotion and Adaptation about our ability to suppress our emotions.)

True, Meaningful, and Useful

Benson believes that there are three things that can be going on in a conversation. It can be a conversation about what’s true, what’s meaningful or what’s useful. This reminded me of William Isaac’s work in Dialogue, in which he focused on power, meaning, and feeling. This was built on David Kantor’s work, which he continued in Reading the Room. There are many ways of viewing conversations and many approaches, but I find that helping people find ways to connect when it’s clear they’re missing each other is critically important.

Acceptance

One of my responses to conflict in general and in Benson’s work is that the key to conflict resolution both large and small is acceptance. Accepting that we’ll make mistakes. Accepting that others are imperfect, too. Accepting that there are different points of view that are equally valid. Accepting that we don’t—and won’t – have all the answers. When we can reach this perspective, where we’re certain in our uncertainty, we can begin to hear others. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Reason Built on Power

In Jonathan Haidt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model, reason sits on top of emotion. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) Here, Benson proposes that reason in a conflict sits on top of power. I’d probably adjust this to say authority, since power is broader and most reason is based on some underlying belief of authority.

I see this argument made all the time. “You can’t do X, because you don’t have Y certification.” I’m not saying that having some certifying body say that you know something or have been trained to do something is a bad thing – rather, I’m saying, what if they’re wrong? Reason is based on foundational assumptions. Sometimes those assumptions aren’t accurate.

Undiscussables

Benson also raises the issue of undiscussable topics in a disagreement. The more that things become undiscussable because of a lack of safety or courage, the less likely it is that the conflict will be addressed in an appropriate way. (For more on organizational safety, see The Fearless Organization.) Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps explains how undiscussables have a corrosive effect on organizations and individual relationships.

Disagree and Commit

But what happens if you can’t be convinced that the other person is correct? It comes back to accepting that we don’t have all the right answers. We simply disagree but commit to a course of action. Sometimes the process of continuing to fight things out is more painful and wasteful than trying either of the perspectives. So, we agree to try an approach, and we commit to it.

The big gap that exists in most organizations is the failure to commit to the decision. People leave the meeting and have the hallway meeting, where they already start to subvert the agreement and continue the argument even after they’ve agreed to agree. It’s like a cancer that grows from something small into something out of control. Unfortunately, it’s necessary to be conscientious when this behavior is seen, so that it can be removed quickly.

Discomfort is Growth Food

If you want to grow, discomfort is your food. Growth comes from discomfort. Whether it’s exercising to build muscle or it’s trying new things to expand your capabilities, discomfort is the breakfast food of champions. Taleb explains in Antifragile how the process of being harmed in the right way, in the right amounts, in the right timing can cause us to become stronger. By finding a level of strain that’s uncomfortable but not disruptively painful, we can find ways to grow.

This can happen as an individual or as a team. Marshal Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Jack Canfield in The Success Principles both implore people to be a little uncomfortable so that you can grow into something more.

Dangerous Ideas

The Australian aboriginal language of Dyirbal contains a category – balan – that includes women, fire, and dangerous things. (I discovered this through Ambient Findability.) Sometimes, the things that we need the most are the things that are the most dangerous to us. Sometimes, we just need to figure out Why Are We Yelling to figure out that we didn’t need to disagree at all.

Conflict: Preventing Our Perceptions from Hijacking Conversations

Have you ever been in the middle of a discussion, and you realize that the picture you are developing in your head about the conversation is guiding your responses?  When you combine this with your inner voice, the outcomes are not always positive.  The response generated by this inner dialogue might include shutting down and not listening to the person you are talking to at all.  It is easy to decide that the person you are talking to doesn’t think you know what you are talking about or cannot understand your perspective.  The pictures and voices in your head take over your ability to even hear what the other person is really saying.

Suddenly, most of the conversation is happening in your head and is driven by emotion and self-talk.  The results of this hijacking of your conversation and thought processes can happen so quickly you don’t even realize it for a while.  The discussion becomes more frustrating and can turn into a conflict that neither person can explain the root cause of.

Learn to Listen to Yourself

You can learn to stop the hijacking and stay in the conversation.  One of the first things you can do to prevent hijacking of your thought process is to take a moment to test your assumptions.  When you realize that you are getting upset, reflect to the other person what you thought you heard.  This gives them a chance to validate your thoughts or give you new information to process.  This can be as simple as saying, “I feel like you are saying that my perspective is not valid.”  You are sharing your thoughts without blaming the other person.  Whatever they respond with, you have the chance to listen to their answer and process it in comparison to your beliefs.  This may be enough to redirect the process going on in your head and enable you to focus on the conversation with the person – not the one you are having with yourself.

If you are not comfortable asking for clarification, you can ask for a few minutes to process what you have been discussing.  Take this time to consider what is being said compared to the conclusions you are making.  Your conclusions may be valid, but it is possible that you have added your own concerns and fears and have developed a belief that is not grounded in fact and is harmful to your success.

HALT

It seems that there are specific times when we are less able to redirect our thoughts.  It may be that you entered the conversation at a time when you were hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired.  When you are in one of these states, you may find your resilience is greatly reduced and your emotions are more likely to draw you into a negative state.

Get to Real

Being able to move beyond the images and voices in our heads is not always easy.  Practicing how we listen to the voices in our heads and process the information we hear from others helps us when we are in a conversation that becomes more heated.  This also helps us to validate our thoughts before we become hijacked by them and turn a conversation into a conflict.

Effectiveness

Learning to harness our inner voices helps us to be more effective both at home and at work.  We become more skilled at having real discussions and relationships.

 

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Book Review-Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct

In a world where the slightest provocation seems to send us spinning out of control, it’s critical to find a force that can stop the escalation and turn the tide on the waves of fear and anger. That force may well be civility. In Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni lays out a set of guidelines to increase civility in our organizations and in our lives.

Our Actions Impact Others

The truth at the heart of civility is that our actions impact others. The impact we have on others can be positive, negative, or mixed. We can decide that our negative impacts on others are justifiable, or we can decide that we want positive impacts on others whether or not we see those positive effects reflected to us or not.

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod explains how his computer simulation games led to the conclusion that cooperation is supported by evolution. That is, we want to find solutions that are the best for everyone rather than just for ourselves. In Drive was my first exposure to the ultimatum game, where people would give up their own (small) monetary gains to teach others fairness. The Righteous Mind has a great coverage of how we evolved to morality and the forces that help to keep the anti-societal forces in check. We seem to know inherently that we have the ability to impact others through our words and actions, and we must sometimes use these actions to hold society together. (For another perspective, see Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.)

The real question is the degree to which we must and should consider others in our actions. There are the legislated requirements for consideration of others that are codified in laws. There are social norms and expectations that further define those times when we’re expected to consider others. However, beyond the social and societal norms, we have a great deal of flexibility in the degree to which we consider others. On one end of that spectrum, we’re seen as particularly considerate, and on the other end, we’re seen as inconsiderate.

Morality

Morality encompasses both the legislated expectations of behavior as well as the social norms. Albert Bandura speaks at length about how our morals can be disengaged in Moral Disengagement, and Phillip Zimbardo walks us through examples where this has happened in The Lucifer Effect. This end of the spectrum is the opposite of civility. It’s a place where you’re aware that you’re harming others, and you don’t care – or worse yet, you derive joy from it.

Steel Axe Heads

Tucked away in pages near the end of Diffusion of Innovations is a cautionary story. It’s a journal article that recounts what happened to Australian Aborigines after missionaries started offering them steel axe heads. The desired impact was one of improvement to the standard of living for the individual and the tribe. The actual impact was quite different, as it served to break down the fabric of society. Their society relied upon the relationship to elders and the stone axe heads they lent to younger men.

Steel axe heads meant that there was no longer a need for the younger members of the tribe – or the women – to respect the elders. The result led to a breakdown of society, including prostitution. (I still can’t wrap my head around how this came to be.)

The point is that our desired outcome in our relationships with others isn’t always the actual outcome we get. Instead, we can only be responsible for our intent, our preparation, and our willingness to adapt. We can’t control the outcomes. We only control our responses. More than anything, that makes the process of civility hard.

Compliments and the Backhand

One of the interesting things that seems like a compliment – “You speak very good English” – can be seen as a putdown or insult when delivered to someone who was born in the United States but whose ethnicity is clearly not Western European. It’s not that the person to whom the comment was directed is being sensitive if they respond. Nor is it fair to say that the person who made the well-intended comment was being insensitive. However, the fact remains that the intended complement is received as a backhanded putdown.

In environments of trust, it’s possible for the recipient of the comment to explain the problem to the person who made the comment, so that they become more aware and more sensitive. In this way, the implementation of an open communication improves the relationship between the parties and opens up the comment maker to deeper levels of civility.

Take a Chance

Taking a chance on others may be something that Americans do in greater numbers and to greater degrees than their colleagues from the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can’t learn to do it. The degree of openness and trust are indicators for both economic and societal growth. If you can increase civility, you increase trust, and with increased trust, you achieve increased performance.

Respect

If you want to demonstrate civil behaviors, you must have a fundamental respect for other human beings. The more you can learn to respect every human, the greater your civility – and by Choosing Civility, you’ll improve your own life as well.

The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety

There are times that we feel very safe – when we are not. Similarly, there are times when we are filled with unfounded fear. It’s unfounded, because we are objectively very safe. Our actual safety and our perception of safety can be separated by many of the biases that are well known to psychologists but which few people give much thought to. However, another important factor about our feeling of safety is based on about the impact to us and our ability to respond. If we feel that the probability of any kind of loss is low and the perception of our ability to recover is high, we’ll feel safe. Conversely, if we have low self-esteem, we can be provoked into fear very easily.

Behind our feelings of safety are a complex web of factors that make us feel safe – or not. It’s this web of conflicting factors that we’ll untangle here.

The Operating Model

It’s important to understand how the emotion of fear works. It’s not simply that there’s some sort of a threat or a stressor, it’s what we believe about the stressor both in terms of probability and our ability to compensate should the stressor come to fruition. Let’s explore what we mean when we say “stressor” then talk about the aspects of our assessment that are important for both fear and anxiety.

Stressors

While the idea of stress is understood, most folks don’t have a clear picture of what a stressor is. In short, it’s anything that can cause harm to someone. The harm can be physical or psychological. The brain makes very little (if any) difference between a physical threat and a psychological threat. Most folks think of stressors as things like lions, but for humans, stressors can be losing a job, needing to pay a mortgage, etc.

Stressors can also be either real and present or predicted. Stressors need not be real in the abstract sense for them to be stressful to you. For instance, your boss may sing your praises and give you glowing performance reviews, but you may still be concerned about losing your job or getting fired. Stressors are therefore both externally generated and internally generated as the perception of a stressor.

Stressors themselves don’t generate fear or anxiety. Stressors are just the first step in the process that can lead to fear and stress – or to peace.

Assessments

To determine whether a stressor is a real problem or not, we make a series of assessments. We assess probability of occurrence. We assess the impact of the occurrence. We also assess our ability to respond should the stressor become real.

Probability of Occurrence

Stressors are either a warning that something might happen or they’re the reality that something has happened. For losing your job, it’s a prediction until it happens. For this, we estimate the likelihood. This is the first place we can make an impact in our situational safety: we can correct for biases in our estimation of the probability of the stressor occurring.

Impact

The second assessment we make is what the impact of the stressor coming to fruition may be. In the losing our job example, we may think that finding another equal or better paying job is good within a month – or we may believe that we’ll never find a job as good as the job we had. This assessment is the impact. In the first case, there may be little or no real impact; in the second, it may be a lifelong impact.

It’s important to note here that even after the threat of physical harm or the lack of food, water, and shelter are removed, there are still impacts. The impact is one of loss. We may love the mission of the organization or being able to work with good people. We may feel the loss of the organization as impactfully as we’d feel the loss of income.

Capacity to Cope

The final assessment is our capacity to cope. If we believe that we can absorb or cover for the loss in the impact, then the overall assessment of the stressor isn’t likely to cause fear, panic, or anxiety. If, on the other hand, we don’t know how to deal with the situation, the chances are that we will be afraid.

Resuming our job loss scenario, if you’ve got enough money for a year’s worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll react differently than someone who is living paycheck to paycheck and may need to be very concerned about having enough food for the family while the job search is underway.

The Math

If you were to look at this as a math problem, you’d think about the probability of getting a fear result like this:

Probability of Fear = (Stressor Probability * Stressor Impact) / Capacity to Cope

If you think that the probability or impact are low, you’ll likely not have a fear response. Similarly, if you believe you have a very large capacity to cope, you’ll only find yourself fearful when there are very high probability, high impact stressors that present themselves.

There are no units in the preceding math formula, because there are no known units to use. So, this is not a formula that you can use to reach a precise answer, it’s a guide to understand how we become fearful.

Examples

Before exploring what can be done to adjust the variables that drive our sense of situational safety, let’s review a few examples of situations and the perceived safety. This will provide background context for our more formal explanation below.

Asteroids

Consider the stressor of an asteroid hitting the Earth. In this scenario, the impact is great – potentially ending all life on the planet. Our ability to cope is very low. However, the reason that we don’t all live in a constant state of panic – besides the fact that we block it out of our minds – is that we believe the probability is infinitesimally small.

The net-net with these variables are an almost 0% chance of fear, because there’s a near zero result when the chances are so low.

Home Appliance Failure

If you own a home, there’s a certain probability that you’ll have a failure of an appliance. Let’s say that you’ve got five major appliances and that on average they fail every fifteen years. For the list, think refrigerator, stove, water heater, washer, and dryer. That means once every about three years, there will be an appliance to replace – or 33% chance per year.

The impact of a failure is a few hundred dollars. For the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s $600. That means your annual impact is about $200.

In this case, if you’ve got a “rainy day” fund or a household maintenance fund that has more than $600 in it, you can assume that you have a nearly infinite ability to cope with this sort of problem. Thus, there’s a low probability of fear. If you have less than $600 but you have enough room on your credit card, then you have an ability to cope as well, but perhaps not as large. In this scenario, you may have some probability of fear. If you have no financial reserves and are living paycheck to paycheck, you have almost no ability to cope, and therefore you have a high probability of fear.

It’s important to note that, in scenarios like these, the ego will eventually block out risks like this, because they’re too uncomfortable to live with. As a result, you’ll find people living with no financial reserves who don’t exhibit any external signs of persistent fear.

Legal Dispute

Let’s take a departure from the probability of happening and jump into a situation where the stressor has already appeared. Take, for instance, a civil lawsuit about a claim against you. Let’s say that the suit is for $100,000 – and that’s more money than you have. The probability shifts from the probability of a lawsuit to the probability of someone winning this lawsuit against you. Most attorneys are hesitant to place odds and almost never make guarantees about outcomes. They’ve experienced too many last-minute turns, unpredictable judges, and general oddity that makes them not want to place odds. That leaves you with a 50/50 split. That makes the net impact probability $50,000 – still more than you have.

In the ability to cope category, there’s a problem – and it’s more than just the potential financial impact. The bigger problem is that very few people, thankfully, have experience with this sort of a situation, and as a result, they often feel unprepared for how to proceed. This lack of understanding of the process and confidence in the attorney they just met, leads to a very low capacity for coping and therefore a high probability for fear.

Not Enough to Eat

We depart from the world of rational to irrational when we consider the concern that there will be enough to eat. Everyone has felt what it is like to be hungry. Thankfully few, but still too many, people have really had to experience what it’s like to be persistently hungry. For a lot of reasons, whatever the probability of hunger, the perceived impact is large. It’s connected with survival, and it doesn’t get much larger than that.

As a result, while most people don’t believe that there’s a real risk of going hungry, they’ll often prepare to protect themselves from it. They’ll get snack bars to put in their bags, or perhaps a bit of trail mix. They reason that they’ll be able to grab and eat it if for some reason they get hungry and can’t eat a full meal.

For many folks, particularly those that have more experience with having not had enough food during childhood, the risk of not having enough food is perceived as large. Without some sort of coping mechanisms built in – like having snack food – they’re likely to unconsciously fear that they won’t have enough food.

The Adjustments

To improve your situational safety, there are three levers we can pull on. We can adjust our perception of the probability, we can adjust the perception of the risk, or we can adjust our perception of our ability to cope.

Probability

Probability is, by its very nature, uncertain. However, as humans, we love the idea of certainty. We’ll create certainty in our minds even when no certainty exists. For instance, in the job loss scenario, we may be “certain” that we’ll lose our jobs – because our boss doesn’t like us, because of a restructuring, or because the organization folds. However, until it’s happened, it’s never certain. The first adjustment to probability is to reduce any probability from 100% until it’s already happened. It may seem like a little thing, but psychologically it forces you to evaluate things differently. It forces you to reach a more realistic guess at the probability that something will happen.

Impact

Most people believe that people who win the lottery are appreciably happier after the event – and for the infinite future forward. The truth is that lottery winners are happier for a time. However, after a few years, even a multi-million-dollar payout loses its luster. It turns out that money cannot buy happiness – though it might be able to make you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease. No impact from any event is as permanent as we expect it to be – positive or negative.

Think about your first breakup. They boyfriend or girlfriend was the one for you, and you’ll never know how to go on with your life. Except you did. You got married – you may have even gotten a divorce and remarried. The fact is that whatever the situation is, it’s not nearly as permanent as it seems when you’re standing next to it.

Ability to Cope

The final way to adjust your perception is through reconsidering your ability to cope. The more resourceful you feel about your ability to move forward personally, the less impactful the events will seem, and therefore the safer you will feel.

Too often, we fail to account for the assistance of others when coping. While some of us don’t have great support systems around us of families, friends, and communities, most of us do if we look hard enough and we’re willing to ask for assistance. When we’re assessing our situation, we should ask ourselves who we could call upon for assistance – and the likelihood that they can and will assist. If you want to change this aspect, the easiest way to do it is to ask the people around you for small things that they can do to help you – and offer to help in small ways yourself. This will increase the changes you’ll think of others support – and the likelihood that they’ll offer it.

Finally, don’t give up hope that there is some resource available to you that you don’t even know you have. There are many times when benevolence shows up even when it feels like it can’t. Keeping in mind the “miracles” in your own life and in the lives of others may be the thing that tips the scale towards perceiving that you’re safe.

Conflict: Surrender Accept vs. Surrender Defeat

For a conflict to end, someone must surrender. They’ll either surrender with acceptance, or they’ll surrender in defeat. Because conflict management is a delicate game of how to manage both the relationship with the other party and the immediate needs of the situation, there will be times when it will be necessary for someone to walk away in defeat. However, most of the time, the goal is to strengthen the relationship, and that means reaching a surrender that is accepting.

Who Is Right?

Of course, from our perspective, we’re right. There’s no point in taking a position that doesn’t have us being right. However, who is objectively and verifiably right in a situation isn’t always the right way to measure the results of the conflict. The right way is whether you got what you needed, and you’ll be able to salvage the relationship in the future.

In this context, we can view a surrender in a conflict to be a defeat – after all, our ideas didn’t win out. Conversely, we can choose to view the surrender as accepting a different point of view – without necessarily agreeing with it or believing it to be the one truth.

Yield

Yield signs in traffic are easy most of the time. If there’s no one coming, you can look, and then move forward cautiously. It’s when there’s traffic coming that yield signs get interesting. Yielding – or surrendering – in a conflict isn’t as easy. By our very nature, we believe that we’re right and the other person is wrong.

When we yield – or surrender – to another person, we’re giving up our view of right and accepting theirs. We can do this because we value the relationship more than the specifics of the conflict or because we feel like there’s no way for us to win.

To surrender to the other person is to yield our version of right to their version of right – thereby admitting that we were wrong or didn’t know what we were talking about. That’s never easy, as our ego is firmly entrenched in the idea that we’re right. While at some level, we know that we’re not always right, we believe that, in most cases, we’re right, even when there is someone else who disagrees with you.

Learning how to yield and not feel like a failure is an important first step in being able to surrender and do it well.

Failure Is Not Fatal

We often confuse the idea that we’ve failed with the idea that we’re a failure. We fail to decouple the situation from the person. Instead of taking a decision to yield to someone else’s perspective as just another thing, we attach that failure to our identity – and feel lesser because of it. To escape a conflict with a surrender based on acceptance of the other person, another idea, and perhaps that we’re wrong, we must realize that failure isn’t fatal.

If you’re a professional baseball player, you’re going to fail roughly two of every three times you’re at bat. In professional baseball, roughly one third of the time the ball is pitched, you’ll hit it. Professional baseball players don’t wander out to the batter’s box like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh with their heads hung low. No, they’ve come to accept that failure – to hit the ball that is pitched to them – is a part of the game.

In the game of life, no one hits the ball every time it comes by. In the game of life, the average may be much lower than one in three – it may be one in ten or more. The key to moving forward with these failures is admitting to them and letting them go.

Someone is going to end a conflict with a “failure” of their idea. How do you make sure that you’re okay with that being you when it’s appropriate?

 

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Book Review-Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance

When you can look at the topic of conflict from the eyes of a hostage negotiator, you realize that it’s a unique opportunity. Few people have the role of hostage negotiator, and it seems like it’s a role that involves nerves of steel and powerful charisma. However, at the same time, it’s easy to think that the skills necessary for hostage negotiation aren’t skills that would be generally applicable to your day-to-day office environment. It’s rare for Suzi to hold a plastic utensil to the throat of Bill and threaten to hurt him if her demands aren’t met. (Whether the plastic utensil could hurt Bill is another question.) While, tragically, workplace violence happens, it’s rare. However, the applicability of the experience of a hostage negotiator extends to all conflict.

Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance is a former hostage negotiator’s effort to take people into the experience, so the power plays, the victimization, and all conflicts can be addressed in ways that leave everyone more whole than when they started.

Making Ourselves Hostage

In a literal sense, most folks don’t make themselves a hostage. However, in a figurative sense, people often end up as hostages of their circumstances – or, as The Anatomy of Peace describes it, their boxes. We become hostage to our beliefs and perspectives, and we particularly become a hostage to our victimhood.

Martin Seligman and his colleagues, including Steven Maier, discovered learned helplessness in the late 1960s. Maier’s further research – with the help of an fMRI – indicated that it wasn’t learned helplessness at all. It was a failure to learn control. (See The Hope Circuit.) However, the result is still the same. Once a dog has learned that it can’t escape a mild shock, it stops trying. Even when it’s clear that escape is possible – and even easy – the dog wasn’t interested in freeing itself. The experience of learned helplessness is a trap. It holds us hostage to our beliefs that we can’t do anything about our situation. Like backing a wild animal into a corner, it’s dangerous, because you never know what might happen.

The Address of Victimhood

Victimhood is a place we all visit. We believe we’ve been victimized and feel frustration and anger. However, while victimhood is an ok place to visit, it’s a lousy place to build a home. Staying in victimhood is more than just feeling as if we were victimized one time. It’s the feeling that the situation is permanent, that we’ll always be victimized. It’s about us and who we are, so we can’t escape it.

The people who were able to escape from being a literal hostage are often those who never saw themselves as a victim. They refused to believe that they were powerless. They accepted their current reality but never gave up on changing it. Victor Frankl explained what helped concentration camp survivors make their way out in Man’s Search for Meaning. It wasn’t just some blind sense that someone would come rescue them – because, eventually, when that reality didn’t happen, their hope would be crushed. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about how hope works.)

One could easily conclude that a religious leader was wrong if they prophesized an event and it didn’t happen. The followers could look upon themselves and wonder how they could have been so misled. However, that’s not what happens most frequently. What happens most frequently is followers become more convinced that they were right. In Influence, Robert Cialdini explains how this process works.

Powerful forces lead us to lack of hope, learned helplessness, and descending deeper and deeper into our beliefs that the problems are internally generated, permanent, and global. The greater degree to which we see our circumstances this way, the more convinced we become that it’s our fault, and there’s nothing to be done. (See The Hope Circuit for more about attribution of circumstances.)

People Don’t Kill People

Of course, the instant response to “People don’t kill people” is “What is murder, then?” However, that is not the point that George Kohlrieser is trying to make. The point is that people don’t kill people – they kill objects. To allow themselves to kill, they’ve necessarily dehumanized the other person so that they’re now an object. Martin Buber in I and Thou helps us to understand how our interactions often drive us towards dehumanizing people and how that diminishes our relationships with them. Albert Bandura is more direct in Moral Disengagement, explaining how situations like the Nazi concentration camps could happen.

The more we can help ourselves and others see everyone as people – and not objects or sub-human – the better our chances at preventing violence.

Hostage Taking Triggered by Trauma

One of the statements that caught me most by surprise was when Kohlrieser indicated that he’d never seen a hostage situation start by anything other than loss. The trauma of a loss triggered some sort of change that made the hostage-taker feel like taking hostages was the only way to be heard and have their needs addressed. Hostage-takers didn’t proceed out of a sense of power or strength, they proceeded out of despair and desperation. It’s as if their powerlessness first took them hostage, and then they took others hostage.

The solution to both literal hostage-taking and the figurative hostage-taking that happens in our mind is bonding. That is, connecting with the hostage-taker whether in our brains or literally, is our way out.

Bonding

It’s fundamental to the human condition to need bonding with other humans. Our bonding mechanisms can become disrupted, and when they do, bonding becomes more difficult – sometimes difficult enough that it might be described as Intimacy Anorexia. At a lower scale, it may be found as people having difficulty relating to other people. (See The Secret Lives of Adults for more about how to form bonds with different kinds of relationships.) A failure to be able to bond to other people can result in loneliness, which has huge negative health implications. (See Loneliness for more.)

An area of bonding that’s most often overlooked is the bonding with ourselves. That is, how well do we accept who we are and talk to ourselves in a healthy way? Perhaps you’re a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model for how we coordinate the different aspects of our personality or you prefer to think in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for the Elephant-Rider-Path model and Thinking, Fast and Slow for System 1 and System 2.

Focus on Freedom

As I mentioned above, there are some people who more or less refuse to remain hostages. They focus on their capacity to free themselves as soon as it’s possible to do so. High performers focus their minds on the positive and refuse to focus on the pains and challenges. They won’t get bogged down as they begin to struggle. They continue to tune out the unnecessary clutter and focus on only those things that matter. (Barry Swartz of The Paradox of Choice describes filtering as a basic function of consciousness.) High performers simply seem to be more able to filter out the clutter. When negotiating a conflict (both in the sense of navigating and, more traditionally, negotiating a position), the ability to filter out clutter is useful.

In Buddhism, there’s the story of the first dart (what someone else does) and the second dart (the way you process it). Basically, if you can ignore the darts people throw, you don’t have to throw darts at yourself. (See Resilient for more.) In conflict, our ability to remain neutral and detached serves us well. When we become emotionally engaged in a conflict, we’ve become the other person’s hostage. We’re no longer able to think rationally about what we’re doing.

Emotional Processing

The ability to remain emotionally detached is a goal for negotiators – of life. Dialogue quotes Richard Moon as saying that it’s not like the great masters never lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster. Such is the case with our ability to identify when we’re becoming emotionally triggered – and quiet our emotions quicker. In Emotion and Adaptation, Richard Lazarus explains that our emotions are one part stimulus and one part our appraisal of the situation. Specifically, it’s our ability to be okay.

All too often, we’re not taught how to process our way through emotions. The emotions are just things, and there’s nothing to be done about them. However, as we learn more about ourselves and our emotions, we can learn how to work better with them. When we realize that anger is just disappointment directed, we can process the judgements that lead to the disappointment and either more thoroughly understand our disappointment or realize that the judgement was wrong and the disappointment wasn’t necessary. (See A Force for Good for more.)

Emotional Covering

One of the most challenging aspects of our emotional lives is the real probability that the hurt we feel today isn’t caused by today’s events but is instead by the traumas from our past. Certainly, we can express a real and plausible reason for emotions today, but many times, the emotions that happen today are echoes and repetitions of unhealed hurts from our past. They’re wounds that have never healed and scars that have created sensitive spaces in our souls.

Whether it’s the feeling that the other person isn’t listening (we’re not being heard) because our parents ignored us, or it’s the feeling that the other person is out to get us because our childhood was filled with turmoil, we’ll never be able to address the current pains without moving backwards to address the root cause. Until we’re able to understand why we’re sensitive, to acknowledge and accept it, we’ll never be able to move forward.

The Not Knowing is the Hardest Part

We’ve all heard others say that it’s the not knowing that is the hardest part. From an emotional processing perspective, this is true. Once we know what the truth is, we can start the process of grief. (For more on the process, see On Death and Dying.) In our lives, we become hostage to the uncertainty and the fear that we’re not going to be able to survive what life throws at us.

Perhaps the hardest part about Hostage at the Table is not knowing whether it’s someone else – or it’s you.

Book Review-Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

I don’t like win-lose games. I don’t think they’re the right way to approach life, so it would make sense that I’d resist reading Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. It feels like it’s about dominating and conquering the other person in a negotiation. However, that’s not the approach advocated throughout the book. In fact, there’s guidance given to stand your ground when you’re facing people in a negotiation who do want to take this sort of a stance.

Principled Negotiation

Positional negotiating is that it doesn’t consider the full scope of the negotiation. There are relationships and reputations to consider, not to mention the fact that the negotiation may not even be for the thing you really want. There’s a better way, and it’s principled negotiation. It considers:

  • People – The issue being decided is decidedly different than the people involved.
  • Interests – It’s about what we ultimately want, not what we’re initially asking for.
  • Options – Creating new ways to solve the problem rather than fighting over the same old ground.
  • Criteria – It’s based on objective standards, not subjective feelings.

Relationships

Getting to Yes makes the important point that, in many negotiations, you must remain in a relationship with the person you’re negotiating with after the negotiation is over. That makes the idea of a scorched-earth policy difficult. You can be tough on this negotiation, but what will that do to the relationship? As I said in my review of The Titleless Leader, you can either be right or in a relationship.

However, I think there’s an important point missed here. There’s another relationship in play. That’s the relationship with yourself. It’s the answer to the question, “Is this the person you want to be?” If you negotiate like this, will you be able to sleep with yourself?

Everyone needs to understand that just because you can negotiate hard doesn’t mean you should in every case. Sometimes, the right answer is to not push so hard.

The Thinking is the Problem

It’s easy enough to focus on your perspective and how you see the negotiation, but that’s not likely to get you anywhere. You’ll defend your position, and they’ll defend theirs, but without anyone listening and trying to get to understanding, little progress will be made. We resist listening and trying to truly understand the problem, because we don’t think it will be useful in convincing them that we’re right.

However, this is exactly the thing that will solve the problem. In any conflict, the problem is either values or perspective. Understanding their perspective will reveal the value difference or the perspective difference. Perspective differences evaporate when you understand the other person’s point of view, because you suddenly can see both sides. You still must resolve which perspective is more accurate or more appropriate, but at least you know what must be done.

Value differences are harder but not impossible to overcome. Knowing the value systems in play can make this process easier. (See The Righteous Mind for Jonathan Haidt’s foundations of morality for one value framework and Steven Reiss’ 16 Basic Motivators in Who Am I? for a second framework.)

Finding Common Ground

While it was not expressed this way, finding common ground is a good way to get negotiations moving in the right direction. We can place ourselves on the opposite side of the table from someone over a particular issue, but we’re not on the opposite side of the table on every issue. The more we can move the conversation from being adversarial to exploratory, the better off we’ll be. Our brains are more creative and expansive when we don’t feel like we’re locked in a struggle.

There’s an old song by Sting called “Russians.” Broadly, it is about the escalating Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. One of the lines is, “If the Russians love their children, too.” Despite all the things Russia and the United States didn’t agree on, the one thing that everyone agrees on (in general) as a part of our humanity is a love of our children. The point is that, if we look hard enough, no matter what the disagreement, we can find common ground.

It may be that the common ground is easier to find. For instance, Terri and I are passionate about resolving burnout. There are many people who are interested in this problem. We don’t agree with all of their perspectives. Despite that, we have a foundation of mutual respect that, while they may see things differently, we all have the same goal of eliminating it.

First Understanding, Then Proposals

Sometimes, when we communicate with one another, the order we communicate in can make a big difference. When Terri and I are building training materials, we’re cognizant of cognitive load. (If you want to fully understand this, check out my review of Efficiency in Learning. If you want this in a nutshell, our communication series has a post/video that you can share, titled A KISS of Cognitive Load.) In negotiations, there’s another emotional aspect to consider.

If you deliver your proposal first, the other person will instantly start reviewing it in their mind – and potentially getting emotionally triggered by it. The result is they’ll be unable to hear what follows. As a result, an effective strategy is to review what you’ve heard first, then expose your thinking, and finally explain a proposal. (You may find that Motivational Interviewing is effective at helping you learn listening and responding skills.)

Inventing Options

The best resolution to a negotiation is often an option that neither party had even considered at the beginning. Whether it’s a demilitarized zone around a border or something as simple as letting one child cut the sandwich and the other pick which half they want, creative solutions are amazing ways to end a negotiation where both parties don’t feel like they gave up anything but instead like they’ve managed to win.

Being creative comes naturally to all of us (see Creative Confidence), but it doesn’t come when we’re stressed out. (See Drive.) So, a prerequisite to getting to creative options is minimizing the degree of stress and fear. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on stress, and The Fearless Organization for more on reducing fear in the workplace.) Reassuring ourselves and the other party that we’re both looking to find creative solutions that give both parties what they really want is one way to reduce stress – if the other party believes you. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust and its role in relationships.)

When to Walk Away

Sometimes, you can enter a negotiation, and you just don’t know when to walk away. You’re so wrapped up in the process that you forget what you’re doing. Auctions are built on this premise. You get so invested in the process of buying the item that you’ll often spend more on the item than you had initially intended – unless you set (and keep) a firm maximum price in your head.

The negotiation equivalent is Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BANTA). This is what happens if you don’t agree. While it’s possible to overplay this hand since we tend to aggregate the benefits of all the alternatives – but not the downsides – we may believe the alternative is better than it really is. However, if we can’t enter a negotiation knowing what the alternatives are, we may not be properly motivated to negotiate – or walk away.

When You Can’t Agree

Let’s say you did everything right, and there’s still no way to reach an agreement. There are still some strategies you can use to move things forward. You can agree to a provisional agreement. You can agree in principle. You can move the conversation forward without reaching the end point.

While the goal is still Getting to Yes, that may not always be possible. At least you’ll have a better shot at it with the tools in the book.

Book Review-Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job

Conflicts are everywhere. They’re at home, at work, in our politics, and in our communities. Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job focuses on only work conflicts but delivers real thinking and tools that can be used in all the conflicts we face.

Triggering the Avalanche

As I sat down to write this review, I kept identifying specific kernels of how conflict operates and how people can manage it better. Each time I’d cross a topic, it would be worthy of standing on its own. It spawned a series of articles:

There are more individual pieces I started that I won’t finish until after this review. By no means did Resolving Conflicts at Work contain all the information for the articles. I’ve been teaching conflict resolution for years now. However, what it did was trigger me to put the pieces together as individual and distinct topics. It increased my awareness that, though I thought some of these things were automatic and normal, they’re far from it.

Their Ten Strategies

It seems appropriate to convey the ten strategies that they advocate for resolving conflicts:

  1. Understand the Culture and Dynamics of Conflict
  2. Listen Empathetically and Responsively
  3. Search Beneath the Surface for Hidden Meanings
  4. Acknowledge and Reframe Emotions
  5. Separate What Matters from What Gets in the Way
  6. Solve Problems Paradoxically and Creatively
  7. Learn from Difficult Behaviors
  8. Lead and Coach for Transformation
  9. Explore Resistance and Negotiate Collaboratively
  10. Mediate and Design Systems for Prevention

It’s not that these are wrong – in fact, these are the kinds of things you want to do in a conflict. The struggle for me in writing this review is that I conceptualize them very differently.

For instance, I believe that emotions are the key barrier to effective conflict resolution. In my review of De-Escalate, I explained many ways that emotions can impact us, particularly in a conflict. When we teach conflict, we start with managing emotions, and we return to it repeatedly. It’s not that Resolving Conflicts at Work doesn’t discuss emotions, but they’re far from first.

There’s nothing in Resolving Conflicts at Work that I disagree with directly. There’s great information that gives color and character to what I already knew and taught; it just feels slightly off.

Forging

The best relationships I’ve got were forged in the fire of conflict. The people I respect and trust the most are the ones with whom I’ve had disagreements and I’ve learned from. I’m built up by these conflicts, and I expect them, so that I can become a better person. The truth is that John Quincy Adams’ mother, Abigail, was right: “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed.” We need conflict to forge our relationships and our character.

We often forget that conflict isn’t inherently bad. Conflict is only bad when it isn’t handled well, when it leads to hurt feelings or broken relationships. Conflict is the force that drives us forward into better understanding of ourselves and others.

Curiosity Killed the Cat, but Not by Conflict

If I won the genetic lottery in any way, it’s in my insatiable curiosity. My mother may not have appreciated the incessant “why” questions, but they are a powerful asset as I enter into relationships and, particularly, conflicts. The desire to learn about the inner world of the other person has helped me incalculably. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.) While curiosity may have killed the cat, curiosity is a powerful tool in conflict.

The root of conflict either comes from a difference in perspective or a difference in values. Curiosity allows you to discover whether it is a difference in perspective or a difference in values and, more importantly, the desire to explore the space that these differences occupy. If you’re not overflowing with curiosity, then cultivating it will serve you well.

Certainty

The degree to which we are certain can be both a hinderance and a help. The more certain we are of our internal values and beliefs, the more open we can be in discussing them with others – after all, there is no or little risk. However, our certainty that we’re objectively right for everyone and that there are no alternatives that are just as good or better than our approach leaves us unable to listen and understand others’ points of view.

It’s the person who is uncertain of their position and vulnerable who is the most likely to vehemently defend it. When you feel comfortable with who you are and what you believe, you have no sense of fear or vulnerability and therefore no reason to exert energy to defend yourself.

War

One of the challenges we face in our modern world is that conflict is most frequently adorned with war-like imagery. It’s seen as an epic battle, where there is a clear winner and loser. Instead of looking at conflict as a natural process that helps to shape and define us, we focus on winners and losers.

The challenge with this approach is that it encourages us to dehumanize the other party in the conflict. (See Moral Disengagement for more on dehumanization.) By dehumanizing them, we lose all the fundamental respect that we offer every human. Instead of being a part of the brother- and sisterhood of humanity, they’re somehow disconnected from it. This, in turn, causes us to lose the value we can gain from conflict in terms of better understanding and sharper vision of the world around us.

Acceptance

Detachment (see The HeartMath Solution and The Happiness Hypothesis) and acceptance (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships) are two key components for our ability to be at peace and therefore exit conflicts successfully with good solutions and a greater respect for the other party. When you stop trying to change the unchangeable you have a lot more energy – and a lot less fear.

Accepting things as they are is the first step into a world of accepting our emotions as they are – rather than being afraid of what they may bring.

Transcending Emotions

It’s not that you ever get rid of emotions. Emotions are healthy and natural things. (See How Emotions are Made for more context on emotions.) Instead, with practice, you can get to the point where there’s a better working relationship between reason and emotions. To use the Rider-Elephant-Path analogy from The Happiness Hypothesis, the rider (reason) and elephant (emotions) develop a rapport where they respect each other and work together towards common goals.

If we can reach this stage, then we can stop seeking emotional soothing from other people. We can stop looking for them to soothe our pains – pains that we may or may not need to hold onto. A simple change in attitude from being wrapped up in our emotions to allowing them to flow through us may help us with Resolving Conflicts at Work.