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?

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.

Conflict: It’s Not Personal

Conflict is easy to get wrapped up in. When someone else sees the world differently than we do, it’s natural that our sense of right and wrong is challenged and, as a result, we’d become defensive – and ultimately lash out. The problem is the first conflict isn’t personal. It’s just a difference in perspective or values. It’s once someone starts attacking the other person that conflicts become personal – and they become harder to reach positive outcomes.

Idea not Person

In a conflict, there are different ideas to consider about how to move forward. One person believes the best answer is one thing, and the other party believes something different is the answer. It’s appropriate in a conflict to identify both the strengths and weaknesses in the opposite proposal or proposals. Conflict is valuable, because it has the capacity to help us see the things we might otherwise overlook.

Pointing out the limitations of an idea is perfectly reasonable. Of course, it helps to have communication skills that allow you to point them out in a way that is respectful, but regardless of the delivery of the message or how it’s taken, it’s important to stay on the idea.

Conflicts often wander into the territory of labeling the other party rather than sticking with the idea. We can explain that we don’t understand an idea but get ourselves into trouble when we start saying the purveyor of that idea is stupid, an idiot, or some other less-than-charitable name. We’ve moved from discussing an idea and its relative merits to attacking a person’s identity.

The Ego and Its Defenses

A person’s identity is sacrosanct. Most of the time, it’s difficult for the person themselves to change it. Someone coming from the outside saying the way they think of themselves is wrong isn’t going to be well received. This is doubly true if you’re trying to negatively impact their identity and self-image. The ego, which is responsible for our perception of our identity, is well defended. There are a variety of techniques that the ego can use to defend itself against an unwanted change in self-perception.

This difficulty in changing identity is why when people are given negative feedback about who they are – rather than what they did – they almost universally respond negatively. We’re surprised by the person that takes negative feedback well – not by the person who lashes back out at you. While an issue that doesn’t involve self-identity may be able to be resolved, once you engage the ego’s defenses, it may be impossible to move forward.

Guidance

The guidance may be clear, but it’s hard to pull off. Stay on the issue at hand and don’t share any inner judgement about the person who had the idea. If you’ve got to communicate about your perspective, focus on words like “I felt…” or “I think…” rather than “You said…” or “You did…” It’s too easy to trigger a response from the ego when you’re trying to speak for another person. Speaking for someone else can trigger the same identity protections as labeling them with some negative label.

When you’re working through a conflict, the best advice is to ensure that you don’t start to attack the other party no matter how frustrated you may get. Where possible, avoid using the word “you” at all – but particularly when preceded by “but.” This prevents potentially putting the other party into a defensive mode.

Conflicts shouldn’t be personal. Conflicts should be about getting to the best answer – there are people involved, but the people aren’t the problem. In fact, there are no problems. There are only different points of view.

Conflict: Our Beliefs About Others

We form beliefs about other people, and sometimes those beliefs aren’t right. When we have beliefs about people that aren’t correct or don’t match their beliefs about themselves, conflict is bound to erupt. The better we can manage our beliefs about other people, the more likely we are to avoid unnecessary conflict and resolve conflict quickly.

Fundamental Attribution Error

We all suffer from fundamental attribution error. We blame others for outcomes that were rightly based on circumstance not their character, but that doesn’t stop us. While we give ourselves grace, because we know the situation we were in. We don’t give the same grace to others.

Consider something as simple as someone who has had a divorce. Many people hold the value that marriage should be a sacred vow, and it should be forever. When we face our own divorce, we can rationalize that there was no way to make it work. We can point to the years of effort that we put into making it different. We can say that we reluctantly gave into the inevitable. However, when an acquaintance gets a divorce, we somehow think less of them. How is it that they could forgo their commitment so easily?

Of course, we have no idea how much effort or energy they put into keeping their commitments, and we don’t know that they weren’t faced with a spouse who was unfaithful, abusive, or absent. However, fundamental attribution error kicks in, and we think it’s something about their character.

Observations

All we ever have of someone else is observations of what they say and what they do. Of course, what they do is a better signal of what they really believe than what they say. However, we see their words and actions and from those must infer their intentions and values. We don’t know what they intended, but still we make up answers about what is going on in their inner world that may or may not have anything to do with reality.

Our observations themselves are only partial, and therefore we fail to see the whole picture. We see them snap at their child in line at the fast food restaurant but don’t see the two hours they spent trying to help their mother undo a malware attack. We see the inattentiveness at the grocery store but miss the fact that they just worked a double shift to cover for a friend whose father is in the hospital.

Values

From these partial and imperfect observations, we infer what we believe their values are. After all, if they’re willing to speak to their child that way, then family must not be very important to them. If they’re inattentive in the grocery store, then the way they eat must not be important to them.

The problem with this approach is that we don’t see the whole picture, and we don’t know what other competing values are in place. We see the person who fails to report an error because they’re worried their friend might lose their job because of it. They’re weighing their value of loyalty against the need for honesty – or righteousness. We only see the transgression, not the character strength.

Intentions

From these lofty ideas of their values, we establish what we believe to be their intentions towards us. Frequently, our belief is that they have negative intentions towards us. In most cases, the other person rarely thinks about us – and certainly doesn’t have an agenda to make our lives miserable – but that doesn’t stop our imagination.

Instead of believing the other person has the best of intentions, most of the time, we assume they’re out to get us.

Perspective on Us

What other people think of us is none of our business. It’s a fact that what other people think about us is as much about them as it is about us. They suffer from the same biases and limitations that we do, and they’re likely to not see us in as favorable a light as we see ourselves. As a result, when we arrive in a conflict, if we’re not really careful, we’ll each think less of the other person than we perceive of ourselves.

That sets the stage for a conflict based on nothing more than a misperception of one another – with or without a substantive issue to have a conflict about. If we can minimize our leaping to a belief that we understand the other person’s values and intentions and instead take a slow and thoughtful effort to validate the values and intentions we believe they have, we may just find that our conflicts disappear.

Conflict: Relational Bank Account

At some point in our lives, nearly everyone has overdrawn their financial bank account. Whether it’s oversight, an error, or the fact that there just wasn’t enough to go around, nearly everyone has done it at least once. The trick with bank accounts is to rarely overdraw them. It’s not like you can’t ever do it, it’s just costly when it happens. In conflict, we’re not talking about financial bank accounts, we’re talking about relational bank accounts. Relational bank accounts are based on what you’ve done for others and the trust and respect you’ve built up that allows you to more easily weather the storms that you face.

Making Deposits

You don’t always get an opportunity to start a relational bank account with deposits, but you often do. Coworkers, colleagues, managers, and subordinates rarely enter the picture on the first day with a conflict. Instead, they often spend hours, days, weeks, months, or even years before the first substantive disagreement occurs. During the intervening time, we can make deposits into our relational bank account.

Those deposits are the things that we do to build trust, respect, and good will. It can be something as simple as saying hi or as caring as sending flowers when they’ve lost a good friend or family member. It’s doing simple things that build relationships, so that trust, respect, and good will are the natural outcomes.

Making Withdrawals

Everyone makes withdrawals from their relational accounts, too. Sometimes, it’s a hard word. Other times, it’s a hard decision that the other person doesn’t perceive as fair or caring. We’re not going to have relationships from which we make no withdrawals; that’s not how relationships work. The important aspect is to recognize the withdrawals and, where possible, make additional deposits to cover the withdrawal, just like you might do with a real bank account.

Accruing Interest

The good news about relational bank accounts is that they generally accrue interest when they’re not being withdrawn from. Take the childhood friend whom you’ve not seen in a decade or more. Your response to them is likely to be even more positive than it would have been when you last saw them. The standard flow of time will make the relational bank account grow, not shrink, over time.

Of course, there are ways the passage of time has a negative effect on a relationship, but most people’s experience shows that time is on your side.

Certificates of Deposit

You won’t be able to get a certificate of the deposits you’re making into the relational bank account. However, you will be able to get a sense of how you can lean on a relationship when you’re in a conflict with the person. The greater your relational bank account balance, the greater the likelihood the other person will trust you, respect you, and have a substantial amount of good will that may make the actual conflict trivial.

Having large relational bank account balances allows you to put conflicts in perspective and realize that, though there’s a disagreement – a difference of opinion – in the broader picture, you and the other person are both good and have the best intentions. That’s often nearly enough to neutralize the conflict.

Conflict: Humility

We live in a time of arrogance. We live when people believe they’re better than other people, and they’re entitled to more of the world’s riches than anyone else. In this kind of a world, we’re left with conflicts, as people fight for more than their fair share (despite believing they deserve it). We’re left with a world where people struggle to have respect for one another. The result is more pointless conflict that doesn’t serve to make people better or more whole.

Power Held in Service to Others

The best definition of humility I’ve ever seen is “power held in service to others.” It’s a statement of how the humble person should position themselves. They’re not to become meek or powerless. They’re not to roll over to any breeze that comes by them. Instead, the humble person builds their inner strength to the maximum extent they can. They simply direct that inner strength towards helping others rather than helping themselves.

Instead of worrying about how to finish the race first, they worry about how to first ensure everyone finishes the race.

Humility Is Not Weakness

In Western societies, humility is often seen as weakness. “It’s easy to be humble when you’re powerless” resonates. However, humility shouldn’t be weakness. It should be selfless. Being selfless allows you to leverage your personal strengths for others.

Said differently, humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it’s about thinking about yourself less – thus creating more room to think about others.

Conviction

The opposite of humility is arrogance – thinking about others less. However, the root of confusion about humility seems similar to the confusion that we have in the Western world about the difference between conviction and arrogance. While arrogance is not caring about others, conviction is being clear about how you care for others.

One can be completely convinced about the thing that they must do and therefore not seek input from everyone. This, on the surface, seems to be arrogance and the opposite of humility, but it only appears this way until you dig deeper and see that there’s no longer the need for input because of the clarity that already exists about how best to help.

In Conflict

If you enter a conflict with conviction but not humility, you’re blinded to how your conviction may be wrong or may conflict with the needs, hopes, and dreams of another person. You may be convinced that every person should have a computer and be blinded to the fact that people are dying of diarrhea and that this may be a more pressing need. (This was the revelation that Bill and Melinda Gates had.)

Humility – the willingness to hold your power for others – is the tempering for conviction that keeps you open to the needs of others while being convinced that your objective is the right one. Whether you decide to change your beliefs because of the conflict or remain firm in your conviction, humility is the tool that keeps us open, listening, and ultimately succeeding in our conflicts.

Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement

Most people don’t really want to have a conflict. It takes time, effort, and mental energy to even be in the conflict, and in our busy worlds, it’s more than most people want to deal with. Too often, conflicts seem to disappear before they can be dealt with only to reappear someplace else in the future. Too often, we disengage from a conflict rather than gain detachment from it.

Disengagement

You can call it retreat. You can call it avoidance. You can even call it stonewalling, John Gottman’s favorite term. Gottman, in fact, names stonewalling – or refusing to engage in a conversation and conflict – as the death knell of relationships. Disengagement is like taking your ball and going home. Disengagement has the same kind of relational impacts as literally taking your ball and going home. It shuts off connection to the other person and blocks or prevents relationships.

Disengagement comes in the silence or in the “okay” responses that are uttered without emotion or with a sullen face that indicates there’s no point in continuing the discussion. It comes when it no longer seems worth it to continue the fight. When it happens, there’s a real problem that requires the other party to try (even if unsuccessfully) to re-engage.

Detachment

Detachment and disengagement seem similar on the surface. Not only are the words phonetically similar, the responses are even objectively similar. A detached person is likely to accept what the other person is saying by answering with the same word – “okay” – as the disengaged person. The difference is in the attitude. The difference is in what the response does to the person themselves and their willingness to stay in the conversation.

Detached people are “okay.” Literally they don’t see themselves in the ring having the struggle. Any outcome is acceptable. The other party isn’t an enemy combatant. Instead, they’re just someone with a different point of view or perhaps different values. This distance from the conflict allows them to respond instead of react.

Responding not Reacting

Reacting is normal. We react to loud noises, and we often react to the things that we think are going on with other people. However, when we react, we don’t allow the space for our neocortex to come up with an intelligent response. When we react, we don’t take the time to consider the consequences on our discussion or our relationships.

Detachment allows us to view the conflict as “okay” and therefore not a threat. This allows us the capacity to thoughtfully respond rather than trying to respond quickly.

Cultivating Detachment

Detachment, though desirable, isn’t always easy to get to. To reach detachment with a situation, you must shed the idea that you’re at risk. By cultivating a sense of safety, you create detachment from the outcomes. Cultivating safety can be as simple as playing a fair game of worst-case scenario, in which you evaluate what’s the worst that could come from the conflict – and realize, in most cases, it’s not life-threatening or even all that impactful in the long term.

Learning to take a step back from the emotion to recognize that the conflict isn’t really that harmful can be the difference between unhealthy disengagement and healthy detachment.