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spike bullet October 2004 - Conflict Resolution: Winning Without War

Conflict Resolution
Tips and Suggestions
Resources (links, books, articles, humor)

color bulletConflict Resolution: Winning without War

Itís late, you are leaving the office and you see an e-mail from someone with something surprising to you.  You quickly fire off a response thinking that will take care of the issue.

The following day, you get another e-mail that indicates that the person did not understand your intent.  Maybe they copy your boss on this one or others.  Again, you respond without thinking over the issue and copy the other personís boss or do a "reply all" to everyone.

Maybe you are starting to get a niggling feeling that something isnít going well with this communication but you arenít sure what it is and youíve got lots of other stuff on your plate so it doesnít consume much of your energy.

Time passes . . . the event escalates, peopleís feelings are hurt, major misunderstandings occur, your motives are misunderstood, maybe you are called on the carpet about it.

Does this sound familiar?  I suspect most of us who have been working a while will recognize the scenario.

Another scene:  You live in a neighborhood with a homeowners association.  Youíve been working hard, have had family illness or other more important things happening in your life.  You havenít cut your grass for a while, you leave your garbage can at the curb too long, you finally decide to cut down that tree thatís been leaning, your build a kennel for your dog or youíve been laid off and havenít paid as much attention to your property as you used to.

You get a letter from the homeowners association with a notice that you are not maintaining your property, youíve been assessed a fine for cutting down a tree without permission, you are chastised for doing something to violate the covenants or you have a lien placed on your property for unpaid association dues.  

You are mad, furious even.  How dare they!!!  You fire off a letter telling them off in no uncertain terms.  Later, you may hear from an attorney or get even nastier letters from the association.  

Does this sound familiar?  Many of us who live in areas managed by homeowners associations have encountered this or we know someone who has had similar (or worse) experiences.

Another scene: You are a participant in the television show, The Apprentice.  Your team is in the boardroom because you lost this weekís challenge.  You cannot be fired in this round because you were the winning project manager in last weekís challenge.  Without thinking it through, you offer to give up your exemption to being fired and ask to be judged along with your team.  

The next thing you know, Mr. Trump fires you!  Why?  Because he feels that was a dangerous and stupid move on your part, much greater than all the failings of the others on the team, who made lots of very serious mistakes.  He fires you even though he tells you that you are the best person in the room.

Does this sound familiar?  Itís what happened to Bradford Cohen.  Mr. Trump said Bradís mistake was a "life-threatening mistake."  Why?  Because if Brad did something like that without thinking in a business deal, he could destroy his entire company.

Wow!!  One mistake, one slip of the tongue ó that seemed like the right thing to do at the time ó could take down an entire company.  It could destroy a potentially lucrative career.  It could wreck the high hopes of a very talented man.

Sobering thoughts.

Back to our first scenario of firing off that quick response to an e-mail.  Everyone has done it a one time or another, even those of us who think we are calm, effective and reasonable people.  We are all human.  We all have our stresses.  We all have distractions at times.  We all have other things in life to think about.  We donít always take the time or energy to think about the potential ramifications of every action we take or everything we say spontaneously.

Why do we get ourselves into these messes?

The simple answer is, "Because we are human."  A more complex psychological answer involves our basic personality, how that interacts with our physical and emotional world, and with other people.

Another answer is because we are all different and that naturally leads to conflict.  Our challenge and our opportunity is to learn to live and work together in a more peaceful, accepting and effective way.

Conflict is part of our human experience.  We each see things differently.  We each have our personality quirks.  We have our own unique background and life experience.  We each have beliefs, motives, personal values, morals and religious values that are different from others.

That means we experience the world through our own unique set of "filters" that color everything we see, everything we say, everything we think and everything we do.  Everyone else also has a unique set of those filters as well and their filters are somewhat different from ours.  Is it any wonder we donít agree all the time?  Itís a wonder we ever agree on anything when you think about it.

If there was time, we could analyze our own filters, compare them to someone elseís filters, and map out a strategy for communicating with them.  In about 50 years, we might be ready to start to work with them.  Who has that much time?

Therefore, we muddle along doing the best we can at any moment and find ourselves in small quagmires of problems, escalating crises or just plain mad at someone or something.

This is how corporate relationships get in trouble, how lawsuits get started and how international wars get started.

What does this have to do with conflict resolution and winning a war?

When we understand why we do what we do, say or think (which is not a simple task), we can begin to get a small glimmer about why others might do what they do, say or think.

The things that get us into trouble are the inherent aspects of what make us unique humans.  Thatís the good news and the bad news.

We can also choose to operate from the positive aspects of ourselves or from the negative aspects of ourselves.  Yes, we all have negative aspects.  And, they become more prevalent and available when we are stressed, even though we may be totally unaware that we are operating that way.

Think of someone who is normally a calm and reasonable person.  Then, see if you can remember a time when they seemed to change, to be come unreasonable, stubborn,  dogmatic or "hyper" about something.  They were probably under stress, which tends to put us into the negative parts of our personality.  We have several articles about this in our Personality Game section.

When faced with a surprising event, we may become defensive, aggressive, domineering, passive, excited, calm, silent, loquacious, pushy, weak, dogmatic, involved, distant or any number of other responses.  When two stressed people come together, even more variety can occur, such as one person becomes pushy and the other becomes belligerent.

Next thing we know, thereís a dispute.  Then it escalates and involves more people.  Soon, there are grudges building and dysfunctional patterns set in.  There may be arguments, nasty letters or break-ups.  Others may get mad at us or come to our defense.

In the international arena, weíve seen this escalation play out into world wars, regional wars, civil wars and bitter battles over territory or religion.

What to do?

Before reacting in a strong way to something that is a surprise, that pushes our buttons or triggers our adrenaline:

  1. Take the time to rethink the ramifications before shooting off that e-mail or nasty letter. 
  2. Never respond quickly just to get it done with.  That's what gets most of us in trouble and when we are most prone to making a mistake or saying exactly the wrong thing.   
  3. Take a long walk before telling someone off.
  4. Breathe deeply a few more times before spouting off about why you are right and the other person is wrong.
  5. Do research on the facts.  Find other alternatives to what is proposed and back it up with facts.
  6. Think before you act.
  7. Try to understand why the other person might think (or act) the way they do.
  8. Count to 10 or even to 100 if you feel agitated, then take a long walk.
  9. Pause a while before you presume to know the "real truth" about a situation.
  10. Reconsider before ascribing sinister motives to another person.
  11. Consider if the other person might be under stress that caused them to do what they did.
  12. Consider if you might be under stress that is causing you want to react more strongly that the issue warrants.
  13. Take as step back to a time before this surprising event and imagine that this issue is just a feather floating softly across your desk.  Watch it without reacting to it.  
  14. Ask a friend or co-worker (who handles conflict well) how they would handle this.
  15. Consider not responding at all and see how things are in a few days.

Even knowing all these good suggestions wonít prevent people from occasionally doing something "stupid" anyway.  Our ability to control our own behavior is a constant challenge.  Even those who consider themselves mature adults struggle with this at times.

Controlling the behavior of others is totally outside our ability, much as we would like to believe we can tell others what is wrong with them and what they should do to fix it!

I know this is much easier to explain than to do in practice because Iíve personally been faced with it this week and am not liking my own responses to minor surprising events.

Some tips for coping with surprises

  1. Be yourself, as authentically as you can be, and also be aware that you are not going to agree with everyone all the time.
  2. Be kind to yourself and be gentle with others ó they are human and suffer the same challenges you do.
  3. Assume that the motives of others are pure and that they are only trying to deal with things as they see them.  Try to imagine how they might see the situation.  
  4. Get plenty of rest, exercise and good nutrition, which helps to give you the strength to deal with lifeís stresses.
  5. When stressed, be extra cautious in how you react to others.
  6. Be completely and brutally honest with yourself about how you contributed to any conflict or misunderstanding.
  7. Maybe make yourself a pledge not to answer any surprising e-mail, letter or phone call until the next day ó if that is possible.  At the very least, wait until later in the day when you have had time to reconsider what it might mean and how you might react in a more positive way.  Some very effective people set aside a block of time to answer all phone calls and correspondence.
  8. Instead of sending an e-mail or writing a letter, call the person and chat about whatever the issue is.  Better yet, talk in person.  A good rule of thumb is to never send someone an e-mail or a letter that will surprise them.  Instead, visit them in person.  If that is not possible, at least make a phone call.  This rule works for corporate environments and personal relationships as well as homeowners associations and international affairs.

Itís amazing how trivial some disagreements become when people talk face-to-face.  You may even laugh about your reactions and imaginary thoughts.

Be aware that surprising someone often triggers a negative reaction from them.  Is that what you really want?  Or, do you simply want to get an issue resolved?

Resolving conflict without escalation, hurt feelings, flared tempers or waging war is truly winning for everyone involved.

Over time, you will find that your ability to calm in the face of surprises will increase.  Your ability to see someone else with compassion instead of anger will increase.  You will notice that people donít push your buttons anymore and that your heart isnít racing as hard.  That's truly winning without warfare. 

In other words, you will be more peaceful and your life will be more peaceful.  Isnít that worth making an attempt to change your reactions slightly?  

World Wide Web graphic  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, Marshall Rosenberg.   PuddleDancer Press; 1999.  ASIN: 1892005026 
  • Tongue Fu! Deflect, Disarm & Diffuse Any Verbal Conflict, Sam Horn. St. Martin's Griffin; 1997.  ISBN: 0312152272 
  • Terrorism, Freedom, and Security: Winning Without War, Philip B. Heymann.  The MIT Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0262083272 
  • Working Woman's Art of War: Winning Without Confrontation, Chin-Ning Chu.  AMC Publishing, 2001.   ISBN: 0929638298
  • Genderspeak: Men, Women and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self≠Defense, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.  John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1993.  ISBN: 0471580163  Suzette Elgin has written several books on communication. 
  • Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations, Don Gabor.  Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994.  ISBN 0-671-79505-8

world wide web - articles  Articles

The Personality Game and related articles

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

If there is something that you have to do, resist the temptation to do it under duress.  Ask yourself, "Whatís the worst thing that would happen if I didnít do this?"  And if you can get away with not doing it at all, donít do it.  And then imagine what would it feel like to have this done.  Spend a day or two, if you can, just 15 minutes here, 5 minutes here, 2 minutes here, here and here, imagining it completed in a way that pleases you!  And then, the next time you decide that youíre going to take action about it, the action is going to be a whole lot easier. ... Abraham: 4/5/98, Phoenix, AZ

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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