Ok, I have been busy. Conflict. I am getting there. As I walked into Rudy’s on Capital Hill (no I didn’t use the damn app to book an appointment – you shouldn’t need a damn appointment for a barber shop), a buddy of mine was sitting in the chair finishing up. I had been thinking about this friend lately and meaning to connect. Love that about Seattle. The desk guy said it would be a half hour wait, so I ask my buddy if he has time for a coffee. He says “How about a beer? Or five?” Seeing as it was well past noon (around 2:30) I say “Sure.”
Turns out my friend was staring down the barrel of a potentially explosive rendezvous with his girlfriend on Thursday who he had the distinct impression was trying to dump him in the middle of a bunch of other shit at work. He had about a dozen tactical offensive strategies tumbling around in his head and wanted some advice. Less than half a beer in it was clear that his monkey mind was in full-blown panic. Summoning my best practices over the years I directed him toward strategies I have found successful. Three beers later (thankfully it didn’t take all five) we had agreed on an approach which was not originally on his list and in fact was about 180 degrees from the direction he was going.
This episode has caused me to think about and organize (somewhat) my thoughts on how to prepare for upcoming potential conflict. Here goes.
While every type of potential conflict has a different fact pattern, I have found that this framework can significantly reduce the fireworks and generate a greater percentage of “win-win” (hate that term) results. I have used this basic approach both when I am the instigator/aggressor of the conflict (firing a poor performing employee, talking to a family member about money, collecting a debt, etc.) and when I suspect to be the target of aggression (the board member wants an impromptu “update” on company performance, the girlfriend wants to “talk”, a key employee wants to “have a coffee” just before bonus time, my daughter says “dad, do you have a minute?”).
The Old way: Outcome Oriented Offense.
Until very recently, my normal response to impending conflict/danger was:
Delay/Deflect. Try to avoid conflict at all costs. Change the subject. Move the meeting. Deny everything. Cut the conversation short. Have sex instead. Turn on the TV. Take a trip. Bring up a much larger problem involving someone else. This avoided 60-70% of the conflict.
If defensive fails, move to offense.
Ready. Figure out who/what was the threat. Demonize them. Remind myself of my superiority and righteousness.
Aim. Plan an offensive attack. Rehearse all the reasons I was right. Be clear on what I wanted/needed out of the situation. Be prepared to fight to the death for the win.
Fire. Go in with guns blazing. Do not listen (that is weakness) or only listen as a delay/distraction tactic. When faced with arguments that diverged from my own beliefs, double down on beliefs, say them louder. Win with superior force, will and might. Win at all costs. Never retreat.
Move on. If I win, gloat. Do not be gracious in victory, maybe even flip the looser off, give them a kick in the ass out the door. If I lose, cut that person/thing out of my life as irrelevant and continue on with my own original beliefs intact. Conflict was not a learning experience, it was win/loose. Win/Win is just what winners say, not an actual desired outcome. Keep moving at all cost.
This was basically the approach my friend was taking to his upcoming potential conflict with the girlfriend. This approach is very outcome oriented – Win, stay alive. In certain existential situations (war with a clear enemy trying to kill you, the tiger trying to eat you) our natural fight of flight response serves us very well. Unfortunately about 95% of the conflicts we face are not truly existential, yet we tend to respond as if they are.
The New way: Process oriented empathy and understanding.
I have heard many people express a fear that focusing on process over outcomes (taking your eye off the ball) will lead to less goal achievement. In my experience stacking up a bunch of wins while everyone else looses eventually leaves the winner very alone, unfulfilled and wondering what went wrong. This process orientation strengthens my life force and my interpersonal network rather than weakening it through solo victories and cutting off the looser.
Here is what I (try) to do these days which I have found to be much more successful in resolving conflict (I still hate “win/win”). Occasionally I even learn something or grow (imagine that). This approach is definitely preferred with anyone who you must continue to deal with over time (family, friends, co-workers). Fewer people will feel like you are an asshole. Even a few may appreciate your problem solving skills and want to hang out more often (a particular benefit with the girl/boyfriend).
When facing a potential conflict situation:
Prepare. Get the facts straight. Focus on the facts. Try to remove any judgement or critique about the situation. Answer these questions for yourself. In fact write them down on one side of a blank piece of paper.
- What do I think happened (or is going to happen)? If the boss calls you into the office and you start catastrophizing that he may want to fire you, ask this question. What really happened? He asked for a meeting. Nothing more.
- What feelings are you having about the situation? Name every feeling you are having. Use a feeling list. Believe it or not there are more feelings that fear and anger and happiness. Keep away from judgments about the feelings.
- What do I want out of this situation? Not the tactics, like I want the fight to be over as soon as possible. Or I want to win. What is your real motivation here? What is your deepest desire for an outcome here? Do I want to win against my girlfriend, or do I want us to grow in understanding of each other? Again do not judge. One good tactic is imagine the optimal outcome of the conflict and list the feelings you would have about the outcome and the other person involved (yes another feeling list is useful). You may decide you just want the win and don’t give a shit about the consequences. Just be crystal clear.
Now do the same for the other person who will be in the conflict. Write those down on the other side of the paper. Exercise your empathy muscle. While you can’t absolutely know someone else’s motivation, their feelings or what they want, you can certainly try to figure it out. Many conflicts have started over misunderstandings and without clear motivations on either side. While some differences are irreconcilable, the severity and intensity of conflict can be significantly minimized when there is empathy for the opposition.
Listen First. Especially if you are on the receiving end of the aggression. Put your own feelings and desires aside and listen. Really fucking listen. Do not interrupt. Keep eye contact. Nod your head. Yea some call it “active listening“, but you damn well know how it feels when someone is really paying attention to you. Do that. Put your own thoughts aside, especially if you are a guy and constantly want to jump in and solve the problem. There will be plenty of time for that.
Focus on understanding. In the “old way” I listened as a delaying tactic, as a rope a dope while I prepared the main offensive attack. Don’t do that. Stay curious. Is what you are hearing what you expected from the person during your preparation? Do you really understand what feelings, needs and desires they have? Do you really understand what they want out of the situation? Keep the judgement out. Even if what you understand they want is totally fucking stupid and useless. Try to dig down the real basic needs being expressed not the surface needs. For example if your girlfriend says “I just need you to take out the trash once in a while” the old me would be just like “sure I can do that” end of conversation. If you focus on understand what is really underneath the requests, you might get to the core issue. Like “I need to feel loved or appreciated.” Often times the real needs and motivations are buried under hurt, distrust and layers of daily details. Focus on understanding the true needs and motivations. Focus on understanding not winning. The “win” is the understanding.
Remain mindful. This could be the first step, or a step that underlies the entire situation. Basically stay awake and engaged with listening/understanding. Your monkey mind will want to bust in with your own feelings, needs, wants, desires, solutions. Your monkey mind will want to tune everything out as it prepares offense. Stay focused. There is time for everything the monkey mind wants to do, but your goal here is to stay focused on process not outcome.
Pro Tip: For the Really BIG conflicts, the ones much further down the existential fear scale, you should employ role-playing. Talk the situation and your approach through with a friend, mentor or in extreme circumstances, actually role play with them. Start the expected conversation and play the scene through. This is what Presidential candidates do for the big debates. For big conflicts, this investment will pay off.
What often happens to me in armed conflict situations when I deploy the process oriented approach is that the opposition is quickly disarmed and we start working together from a position of empathy on a solution we are both happy with. In situations where mutual happiness is not possible (firing an employee, breaking up with the girlfriend, collecting the debt), the wounds of the conflict are significantly reduced. No one limps away mortally wounded. The opposition may be wounded but they probably still have their dignity. Over time they may even appreciate the conflict as a turning point. Today’s looser needs to have the confidence and ability to be tomorrows winner. The world is not well served by armies of wounded losers zombie walking through life.
Sometimes with all the empathy and understanding of the other’s needs, I still can’t give them what they want. I can’t keep the employee. I can’t take out the trash. But with the understanding and empathy the parties can leave the conflict feeling understood. Feeling that they were not steamrolled. Far fewer grudges arise later. The Process Orientation of conflict resolution still has an outcome. The negative outcome you fear may still happen. In many ways there is still a winner and loser. But there is less damage to both sides.
Well that certainly is much more organized than the three beer advice I gave my buddy, and it was produced with coffee instead, but I am happy with it. I certainly will admit to having changed my approach to conflict over time and the results are 10x better when the process approach is deployed. Meditation is the superpower that has given me the ability to pause and choose a strategy. While sometimes I may still choose the “old way”, I know have an option and the skill to choose. Those have been steps in the right direction.