Most people don’t enjoy having difficult conversations, but it’s something that has to be done. While these conversations might come naturally to some, the majority of leaders will need to continuously work on and develop this expertise.
For most of us, conflict situations are threatening, and it’s our instinct to protect ourselves. We may react so quickly that we don’t even think about what we’re doing. But beneath the surface, there’s a process playing out: a conflict triggers an automatic thought, which in turn triggers a destructive response.
Destructive responses can range from immediate reactions in the heat of the moment to delayed or drawn-out responses that prolong the conflict. Why do we do this? This article will provide you with some helpful insight into why we may respond to conflict in ways that are unproductive, or even destructive.
What are some common destructive responses?
Arguing is unhealthy when it becomes about winning and losing, when the emphasis is no longer on getting at the truth or the best solution. It becomes about protecting our egos and putting other people in their place. And so, like any competition, the “best” strategy is to give up as little ground as possible to your adversary. As a result, any chance for empathy goes out the window. Therefore, in the midst of an argument, one of the most important things we can do is be honest with ourselves about our real motivations. What emotions are fueling me right now?
– Ask yourself: How much of my response is really about winning?
By belittling someone, we create a demeaning, one-dimensional caricature of them. Not only does this make it easier to dismiss their opinions, but it can feel extremely satisfying. The power in belittling often comes from putting a label on someone that sums up all of the negative attributes we want to call out. It channels all of the frustrations we have into a single powerful word. And once that succinct label is out there, we can use it to easily dismiss anything else the person has to say.
– Ask yourself: What positive characteristics about this person am I choosing to overlook?
Caving in can be particularly tempting because it often feels like the absolute quickest way to end a disagreement. Even though it typically means sacrificing our legitimate rights, the pain of being in a conflict can be so excruciating that we take immediate shelter in this option. Of course, this short-term gain is often at the expense of long-term satisfaction and can eventually create very unbalanced, unhealthy power dynamics within a relationship.
– Ask Yourself: What is the long-term cost of giving in right now?
When we trust that things will be okay no matter what the outcome of the conflict, there’s no reason to be defensive. We can be open to different opinions. On the other hand, at the heart of defensives is insecurity. We don’t want to admit failure or weakness or inappropriateness. When our brain is telling us that the stakes are incredibly high, we cover up any vulnerabilities or weaknesses. And even when we recognize our defensiveness, it can still be difficult to ask ourselves what, beneath it all, we are really afraid of.
– Ask Yourself: What am I really afraid of?
5. Dismissing Opinions
Dismissing opinions is a blocking strategy to win an argument but is also a common way to protect our ego. We do this when we’re scared of the thoughts or views expressed by another person. We are afraid to give space to paint a picture that we don’t like. And because we feel challenged, insecure, and fearful, we adopt the strategy of overriding the other person. We execute absolute certainty in our position and effectively relieve ourselves from any obligation to hear the other side of the story. And by making the conversation as one-sided as possible, we feel empowered and righteous.
– Ask yourself: What am I scared of hearing from the other person?
Sometimes a minor offense can still make us extremely upset. In fact, sometimes it’s tough to justify the intensity of our emotions given the actual situation. Exaggeration is a way of making the situation sound as bad as it feels. Exaggeration is also empowering. It makes our case seem that much more powerful and defensible because it makes the other person’s behavior seem that much more awful.
Ask yourself: What is the actual reason my emotions are so intense right now?
Finger-pointing feels like a very aggressive behavior, but it usually stems from defensiveness. We’re diverting attention away from our own shortcoming or failure by pointing it out in someone else. Often, we’ll home in on one particular action of the other person that contributed to a problem. The goal is to make this action seem as awful as possible, to make it seem like this action is, in fact, the heart of the problem. By shifting the blame, we’ve saved our reputation in the short-term, but may have also unwittingly damaged our integrity.
– Ask yourself: How have I contributed to the problem, and why am I trying to avoid calling attention to it?
Hypercriticism is an indirect strategy we use to get back at someone. We decide that we will make a point of objecting to as much about the person as possible. We shoot down their suggestions. We find holes in their topic. We scrutinize their output for mistakes. Basically, we try to punish the person. It’s a strategy that’s particularly appealing when we recognize that the thing we are actually mad about is a little on the petty side. We know we can’t complain about it directly. And so, becoming hypercritical is a way of acting on our anger without having to admit that we’re really angry.
– Ask yourself: What can I do to more directly express my frustrations?
Overpowering involves drawing on all the sources of power at our disposal to defeat someone during a conflict. Sometimes that power is social or organizational authority, but sometimes it’s simply using the force of a strong, vocal personality. Overpowering deliberately keeps other off balance and attempts to eliminate the possibility of a fair, even-handed discussion. In this regard, domineering behavior overrides logic, objectivity, and personal rights when resolving a dispute. This strategy is particularly tempting when we are overcome by a strong, almost primal, urge to “win” the conflict.
– Ask yourself: Is this a fair discussion and am I being logical, objective, and respectful?
We can all think of occasions when we desperately wanted to express anger at someone, but didn’t want a full-scale conflict. Passive-aggression can feel like the perfect solution. We get to subtly punish someone — enough that they notice, but not so much that they can call us on it. Its many forms (e.g., ignoring, eye-rolling, nit-picking) make it endlessly flexible. Sometimes the goal is to bother someone enough that they initiate the confrontation, at which point we have an invitation to let loose on them. But whatever the end goal, we may take more satisfaction from it that we care to admit.
– Ask yourself: What am I afraid will happen if I am direct?
In conflict, sarcasm is a close cousin of passive-aggression. It allows us to take a shot at someone or express our hostility without being too obvious about our real motivations. It’s for when we’re not quite committed enough to yell at someone, but still, want to take them down a peg or two. And sarcasm is such a tempting tool in the midst of conflict because we can always claim that “I’m just joking…seriously, lighten up.” We feel like the “just kidding” excuse gives us immunity after subtly attacking or demeaning someone.
– Ask yourself: If jokes are half-truths, what truth am I unwilling to express?
When we stonewall, we make it clear to the other person that communication is completely shut down. We deliberately let them know that their behavior is so unacceptable that we are unwilling to compromise or even discuss a resolution. And although we may hate to admit it, stonewalling can be gratifying. We get to punish the other person while telling ourselves that our behavior is strong and dignified. And, as a bonus, we don’t have to wade through the untidiness of conflict. Therefore, this can become a self-preservation strategy when we feel overwhelmed by a swirl of uncomfortable emotions.
– Ask yourself: What emotions am I hiding from when I do this?
Not many people actually enjoy conflict, but it is much more painful to some of us than others. We may not even know why conflict is so uncomfortable; we just know that it feels like a whirling jumble of anxiety, anger, insecurity, and danger. Every instinct is urging us to return to stability and safety. Withdrawing or clamming up can provide immediate relief by simply shutting out the emotional messiness. We hunker down and wait for it to pass. Of course, this means we don’t get to assert our own side of things, but in the moment, deliberately engaging in a conflict can feel overwhelming.
– Ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that can happen if I say something, and will things be worse if I don’t.
HCCI is recognized by SHRM to offer Professional Development Credits (PDCs) for the SHRM-CPSM or SHRM-SCPSM.
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