We usually view conflict as the other person’s responsibility. If not for them, our lives would be easier – conflict-free.
But Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, a psychologist who spent five years in graduate school studying the factors that contribute to intractable conflict, says we all have conflict habits that lead us into trouble. If you want to free yourself from conflict, it starts by noticing how your conflict habits contribute. In her book Optimal Outcomes, she shares four pitfalls:
- Blame others: Some of us learn from a young age that to get what we want, we need to aggressively pursue it. That competitive spirit is often helpful but can lead us to blame others when they fight back or shut down. The result is a loss rather than the intended win. “If others counterattack, your competitive spirit leads you to attack back, which only escalates the conflict. Or if they shut down, you’re often stuck, unable to move forward or get what you want without their agreement of help. Even if you can move ahead on your own, doing so can lead to more conflict when they learn that you’ve done so without them,” she writes.
- Shut down: Your tendency might be to shut down in the face of conflict. If you’re too upset to have a productive conversation, that’s a reasonable path. But when you avoid conflict at any costs, she says your incommunicative behaviour leads the conflict to fester. The situation becomes worse, not better, prolonged in “simmer” mode.
- Shame yourself: It’s not uncommon to blame yourself for the conflict, hoping you can learn from it. But she warns your learning can become overshadowed by shame and the conflict prolonged as you put yourself through the wringer, perhaps unnecessarily if the extent to which you are responsible is minor.
- Relentlessly collaborate: When faced with conflict, you may seek to resolve it in friendly fashion by doubling down on collaboration. “When you’re relentlessly collaborative, your well-intentioned openness to others becomes warped. You’re on a mission to collaborate at any cost. You end up wasting valuable time and energy devising potential solutions that will never satisfy the others involved,” Ms. Goldman-Wetzler says.
She suggests asking which of those four pitfalls have become the most alluring or comfortable habit for you? Be honest. The habits are not crimes and you are using them with good intentions, but they may be undermining you.
The other people you work with also have conflict habits. It’s worth considering what those are since their habits and yours intermingle, creating a conflict pattern. The five most common patterns are:
- Blame/shame: When blamed, you continue the harangue in your own head and shame yourself, wallowing in your flaws.
- Blame/shut down: When the other person blames you, the reaction is to shut down. Interactions don’t go anywhere.
- Relentlessly collaborate/shut down: The other person is so collaborative it frustrates you as it doesn’t seem authentic or helpful, and you shut down.
- Shut down/shut down: When each person can escape the other, they take that option and nothing productive can occur.
- Blame/blame: Two fighters, together, reinforcing each other’s habit.
Once you become aware of your primary habit and sensitive to how others react, it will illuminate your life. “It may seem as if your actions are happening in slow motion or you’re watching yourself on a movie screen. When this happens, you will feel a sense of relief. You may be ready to leave your old habit behind, and you know that the better you see it, the greater capacity you have to let it go,” Ms. Goldman-Wetzler advises.
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