How to get conflict management "just right"
Let me tell you a story. You’ve probably heard it: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But this is a look at the story through the lens of how to manage conflict more effectively.
In the famous fairy tale, the bear family decides to take a stroll to let their porridge cool. While they’re out, little Goldilocks waltzes into their house uninvited and tries the porridge in the three bowls. The first was too hot, the second too cold but the last was just right. Similarly, she tries out the bears’ three chairs and finds one just right—but then promptly breaks it. Wearied by all her breaking and entering, she then tries out each bear’s bed and finds one that’s just right. Right then, though, the bears come back to the devastation of their belongings and confront the sleeping girl, who bolts.
That’s what this blog post is all about—looking at four approaches to managing conflict using Goldilocks and the Three Bears characters as a template—Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear and Goldilocks. What we’re looking for—as was Goldilocks—is the solution that is just right. Here’s what we’ll find: Focusing on yourself escalates conflict while focusing the needs and concerns of the other party reduces conflict.
It’s that simple.
Retaliation only makes conflict worse
Let’s start with the youngest party, Baby Bear. Being immature, he just automatically reacts to the destruction of his bed by Goldilocks without thinking about it. Turns out, having his bed trashed one was of his Hot Buttons. See: Manage Conflict When it Starts by Learning your Hot Buttons.
What Baby Bear needed to do is remove himself from the conflict so he can get out of Brain Hijack. He’s not thinking straight. See: How to Calm Your Brain in the Middle of Conflict.
Instead, Baby Bear is focused on “getting back” at Goldilocks. He entered a Retaliatory Cycle. The cycle usually starts with anger. This anger causes people to act out—yelling, pounding desktops, etc.
The problem is that when you treat people that way, they react defensively. They could even lash out at you which causes you to react defensively. Hence—the Retaliatory Cycle. The whole mess escalates.
Avoiding or yielding are dead ends with conflict, too
Now, let’s leave the bears for a moment and look at the perpetrator in this story, Goldilocks. Her response to the conflict was all too typical: Avoidance. (It’s hard to blame her, though. Just think how you’d feel if you awoke to find three hungry bears looking at you!) Nobody likes confrontation. The problem is that problems we avoid only get worse. They fester.
Avoidance is the “flight” side of the “fight-or-flight” response that’s triggered inside us when we encounter conflict. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our body has released stress hormones to prepare us for action. Your heart rate and respiration quicken. You’re in Brain Hijack!
A behavior that is similar to avoidance is Yielding. That’s when you give in to the other person, making a show of your agreement but your agreement’s no deeper than the surface. It’s an attempt to make it all “just go away.”
In both behaviors of Avoiding and Yielding, the other party in the conflict can be under the false impression that they’ve “won”—either because they never see you or talk to you or because you didn’t voice concerns at the last meeting.
The power of thoughtfully responding to conflict
Papa Bear, being older, takes a more mature approach than his son. Instead of reacting to Goldilocks, he thoughtfully responds. This shows us an important truth. While you can’t always choose to stay out of conflict, you can choose your response.
What Papa Bear needs is a change of “context.” He needs to ask himself, “What assumptions am I making about the other party?” We’re all guilty of it from time to time. Imagine this scenario. You’re driving on the freeway when another car whizzes past you, egregiously in violation of the speed limit. We become self-righteous and think, “What a jerk!”
However, what if you learned that that speeding car was driven by an expectant father zooming his wife to the ER because her water had broken and new baby was on the way?
Same behavior—speeding—but a totally different interpretation. So, Papa Bear has made a significant step in the right direction to help resolve this conflict.
But could there be even a further step? Let’s go to Mama Bear.
Empathy is the key to managing conflict
It’s the matriarch of the bear family, Mama Bear, who responds fully to the conflict with Goldilocks. From the get-go, she’s objective about the situation. She doesn’t take any of it personally. She stays curious, developing trust, empathy and compassion—all which will serve vital to resolving the conflict.
Mama Bear puts herself in Goldilock’s shoes, trying to see thing from the girl’s point of view. What she needs to do is to get inquisitive and ask clarifying questions: Why are you in our house? Are you in danger? Did you get lost? She needs to genuinely seek to understand.
Also, Mama Bear is mature enough to know that she might not be blameless in this conflict. She takes the time to reflect on her role in the conflict.
Mama Bear’s responses to conflict are all constructive.
Focus on ideas, not people
From the outset, Mama Bear is focused on the issues or ideas at play, not the people.
In our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, we walk participants through nine constructive behaviors that share these common traits: They are focused on the issues or ideas at play, not the people. They focus on tasks and solutions. Constructive conflict behaviors help resolve the problem.
Here’s a look at several of them.
Creating Solutions This is where we brainstorm with the other person, asking questions and trying to create solutions. When this happens, the other party in the conflict turns from adversary to ally. When you work side-by-side with someone it changes the whole dynamic.
Reaching Out Reaching Out means to make the first move, modeling vulnerability and trying to make amends. When communication breaks down, someone has to take the first step to repair it. Why not you? See: The Power of Going First.
To make this happen, create a clear statement of the issue at hand—something unbiased and objective.
Your first task is to reach agreement about the issue causing the conflict. Don’t jump to solutions immediately.
Delay responding Take a break and calm down. When negative emotions subside, it becomes easier to explore what is happening in the conflict. When you’re not upset, you see things more clearly so that when you do respond you’re not trying to get your own way.
Adapting The point here is your mindset. Remain flexible, optimistic. Be willing to compromise and stay productive and professional. Make the best of the situation.
The moral of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is that individual actions can hurt others, break trust and damage relationships. The same can be said whenever we find ourselves in conflict with other people. The key to managing conflict successfully is seeing the conflict from the eyes of the other person and choosing behaviors that move you toward greater collaboration.
Oh, and not eating other people’s food or breaking their furniture is a good idea, too!
Want more information on how you can build your conflict resolution and management skills? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. This online class will provide you the insight and skill-building you need to resolve conflict quickly and build strong, trusting relationships.