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The power of "going first" in conflict

In conflict, you’re always the one who needs to change. Always. Because you’re the only person you can control. Even if you’re right.

Because . . . you’re never 100 percent right. Most of the time, we have some role to play in the conflict, no matter how small. The question to ask is “is digging in my heels and waiting for the other person to move first going to give me the results I want?”

So, go first. That’s the first step toward collaboration. At Noble Edge, we call this Reaching Out. In this post, we will give you a step-by-step rundown of how you can “go first” the next time conflict arises.

First off, calm your mind

When you’re in the middle of a tense conflict, your brain isn’t working at full capacity. Under stress, your body has released hormones such as adrenaline to keep you safe. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat.

This is called Brain Hijack.

In Brain Hijack, the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex is shut down. You become disoriented. You find it hard to make complex decisions. No longer can we see multiple perspectives. We lapse into “I’m right and you’re wrong” thinking.

Diplomatically remove yourself from the conflict and get somewhere safe and quiet. You don’t have to talk about this right now. You can take a break, get the blood back into your brain. When you’re alone, engage in a calming activity such as deep breathing, meditation, prayer or progressive relaxation.

Next, get honest with yourself

Don’t apologize if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. That’s called Yielding or Avoiding in conflict management and it’s a destructive behavior. It’s insincere, and the other party will immediately sniff it out.

So . . . think harder.

You’re not perfect. Perhaps there was some misstep you made. Maybe you didn’t express yourself well enough. Maybe you just need to apologize for simply allowing the standoff to go on for so long.

What’s called for here is an attitude of humility—but not in how the word is often misused. To be humble doesn’t mean you necessarily think you’re a bad person. To be humble is the think accurately about yourself. In the context of conflict, it means being honest with yourself about your role in creating and/or fostering the conflict. You might have said something that the other person misinterpreted. Remember, the most common result of communication is misunderstanding. Get curious and see if you can uncover anything you have control over.

But don’t go overboard, assuming it’s all your fault, falling on your sword or accepting responsibility for something you didn’t do. We’re not responsible for other people’s feelings—we ARE responsible for our actions.

Now, time for “perspective taking”

While you’re in this reflective frame of mind, think about the other person in the conflict. What do you think is going through their head right now? Are they anxious? Frustrated? Try to anticipate what they might say about the conflict. Challenge your assumptions about what their words or actions mean. Could you be misinterpreting?

In other words, put yourself in their shoes.

In our leadership workshop The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, we call this Perspective Taking.

Perspective Taking doesn’t require you to agree with what the person said—just to understand why they said it.

How to Reach Out

Now that you got things sorted out inside your head, it’s time to get busy in the “real world.” It’s time to Reach Out.

Don’t jump to a discussion of the issue(s) at hand. Let your first conversation focus on agreeing to a time to talk about the issue. Express that you want to work with them to come up with a solution you can both get behind.

As you’re preparing for this meeting, develop a clear statement of the issue and hand—an unbiased, objective statement of the issue. Show you took their point of view into mind when drafting this statement.

At that meeting, start with your objective statement, and then own up to your contribution to the conflict, admitting responsibility for your actions and sincerely apologizing when appropriate. If we’re asking the other person to be vulnerable and explore perhaps their part in the disagreement, you need to demonstrate that kind of vulnerability.

Now, encourage the other person to share their feelings—as you’ve role modeled for them. Empathize and acknowledge their perspective—which isn’t necessarily the same thing as agreeing with them. Seek first to understand.

This can be difficult. What if they reject your “olive branch”? What if they yell at you? It’s much safer to avoid the problem and hope it goes away. The problem is, it doesn’t. It festers. Avoiding the person heightens the conflict.

Even if your delivery isn’t as elegant as it could be, if you reach out with a sincere desire to understand the other person, it will make a difference. You’ve shown the other person you are willing to move beyond the deadlock and start fresh.

Now, ask open-ended questions to understand their point of view. Genuinely seek to understand. Paraphrase their answers back to them to make sure you’re on the same page, maybe have them define terms or give examples.

Wrapping up

Life is messy. And some conflicts can’t be perfectly resolved. Reaching Out includes behaviors such as trying to repair emotional damage caused by the conflict, making amends to the other person, and taking the first steps to get communications started again. When communications have slowed, someone has to take the first step to get interactions going again. Why not you?

Want to learn more? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. During this interactive online class, participants receive a personalized report of their Conflict Dynamics Profile that measures their tendency to engage in constructive and destructive behaviors. Participants then have real-time opportunities to practice and skill build those behaviors that de-escalate conflict and bring about more collaboration.

Did you like this post? You might like How to Calm Your Brain in the Middle of Conflict


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