Conflict – it’s a word that crops up in conversations all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an organization where conflict – and it’s mishandling – haven’t been a topic of concern. It’s part of life; you can’t avoid it, because it’s part of the human condition that we won’t always agree – and that’s a good thing, because without different points of view there would be no learning or progress. A recent Wall Street Journal article (Feb. 14, 2014 ) revealed that some companies today promote and hire leaders who intentionally cultivate conflict – but in ways that result in learning and collaboration, not winners and losers.
There are varying definitions of conflict, but inevitably they suggest – or explicitly state – that conflict has to do with opposing forces in which there will be a winner and a loser. The word generally has implications of violence. Not a pretty picture, and with that kind of meaning it’s easy to see why many people avoid conflict.
Interestingly, when I coach people who are dealing with conflict, they invariably talk about it as something outside of themselves – as though it has a life of its own and is beyond their control. When they talk specifically about a conflict with another person they talk about it as though the conflict either lives on its own, in the space between them, or in the other person. One CEO that I coached, we’ll call him John, insisted that the conflict he had with Sarah, a member of his leadership team, existed entirely in her. When I would ask him to describe the conflict he would tell me everything Sarah would do, including her tone of voice and his interpretation that she was intentionally disrespectful – and he was certain that his interpretation was right. John had struggled for several years with this, and felt quite stuck – Sarah was a valuable member of the team and brought considerable value to the company, and at the same time John was close to saying he could no longer tolerate her disrespectful behavior and was thinking of letting her go.
What hadn’t occurred to John was that he was as much a participant in the conflict as Sarah was – until I asked him whether the conflict would still exist if for some reason he left the company. He thought for a moment, then said no, that since the relationship would no longer be there, neither would the conflict. I then pointed out that he, therefore, must also be part of the problem. He paused, and looked at me with a mixture of hostility and curiosity. After a minute he asked me to explain.
I sometimes use that same question with myself when I find I’m thinking that something in the world is stressing me out, as though the stress is being generated by the world – by another person’s behavior, or an illness, or something else that I do not like. I stop and reflect on the question of whether the stress would still be there if I disappeared. And of course the answer is no, because the stress lives inside of me. So it is with conflict. A situation is a conflict situation because you define it as such. If another person is angry with me, I can react with anger as well – and we will be in conflict, each of us trying to prove ourselves right; each of us trying to win at the expense of the other.
But I don’t have to respond with anger. If I have sufficient self-awareness, and sufficient ability to regulate my reactions to the world, I can stay calm, curious and compassionate – I think of these as the three Cs of self-regulation. When you use the three Cs effectively, conflict can become collaboration.
I asked John to reflect carefully on what happened to him when he met with Sarah. I had worked with John for over a year, and had taught him a meditation technique that he practiced regularly, so he had some skill at self-reflection.
Self-awareness is a very simple concept: it means knowing what’s going on inside of you – what emotions you’re experiencing, what physical sensations your body is generating, what thoughts are going through your head. Although it’s conceptually simple, developing and using self-awareness can be remarkably difficult.
After thinking for a minute, John said he got tense as soon as he knew Sarah was coming to talk with him, and when she would say things that he thought were disrespectful he would get defensive and argue the opposite point of view. I then asked him how he thought Sarah felt in these conversations. Again he stopped and stared at me for a minute, then said he’d never thought about that.
One of the interesting things about self-awareness is that if you are not self aware you can’t be very aware of other people either – your own inner experience will continually generate distractions that prevent you from really seeing what’s going on for others. Your interpretations of the event become distorted by all this inner noise. Self-awareness enables you to calm the inner noise so you can see what’s actually happening more accurately.
It was only after John became aware of his own inner process that he could reflect on what Sarah’s experience might be. He realized that it must also be stressful for Sarah to be in the conversations with him, knowing that he would be tense and defensive. With these insights John decided to shift his behavior the next time he met with Sarah, to center and calm himself, to feel compassion towards Sarah to help calm her inevitable anxiety, and to be curious about what was behind the things she was saying.
We react to everything we experience. That’s what it means to be alive – to sense and respond to the world around us. The art of managing conflict isn’t about not reacting; it’s about reacting effectively. In potential conflict situations reacting effectively means checking your hard-wired, fight or flight response, recognizing the inherent richness and opportunity in the disagreement, and moving to engage rather than defeat the person you are talking with. Reacting ineffectively means ignoring – or failing to see at all – the opportunities, and letting your ego and primitive emotional responses drive your behavior. Unfortunately that’s the path most often taken, because it’s the one that most often happens by default.
If you think of conflict as a win / lose situation, then reframing the situation in your mind – as a conversation for discovery or learning or resolution – eliminates the conflict – at least for you. But our minds are not simple things; they are more than our intellectual thoughts. It is easy to say “okay, I should stay calm.” It is quite another thing to stay calm. So reframing a conversation in your mind entails not just a thought, but also shifting your emotional and physical state.
For John, reframing the conversation with Sarah involved first finding a way to calm himself, so he wasn’t wired for defense the minute he saw her coming. He did that using the meditation technique I had taught him, focusing his attention on his breath and, when the defensive thoughts and feelings came up, gently refocusing on his breath, letting the defensiveness subside on its own. As his defenses relaxed he was able to accept that Sarah might have a very different interpretation of what she was doing and saying, and that his behavior had actually been pushing her to behave in exactly the ways he disliked. So he developed compassion for her – recognizing that she too was struggling on some level with how to have an effective conversation with him. And from that place of calm and caring he was able to become curious – to genuinely want to know what was important to her in the conversation, and why she saw things the way she did.
It is surprising how often reframing a conversation for yourself influences the other person to reframe it as well. John told me that as he took this new approach to talking with Sarah, and as he respectfully asked her questions from a place of genuine interest, he could see her physically relax, her voice became less strident, and she became open to a genuine exchange of ideas rather than trying to win the battle. In short, John’s reframing led Sarah to reframe the conversation as well.
While there are many ways of defining and thinking about conflict, I find it most useful to consider that ultimately it is how you define a situation – not just intellectually, but emotionally, physically and spiritually – that determines whether or not it is conflict. Someone else’s conflict doesn’t have to be yours, even if you’re both in the same conversation.
How do you achieve this reframing? Until recently techniques like meditation were often viewed with suspicion, as practices made up by unrealistic idealists. But today hard science is providing remarkable insights into how meditation works in the brain and the body, and the values it brings on many levels – to individuals in terms of their health, well being and effectiveness; to relationships; to teams; to organizations; and to entire cultures.
Scientists are using brain scanners that provide a detailed view of the various areas of the brain that are active under different situations. Using these tools they have identified areas of the brain that become active under stress and that trigger fight or flight responses by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream; they have also identified areas of the brain that are effective at regulating the fight or flight regions of the brain. One of the changes they see in meditators’ brains is a strengthening of the regulatory parts of the brain and a diminishing of the areas that trigger fight or flight. Essentially that’s what John did in his conversations with Sarah – he used his meditation techniques to quiet the fight or flight part of his brain, so that it didn’t dictate his behavior, and activate the parts of the brain that produce a sense of caring and curiosity toward others.
While the brain scans tell us how this works in the meditator, an important question is why this had the effect it did on Sarah. After all, she was not a meditator, and wasn’t even aware that John was choosing to change the nature of their relationship. She certainly wasn’t intentionally participating in changing it. But another area of brain research has shown us that something called limbic resonance occurs between two people who are interacting with one another. The limbic system is comprised of the areas of the brain that create and regulate emotions. Limbic resonance refers to the notion that when a person expresses an emotion – even subtly and unconsciously, through facial expressions or tone of voice – they will generate a similar emotional state in the person(s) they are talking to. In other words, when someone is sending emotional signals to you, your brain is likely to resonate with theirs, reproducing in you an emotional state similar to the one they are experiencing. We’ve all experienced it, though you may not have known what it was. Think of a time you heard someone laughing loudly, and found yourself smiling, or even laughing yourself. Film makers are masters of limbic resonance – when you see someone in a film who is expressing sadness, or fear, you are likely to experience the same emotion.
So when John changed his emotional state to one of calm, caring and curiosity, he influenced Sarah’s emotional state to change as well. He was able to do this because his meditation practice enabled him to shift the state of his brain, and Sarah’s brain naturally resonated with that.
It is not that meditation solves everything. A common misconception among some early meditators in the West was that if you meditated enough, you would somehow be a perfect human being who always knew the right thing to do. Meditation does not do that for us. What it does do is allow us to use the most powerful tool we have – our brain – more effectively; it enables us to overcome primitive urges and drives that undermine our effectiveness in all areas of our lives, and lets us live lives that are more effective, meaningful and satisfying.
Conflict becomes collaboration when you change your mind.
What I’m suggesting is not easy, but powerful skills are never easy to master.
Whether it’s a stranger, a friend or family member, or someone at work, conflict can be toxic. But it doesn’t have to be. With the right awareness, intention and self-management, it can be an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to build stronger relationships. It’s up to you.