Conflict is easy to fall into. How can we get out?
When Marvin (pseudonym) was a young and eager banking sales professional he decided on a new approach for engaging his institutional clients. He will polarize his audience through a regular newsletter; some people will really love it, others will hate it and that's ok. This polarization will grow his following of enthusiasts. It worked very well for Marvin, who is no longer in banking and is now a digital marketing consultant. In the 5 years since Marvin told me about this intriguing strategy, I have been reflecting about how I could become more controversial in my writing and thereby find my core following. Recently, I realized that this was never going to happen. My personality is all about finding unifying principles to bring different people together instead of looking for division lines. Intentionally trying to polarize, even if around harmless topics, is really against my core values. Moreover, with the political divides we are seeing around the world, I often feel frustrated about the toxic and destructive effects of polarization. In her book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Amanda Ripley talks about how we get stuck in situations where we hate the other side so much that we cannot imagine how we could respect and interact with them ever again. The book is a captivating anatomy of conflict. Ripley unravels the understories of gangs in Chicago, FARC members in Colombia, sectorial conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland and one very contentious home owners association in California. One of my favorite stories is about the unlikely cultural exchange of two groups: a very liberal religious jewish synagogue congregation from New York city and a very conservative cohort of evangelical Christian prison guards from rural Michigan. The setup is practically comical. So are the stereotypes held by the groups before meeting each other. It all ends with a great friendship but the process of getting there is the fascinating part. There is a lot to learn from it. The book is a pleasure to read and it's extremely thought-provoking. Here are five lessons Ripley shares about getting out of High Conflict:
1. Investigate the understory - identify the sources of disagreement and what people really care about. This often can be done with the help of a neutral mediator who can ask the right questions and get people to share their points of view and concerns (instead of digging their heels further in their stated positions). For example, in the case of the Jewish liberals and conservative prison guards, both groups were scared that the other side would hate them because of who they were. After further investigation they realized that both groups were also curious people who cared about criminal justice reform. At work we often face similar situations when one team or individual takes a certain position ("we should work on project A") and another team takes the opposite one (project "A is a complete waste of time"!). That's when war starts with each team trying to prove the other is stupid or lazy. Instead, more time should be spent trying to understand the sources of disagreement: the thought process, real concerns and prior experiences.
2. Reduce the binary - try to not form unnecessary groups and if impossible, form more than two. Then mix and match the participants and create new traditions and routines together. Part of the cultural exchange involved the New Yorkers and Michiganders staying at each others' houses. It also included mixing them up to brainstorm ideas for prison reforms. In the workplace, if for example, the sales and marketing departments are constantly in conflict, invite the product department along, shuffle the teams and get them to brainstorm new solutions to address customer challenges. Get people out of the office and do fun activities together. Solidify the relationship by creating cross-functional squads.
3. Marginalize the fire starters - pay attention to the people around you who try to divide the world into "us-versus-them", "good-versus-bad". We all know politicians who exploit this strategy very effectively but we also meet this kind of people at work or in our social interactions. They thrive on conflict and try to instigate it to benefit their own agenda. Don't let them. I have been in numerous situations where a counterpart tried to vilify another colleague or department . They would give the final negative verdict about a project or a relationship before I even started working with the other party. It has always been difficult but often necessary to learn to ignore these people and to construct your own narrative.
4. Buy time and make space - it's important to slow down conflict and to not react immediately and instead, assess the situation, listen to the other side and reflect on your role in this all. Psychologists John and Julie Gottman discovered the "Magic Ratio" in a longitudinal study of married couples. They gave couples 15 minutes to solve a conflict in their marriage and saw that that couples that stayed together 9 years after this experiment had 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions when dealing with conflict. Wow, right?! The positive interactions, such as being interested in what the other party said, empathizing and apologizing when needed, and even making jokes helped bridge the gap in positions and work towards resolving conflict. Another strategy highlighted by Ripley is asking oneself a sequence of 3 questions before reacting to a situation:
Does it need to be said?
Does it need to be said by me?
Does it need to be said by me right now?
5. Complicate the narrative - We have a tendency to simplify the narrative and see things in black and white. This can make conflict difficult to untangle. Curiosity is an important way out. Ask more questions. Broaden your perspective. Think: what is the question that nobody is asking? what else do I want to know? where do I feel torn?
What about you, what are some of the strategies that have helped you deal with conflict?