There’s a lot out there written on conflict from how to ask what you really want and how to understand what the other side really wants.
But what I have seen from those materials is that most of them have been written in bubbles using armchair philosophy with almost zero empirical evidence and applicability in real life.
It’s like the case with the orange. One side just wants the orange bark while the other side wants the inside of the orange. You solve the case by giving them both what they need and there you have it, you’ve solved the conflict.
In real life, both sides want the entire orange and they are not willing to budge a centimeter until they get it and that’s why I’m making this guide. No more armchair philosophy, no more talking in the bubble. We are entering the real world and this is how you will solve the conflicts and get what you want.
Chunking down conflict into primordial pieces
Conflict has multiple different layers which all play different roles and parts. And the biggest gain for you is going to be figuring out where exactly is your conflict playing out.
You will use a different method for different situations so this guide will serve as an arsenal of weapons for conflicts and you will just pick the right tool for the right situation. It’s like having a toolbox with a hammer, a drill, a screwdriver, pliers and many more inside and you use the one which you need at that moment. And we’ll call that our Conflict Toolbox.
With that in mind, let’s start with:
1. Level of conflict (emotional – rational)
Level of conflict helps us perceive where exactly is the conflict playing out. The two possible options are emotional and rational.
Emotional is the most common one. In fact, a rational conflict is so rare that I’ve seen it happen only once in my entire life. Nevertheless it happens and it’s going into our Conflict Toolbox.
Emotional conflict is a conflict based on emotions and for it to be solved, it needs to have an emotional solution, not a logical one.
The example is when your wife gets upset that you came 10 minutes late for dinner and you bought her diamond earrings to fix that. But they don’t have that effect because the level of conflict is played in the emotional part, where your wife wants you to care and make an effort. So you will only fix it by displaying care and effort, not by trying to buy your way back.
A logical solution to an emotional problem is destined to fail.
One more example is your boss who doesn’t want to give you that promotion. He is worried that you might take his job further up if you keep this pace. He is frightened and scared and uses defensive emotional mechanisms to cover it up.
No amount of justifying to him is going to fix that because you are appealing to his logic. You need to solve his emotional pain – being scared and frightened of you- and tackle that problem with an emotional response that will calm those fears down.
Instead of telling him that you won’t take his job, prove it to him by displaying family as your number one priority in life and proving to him that a higher end job would just take away precious time from them.
Show him that you have interesting hobbies and that you are not simply “John from work” but “John the mountain-climber” or “John the National Dart Champion.” Make an emotional bond which will alleviate the concerns from the other side. Then, and only then, will you be able to solve that conflict.
Remember that when dealing with people, you are dealing with emotional beings who only use logic to justify their behaviors. But in rare cases, the conflict can be rational.
Rational conflicts happen when the logic of one proposal meets head with the logic of another proposal. It’s one of the least studied areas of life because there is not a lot of people having conflict only on a pure logical base. Most of us are victims of our narrow understanding of the world cognitive biases and beliefs to be able to put them aside and have a conflict based only on logic.
I’ve even used a cognitive bias myself when describing rational conflict by stating that “it’s so rare that I’ve seen it only once in my life” which is an anecdotal evidence and falls under the information bias.
But if you ever find yourself in a strictly rational conflict, the best way to solve it is by finding a unique angle (perspective) which will make your agenda stick but will also help the other side.
Conflicts are everywhere and if we don’t decide which fights to take, we will lose our minds. With that, we are coming to the second layer of conflict.
2. Scale of conflict (short-term or long-term)
The scale of conflict is really important. Some short-term conflicts can be left unattended but the long-term ones should be addressed as soon as possible and here is an example:
You’re working with a fellow colleague on a project and he forgets to add a really important piece of code in the program. Because of this, you just gained another week of work on your back.
If this is a one-time thing and he made a mistake because of some other problems currently happening in his life, then it’s okay. It happens to everyone.
But if this shows to you that your colleague is sloppy and that he isn’t detail-oriented, then you know that similar problems will keep popping up in the future and this should be addressed as soon as possible.
The most important things here is to assess if this behavior will repeat itself in the future or if this is a one-time mistake. If it’s a one-time mistake, you don’t need to make a huge deal about it (even though you need to inform your colleague about the problem) but if it’s going to happen again and again, you need to deal with the problem asap.
As Tony Robbins said “Kill the monster while it’s small” which means that you need to address the problem before it gets out of control.
3. Proximity of conflict (four decisions)
This is my favorite part of conflict management. The proximity of conflict can be defined as the importance of the relationship you have with the person with whom you’re having conflict.
Depending on the relationship, these are the four decisions you can take:
Exit is all about removing yourself from the situation. This is something I do in 99% of the situations because I only deeply care about 1% of the things in this world. Everything else is really not worth arguing for.
With Exit, you simply move physically from that environment; or if it’s digital, just turn off the website and that’s it. It takes a little bit of time for you to get used to this but when you do, it will be one of the most liberating experiences of your life. Playing “I’m walking away” by Craig David in your head helps a lot!
Neglect happens when you think you can’t change the situation so you just leave it like that, lowering any effort from your side to a minimum. This is mostly the case with a thick family member who is bullying everyone else but nobody can do anything about that. So you just accept that this is one war you won’t win and leave it be.
You might think that neglect is quite rare… until you remember your teenage years where you had almost no power in your household. You had to do chores that you absolutely hated so you tried to do them with the least possible effort. I know it was vacuuming the house for me – it was one of the worst things ever and I hated it from the bottom of my heart.
Neglect is everywhere around you, from the people at DMV who are half-asleep doing their job to the 17-year-old kid serving you fries at McDonald’s.
Persevere means that you don’t have enough influence to change the current situation but you are building it for the future. This is the case of idiosyncrasy at work- what can you wear?
If you are a professor for 6 months and want to wear khaki shorts to work, it will never happen. But if you work there for a couple of years, build your reputation and influence and then wear khaki sorts to work, nobody will say anything to you.
Voice is a direct confrontation of the problem head-on. This is where you stop your tracks and have the argument/conflict at that moment.
Voice doesn’t happen that often because people are in different situations and using Voice means that you are tackling the problem (and the other person) head on. And for this, you need to ready for the consequences. If it’s your boss you are confronting on a meeting, think about the position you are currently in and if Voice is actually the best option to go for.
We have covered the layers of conflict and now it’s time to see what our Conflict Toolbox says about it.
4. How to gain the upper hand
Conflicts pave the way to opportunities and if we use the right tool from our Conflict Toolbox, we will gain the upper hand in it.
A master of this was Dale Carnegie and he explained all of it in his best-selling classical book How to Win Friend & Influence People. Dale’s philosophy can be summarized in to playing the upper hand by actually letting the other person be right, appear great (especially in public) and letting them know that they sit on top of you.
Stroking the other person’s ego will help you get what you want because you are making the other side appear so great that they show you “some mercy” by actually giving you what you want. But the catch here is that you’ve already done the hard work by yielding so that they have no other option than to give you what you want – because doing that will help them look even better in the eyes of other people.
Not only will they appear smart, brilliant and on top of all right – but they will also show grace, mercy, thoughtfulness and consideration.
Just think about it – how many times have you snubbed at the person who was condescending you in any manner. I know I did because nobody likes to be condescended but a lot of us if we have the opportunity, love to “teach someone else a lesson” or “show them a thing or two.”
We are social creatures who have dominance hierarchies and it’s inevitable that ego will come into play. It’s in our best interest to have it as a great servant instead of a horrible master.
So the next time you’re in a conflict, set your ego aside and see how you can actually make the other person look better – it will help your cause.
Pack your Conflict Toolbox and off you go
We’ve dissected conflict into its primordial layers and found out that conflict can:
- Have an emotional or rational level
- Be on a short-term or long-term scale
- Have four different relationships regarding proximity: Exit, Neglect, Persevere, Voice
We have talked about how to actually deal with conflict and how you can turn it into an opportunity for yourself. Here, we talked about the age-old wisdom of Dale Carnegie and his message of stroking the ego from the classic “How To Win Friend & Influence People.”
And now you have your Conflict Toolbox packed with different tools which you can use in different situations.
Off you go into the world of conflict or better said – the world of opportunities