Posts Tagged ‘conflict triggers’

Ever gone into a difficult conversation reminding yourself to “stay on the mat”,  to “stick to the facts” or to “keep the lid on” and found at some stage (and generally sooner rather than later) that your emotions have run away with you?    There is probably none of us who hasn’t.  This is because whether we like it or not, conflict is always about emotions irrespective of whether we’re hot-blooded or cool-headed by nature and quite independently of whether or not we’re well-intentioned.

In Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro of  Harvard Negotiation Project  fame turn their focus to just this problem.   They identify five core concerns that if ignored or impacted in difficult conversations are guaranteed to lead to strong emotions and to negotiation derailment.   The key to avoiding such unfortunate results in challenging conversations lies in understanding how these five core concerns affect our emotions and those of our partners in conflict.  Once we  do, we become able to prepare for these emotional landmines, to maneuver our way through them skilfully,  to avoid frustration and disaster and to reach satisfying solutions.

The 5 core concerns are as follows:

  1. Appreciation:  we all have a need to feel acknowledged and appreciated.  Statements like “I like your thinking”; “I see where you’re coming from”; “that’s a great point to make” make us feel valued.  Don’t make the mistake of following these up with “but” if you have another point of view you wish to put forward; try “and” instead and acknowledge that both viewpoints have equal validity.
  2. Affiliation: making someone feel that they don’t belong is certain to trigger strong emotions:  “that’s how WE do things here” is not welcoming to a new team member and does not encourage a sense of belonging.  “We’re used to doing XYZ like this here.  How would you tackle it?” is more likely to draw someone in and give them a sense of being valued.
  3. Autonomy: imposing solutions on people pulls the mat out under them and strips them of their autonomy.  Whatever the issue at hand, we do not like to feel tied and bound to someone else’s dictates.  Be careful not to point that authoritative finger and lay down the law in difficult conversations but instead to invite cooperation, contribution and initiative at all times.
  4. Status:  acknowledging someone’s status, be it their expertise, their life-experience or their social or organizational standing is crucial if you wish to avoid major derailment.  Particular caution is advisable around status issues where cultural differences exist between  parties.
  5. Role: who doesn’t want to feel part of the solution?  Including people by carving out a role for them goes a long way in getting and keeping them on board and in tempering the frustration that comes with being overlooked.  Invite someone’s evaluation, ask for their advice on how to proceed or draw them into the resolution process as brainstormers or planners and in that way make them feel essential to the solution.

So for your next difficult conversation, start with yourself: check what needs to happen and how you need to feel to satisfy these five core concerns – and then as ever, step into your conflict partner’s shoes and apply the same five point check making sure that you think of ways to meet their essential needs for appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role.  Then and only then, are you equipped to “keep the lid on” and to reach constructive conflict solutions.


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Don’t you just love the eternal optimists, hell-bent at making you see the bright side of things when all you want is a willing ear and good old moan?  And yet, they have a point that makes a lot of sense:  conflict research agrees that optimists fare a lot better than pessimists when it comes to coping with conflict.  (more…)

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Walking my dog through the woods on a glorious Indian Summer morning, I feel a blister developing on my left heel.  Little wonder:  I’m wearing regular boots – not walking shoes and because it’s not yet winter, I’m wearing them without stockings.   I’m halfway through my walk and have at least 3kms back home.

At first I’m just irritated by it and admonish myself for not dressing appropriately but the pain is low-grade and I muster all of my coaching skills to walk myself through it:  I focus on my long-term goals: what I’m going to do when I’m back home and what my planning for the rest of the week looks like; I mentally structure my walk by breaking it down into chunks, marked by the trees and the path I know so well and in that way make the distance before me seem less daunting and more manageable and,  I distract myself by looking out for mushrooms and birds to while away the time and take my mind off my foot.

But as is the nature of blisters, they seldom just disappear and the problem on my heel won’t be ignored.   Within a short time it has developed into a major pain and I am forced to think seriously about how I’m going to make it back.

When I finally do, I am struck by the similarity between my blister and our inherent reluctance to acknowledge conflict and deal with it timeously.  In fact, my experience with the blister tallies almost perfectly with the phases that we go through in dealing with conflict:

  1. Ignore the problem.  (I feel that something is amiss.  I identify what the problem is but tell myself that this can’t be happening halfway through my walk. Denial.) (more…)

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“What would you say your strengths are and where do you see your weaknesses?”  is a daunting question for most young job interviewees today.   But employers and HR professionals regularly require potential candidates to present well-considered answers to these and similar questions if they are to face down stiff competition and secure sought-after positions.  Apart from disclosing personal Strengths and Weaknesses, job seekers might also be asked to give a break-down of the Opportunities they see in a position as well as any potential Threats to their executing it and how they intend to overcome them.

These four elements, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats make up the acronym SWOT and describe a  change-management tool of the 1950’s and 60’s that has been developed into an easy-to-use instrument for assessing the pros and cons of new or challenging management situations. 


But SWOT analyses are just as valuable to conflict management practitioners and to individuals involved in interpersonal conflict as they are to management and HR executives .  Apart from the obvious application in assessing  concrete conflict situations, SWOT  is  a wonderful tool for understanding and delving deeper into one’s own conflict profile or helping clients better to understand theirs.

To do a SWOT analysis, divide a page into four equal parts.  Head each part as follows:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and ask yourself the following questions:


  • What am I particularly good at in conflict situations?
  • What skills do I have that support me in times of conflict?
  • What can I rely on about myself in conflict encounters?
  • What do I do best in conflict?

Strengths here would include skills such as listening skills, thinking on one’s feet, staying calm, keeping a cool head, having a great sense of humour, not taking things personally, being able to focus or  having good communicative skills.


  • What trips me up time and again in conflict encounters?
  • Which conflict behaviours have I most regretted in the past?
  • What triggers the “worst” in me?
  • Where do I feel most vulnerable in conflict?

Weaknesses might include traits and habits such as short temperedness, a tendency to over-react, a tendency towards emotional flooding, feeling personally attacked or speaking first and thinking later.


Here answers could include insights such as:  conflict is the opportunity to clear the air, to re-boot a relationship, to make one’s needs known, to lay down or define boundaries, to explore new directions and to bring about change.


  • What threatens a positive outcome to conflict?
  • What might cause a conflict encounter to fail?
  • What would make engaging in conflict futile?
  • What outcome would I want to avoid?

Threats might include the risk that one manages the conflict situation poorly, that the encounter does not achieve the desired results,  that the other party is not willing to resolve, that relationships are damaged or that situations worsen through engaging in conflict.

Using a SWOT assessment in this way not only reveals our desires and fears surrounding conflict but more importantly, uncovers the areas in which we are lacking essential skills in dealing with conflict.  And with self-knowledge as ever the starting point for conflict competence, such assessment can then be followed by focussed training and application to close these gaps in our conflict capabilities and provide us or the client with an invaluable resource when it comes to conflict management.

In concrete conflict situations, a SWOT analysis can help one  prepare for difficult conversations and  take precautions to avoid pitfalls of one’s own making.  It can also highlight one’s strengths and allow one to play these to one’s advantage.  If I for example know that I have a great sense of humour, I can use this to deflect tension and improve communication.  If on the other hand I know that my weakness is a tendency to take things personally, I can be on my guard for this response, watch out for the warning signs and step back well in time from situations that would otherwise cause me to react blindly and to my disadvantage.

The question I always like best is  the one about the opportunities in conflict:  this is where we are often most surprised by what a simple SWOT analysis can reveal about some of our deepest fears and needs surrounding conflict:  the desire to maintain or to re-establish relationships, to find our needs understood and answered and to improve communication.     Isn’t that what conflict competence is all about?

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Sharing my life with Apollo, a castrated Parson Russell terrier, I know all about defensiveness.   Funny, cheerful and easy-going as he is, he can turn into a short-tempered piece of trouble if big dogs spend too much time sniffing his nether regions.    This is because as a castrate, he gives off a confusing scent to non-neutered male dogs who tend to sniff him longer than usual trying to work out whether he’s female or not.

Defensiveness is defined in conflict literature as a reaction to a real or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of wellbeing or self-esteem.  Such threats or attacks generally focus on matters of honour, virtue, reputation or integrity and are always an indicator of deep-seated vulnerabilities that we are at pains to protect.

In the case of Apollo, the prolonged interest in what lies below his tail raises his fear that the attention he is receiving is going to lead to an act of dominance on the part of the other dog.   And being the terrier that he is, he’s not going to let that happen in a hurry and protects himself by attacking first.  The other dog, taken aback by this defensive blow out of the blue particularly from someone who barely reaches his kneecaps, usually beats a hasty retreat.  In Apollo’s case, the act of sniffing (the trigger) is in itself harmless dog-talk, but a terrier’s reluctance to be dominated (his vulnerability) is the underlying sensibility that gives rise to the unmeasured defensive behaviour.

Not unlike our friends in the animal world,  we bluff, growl, ignore and deny  in order to protect deep-seated vulnerabilities which we feel are under attack.   Our defensive responses are similarly less about the object of our rebuttal than about the underlying value that we seek to defend.    What  “I didn’t take the money” really says,  is “I’m an honest person”,  what “I didn’t leave my child alone in the car” says,  is “I’m a responsible parent” and what “I didn’t say that about you” says, is “I’m a good friend”.

So, what are our most common defensive responses, how do they impact a conflict situation and how best do we deal with defensiveness?

Defensive responses fall into 5 main categories:

  1. Denial.  “I didn’t do it.”
  2. Blame.  “It’s not my fault.  You should have….”
  3. Justification.  “I only did it because…”
  4. Deflection.  “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it.  Why are you picking on me?”
  5. Withdrawal.  This includes blanking, ignoring and other forms of shutting down communication.

Defensiveness impacts conflict interactions by:

  1. creating smoke screens and confusion around the real issues at stake
  2. increasing the surface area of the conflict by introducing a further (hidden) element into the conflict discourse
  3. hijacking the communication process
  4. encouraging the conflict partner to become defensive in turn
  5. keeping us from taking responsibility in conflict

Dealing with defensiveness:

Declaratory statements such as “You’re being defensive” are only likely to illicit a  “No, I’m not” in reply followed by more defensive toing and froing and an escalation of the conflict discourse. This is not the way to go.

A three-step approach is more likely to counter defensive feelings effectively:

  1. adopt a curious state of mind at the first signs of defensiveness
  2. ask yourself what vulnerability is under threat in this conflict encounter
  3. attempt to address the vulnerability empathetically

“I know you’re a good friend and that’s why I’m surprised to hear that you said that about me. ” is much more likely to expand communication and allow the real issue to surface than an exchange based on the back-and-forth of accusation and denial.

And,  if the key to breaking through defensiveness lies in uncovering the root of the other’s defensive response, then the best way to do this is to start with ourselves:  taking responsibility for our own defensiveness, identifying the defensive behaviours that we most commonly resort to and exploring the vulnerabilities that we protect by responding defensively is the best way  to understand defensiveness in others.  As ever, walking in the other’s shoes (or in the case of Apollo walking on his paws), is the master-class in perspective-shifting and the most fundamental tool for constructive conflict resolution.

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At birth, Achilles, the formidable hero of Greek mythology was prophesied death by mortal wounding.   Thinking that forewarned is forearmed, his doting mother Thetis took him off to the River Styx and dipped him into its flowing waters head-first,  ensuring  through this ritual bathing in the sacred stream, that he would become invincible.   What she overlooked in the process was part of his heel where she held him firmly between forefinger and thumb – and exactly on that spot,  kept dry by his mother’s loving touch,   he was wounded by a poisoned arrow years later and died.

We all have our Achilles heel, our hot buttons or vulnerable spots that regularly trip us up and in a worst-case scenario,  lead to our downfall.  Having our Achilles heel exposed or our hot buttons pushed, triggers instantaneous responses or knee-jerk reactions that we often live to regret.   For the purpose of understanding conflict and how it affects our interactions with others, an awareness of our Achilles heel, knowing the triggers that lead to the wounding, being able to anticipate a hot button deployment and considering helpful ways of dealing with them are an essential exercise on the way to conflict competence.

The poisons that cause hot button reactions today don’t come packaged in arrows but can nonetheless be just as injurious.  They differ according to the social context that we find ourselves in – so for example, the hot buttons in intimate relationships will be somewhat different to those between team members in the workplace,  while those between parent and child will be different to those in a public space such as on the roads or when dealing with  the service industry.   Whether in the form of attacks on our intelligence, our competence, our values and beliefs, our status, honour or reputation, our role or the group to which we belong,  these emotional triggers all present the ideal weapons with which to connect with someone’s Achilles heel and to set off a hot button reaction.

The consequence of such hot button responses are sadly, well documented – from road rage to crimes of passion, school killings and hostage takings to incomprehensible maternal infanticide and the extermination of entire families by a single member.  At a less spectacular level,  hot buttons often lead to deeds and words that we wish we had not done or uttered and which result at best,  in an increase in the confusion in our lives and damage to communication but just as often leave relationships in disarray or breakdown.

The first step in overcoming your Achilles heel is simply to know your hot buttons!  Divide your life up into its essential areas and explore truthfully where your hot buttons lie in each of them: is it the experience of being put down, of not being listened to, of feeling that you’re being taken advantage of,  being ignored,  feeling abandoned or being made to feel a fool in front of others?  Self-awareness is always the first step towards change.  Knowing your hot buttons is the crucial prerequisite to changing your conflict responses and the best antidote to poisoned arrows.

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