Why Perspective Matters in Conflict


When I experience conflict (or what I often call, misalignment) with someone, I can feel energy moving through my body, I get butterflies in my stomach, and I almost feel flush. Not only do I have the physical experience, but I get caught up in my head, running scenario after scenario. I fill in their story along with my own, filling in the blanks with all the things I think they would say — often making their thoughts about me worse than they actually are. Regardless of the conflict, when faced with confronting either my own mistake or the mistake of someone else, one story always remains — the talk track that “I can’t do this.”

“I can’t do this” is about survival.

That talk track puts us in flight or fight mode — our lizard brain takes over and we’re looking for survival. It becomes priority. In survival mode, we can lose up to 70% of our cognitive function. It’s why we feel rattled, why we can’t think straight, why the energy in our body is strong — we’ve got adrenaline pumping through like we need to run from danger. Our bodies are preparing to run. Our brains stop working so our bodies can move faster. If you’re in fight or flight mode, you don’t want to form a committee to make the best decision, you act first, then determine later if it was the best course of action.

They won’t find me here! Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

In our current reality, our lizard brain is triggered not because we’re running from a bear but because we’re in conflict with someone. It’s our natural survival response — get to safety.

The Real Question

The truth is, conflict is inevitable. It happens to all of us. We all work with difficult people, we all make mistakes and need to own up to them, we all don’t see eye-to-eye with everyone we encounter. There is no way to actually avoid conflict unless you live in a hole and only binge watch Netflix. Avoidance is still a choice and does not reduce the inevitability of conflict.

Here’s the shift — Most insights into managing conflict focus on the outcome and the process — Here’s the 5 steps to conflict conversations; How to manage conflict, a 3 step process — but what most insights ignore is how to manage yourself in conflict. The tools provided are strategy based and can at least provide some actionable way forward, but when you can’t cope with the anxiety and fear, those tools are mostly pointless. So, here’s the real question: What do I do with me? How can I deal with my fear, and get through the talk track that “I can’t do this?” I can’t use “I” statements or other strategies if I can’t get myself into the conversation to start with.

How to move from survival mode to embracing conflict

I’ve learned a lot since my early days, and now have learned to embrace and even enjoy the moments when conflict takes place. It’s where learning lives. It’s where things actually get better.

The first step in embracing conflict is actually recognizing that on the other side of conflict is an improved state. It’s where better lives. There’s a phrase that has really stuck with me in the last few years, and it’s this:

“Don’t let the short-term get in the way of the long-term”

By taking the long-view, we start to see that the conflict itself is one step in a longer, better path. Often, when faced with conflict, it feels all consuming, like it’s the only thing we can see. But the truth is, it’s a small piece of a much larger story. Keeping the larger story in your mind, and focusing on the long-term shifts the perspective that surrounds the conflict. For example, if my spouse and I are misaligned, I know that the conversation we need to have is difficult and won’t be “fun,” but I also know that if I want to have a long-term healthy relationship, and that I want our kids to see us as healthy, loving parents, that conversation is necessary for the long-term success. By taking that perspective, the conversation releases it’s “all-consuming” grip and finds it’s rightful place as a small part of a much larger story.

This shift in perspective begins to quell the power of the lizard brain, it calls us back to reality and the fact that despite the conflict, we’re going to be ok.

The full post can be found here.


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Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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