Communication Wisdom

Gathered for you

Conflict Beyond Winners & Losers

beyond skills blog boundaries conflict deeper conversations Apr 12, 2023

Conflict is all about how you relate to it. The pitfalls of our ego, and avoidance back into conversational deadends or worse. Too often we find ourselves in a metaphorical courtroom or a boxing ring, or hiding behind a curtain. Whilst words are mightier than the sword it is even more powerful when the swords can be put away. When the words gently rebuild connection, and you find a way through together.


How do you have that difficult conversation when it feels too dangerous or scary?


You know you’ve got conflict with someone because you’ve got a knot in your stomach and an argument running through your head on loop - all the things you’ll definitely say, all the things you imagine them saying, and they are being SO RUDE! There’s that weird-horrible mix of anxious and righteous coursing through your veins. 


When we feel tense, unsafe or that our power is threatened we often jump straight back into a need to ‘claim back my power over’ rather than ’explore power with’.


This is what conflict feels like. If anything is going to change then the conversation needs to happen - you need to get dialogue flowing again. There are three main conflict-traps, and they have everything to do with how you relate to the conflict. 


Conflict is at its most dangerous when it is an Us & Them scenario. A tension created by a way of seeing conflict as a story of winners and losers. 


What are the conflict traps?


🆘 FIRST TRAP:  You believe you are right! (righteousness)

There are two sides and yours is the correct one. In your head ‘They’ are wrong. In your head it is ‘Their fault’. In your head ‘They need to change their behaviour’. 

You relate to this situation through blame.


🆘 SECOND TRAP:  The other person has no idea there is an issue (avoidance)

If you are conflict avoidant then this is your home. You are so upset and the other person is utterly oblivious. Their behaviour remains unchanged and this makes you even more upset. 😶


You relate to this situation through fear.


🆘 THIRD TRAP:  Only you know what needs to be done! (overpowering)

In this instance you are like a bull in a china shop. You trample all over any other suggestions and don’t back down until you get your way. 

You relate to this situation through control.

Between righteousness, avoidance and overpowering you will find yourself in the conflict trap again and again! 


What if you could broach the issue without the fight?

What if the solution to the problem could be co-created?

What if the awkwardness could be sidestepped?


Let’s go back a few steps… After all those years in school, at what point did you learn how to have conflict-conversations? When were you shown the way through troubled waters, and taught how to swim in an ocean of conflict? 


If you are drawing a blank here then you are amongst friends. Our education system generally leaves most people woefully unprepared for the conflict in our adult lives. Despite conflict being a some-what inevitable part of life, you are lucky if you were given any tools to deal with it. 


Conflict is at its most dangerous when it is an Us & Them scenario. A tension created by a way of seeing conflict as a story of winners and losers. Its an inherently hierarchical dynamic, and it the byproduct of a very dominant power dynamic in society. This parent-child, teacher-student, boss-employee. All of these dynamics can be equal, allowing for mutual respect and generosity towards each other. When we feel tense, unsafe or that our power is threatened we often jump straight back into a need to ‘claim back my power over’ rather than ’explore power with’. Ultimately this stems from a mindset that struggles to hold more than one truth at the same time. 


Let’s pause for a moment here… 

How can there be more than one truth in the same moment? 


We each experience reality in a completely unique way. On the physical level we literally can not stand in the same place at the same time as each other. Moving into the emotional level and we each come with and feel an idiosyncratic concoction of emotions in any given moment. These arise from biochemical responses as well as being interwoven with our personal past experiences. Now lets lean into the relational layer. Here we find that we each have a different relationship with the people involved as well as what is happening or has happened. And this is just the tip of the being-alive-iceberg.


“Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you! ~ Dr Seuss”


So as you can probably sense, there is always going to be more than one version of a shared moment ~ multiple true versions of an event at the same time, each seen through the eyes of the beholder. 


What if you approached conflict with the spaciousness wanting to hear each other's version of the situation?


 A willingness to hear the other versions of the moment or issue in question. This opening for the other truths allows room for new ways forward, ones that have not even been named yet, or even thought of.


This little crack in the veneer of Us vs Them shifts the conflict conversation from a winners and losers story and places it into generative shared emergence ~ a spacious potential for co-creating a new and empowering way forward for all involved. 


The reality is that conflict conversations often go badly due to a lack of listening and a winners-losers mindset. 


Now the ears that were deaf are listening again. Now the eyes that were blind can see once more. Now the heart that was closed is open to compassion, allowing creativity and connection to enter the conversation. 


But speak carefully, slow it down and tread lightly here. Find the new footholds that reconnect you rather than slip into the habitual conflict-traps. This takes real-time self awareness to sidestep your usual responses. Try these footholds instead.


5 steps for moving beyond the winner & losers story

1: Get Micro-yes

Ask a short but important question seeking permission to raise the issue. For example “Do you have 5 mins to talk about how that last convo went? Or “I have some ideas on how to improve things. Can I share them with you?”

2: Specify behaviour

Name specifically what you saw or heard using only objective language. Instead of saying “You need to be more reliable” , say “You said you would book a table for us and you didn’t do it.”

 3: Show Impact

Name how the behaviour impacted you. Such as “Because a table wasn’t booked they are now fully booked, and we have you look for somewhere else good to eat last minute.”

 4a: Open it up with an open-listening question

Ask a question that invites them to share their experience of the situation in question. You could say “Was there a particular reason this didn’t happen?”. Or “I’m interested to hear your side…”

 4b: Follow on with an open co-creating question

Ask a question that invites them into dialogue. Try this; “Thank you for sharing, that helps me understand it better. This is what I feel/think we could do, what are your thoughts on it?” Now you are exploring potential solutions - ways forward that work for all involved. Stay here with generosity until you find something that works.

5: Ask for feedback 

Openly invite them to offer feedback to you too. This is transformative. Compared to the norm which is ‘Push Feedback’ - waiting for it to be pushed upon you. You can ‘Pull Feedback’ - by asking directly. Ask them “Is there anything you would like to tell me, or that I could do differently next time?”

The reality is that conflict conversations often go badly due to a lack of listening and a winners-losers mindset. 


What if we could lean into the tension, but with better tools?  This way we could navigate the inevitable conflict of life with more grace, and find solutions that empower all involved. Choose a Conversation Culture instead of a winners and losers culture. 


#boundaries #communicationskills #conflict #negotiation #personaldevelopment #covid19 #family #relationships



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