The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict, attitude and preparation
By: Ann L. Begler
Sometimes when we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict it seems this whirlwind that caught us by the tail came from nowhere. While those surprising events certainly happen, most often we are actually aware we will be entering a conflict situation before it happens. It may be a forthcoming conversation, a scheduled mediation, or entering a meeting with a team that has been in turmoil. We can do many things to help us create a greater opportunity for a constructive outcome. I find two essential choice components to be 1) choice of attitude, and 2) preparation.
Attitude: Attitude is a state of mind. As you are about to enter a situation where conflict is apparent, attitude then, is the state-of-mind you choose to bring about the situation and to the situation. In most conflict situations a range of emotion exists: fear, anger, vulnerability, entitlement and many others. When you allow a particular emotion to be what pushes you into the situation, the conflict is significantly impacted by that particular emotion. When you are not merely led by emotion and are intentional about your attitude, it is attitude that serves as the point that directs the manner of your participation.
I watched this play out recently as I was facilitating a difficult conversation between a unit director and his direct report. The prior experiences these two participants had with each other were primarily times of frustration with conversations filled with accusations, blames and threats. When they chose to enter their conflict with attitudes such as curiousness, open-mindedness, patience, and receptivity, the environment within which the conflict rested was different, and resolutions that seemed impossible to reach no longer seemed so distant.
I find there are two points about attitude choice: the first is choosing the attitude you will embrace about the situation, itself; the other is, the attitude that will guide you during the interaction when it takes place. Choosing your attitude can make an incredible difference.
Preparation: Preparation is an essential ingredient that helps to create shifts in conflict situations. Preparation contains many ingredients. First, as noted, intentionally choosing attitude is a significant factor in preparing. Prior to selecting attitude, though, is permitting yourself to fully experience the range of emotion that arises for you when thinking about the situation you are going to enter. So, part of preparation is allowing emotion to have its rightful place.
A second component of preparation is making notes or doing a mind-map to become clearer about what it is you really need from the situation. I’ll often suggest people imagine the situation is over and that the outcome feels just right. I suggest they then go back and define the elements of what occurred that led to that feeling of rightness. When the elements are clear, you can then prepare to clearly work to reach those elements once the process begins.
Preparation can also involve imagining the many things that might be stated or asked by the “other side.” Again, making a checklist works well. Try two columns. One is what you imagine the other person will say or do. The other column is to imagine your own reaction and response. Once you become clear about how you might respond, you have created space to choose a response rather than merely responding on the spot. As with attitude, you can make choices about actions before you are in the situation that is so hard.
Finally, preparation entails some period of self-reflection to understand what you need in difficult situations. Does the amount of time impact you? Is your tolerance level for engagement no more than 30 minutes, or are you a person who can stay engaged in contentious interaction for several hours? Do snacks help? Do you typically need breaks? Does it help you to take notes? Are you distracted if the other person is writing? Knowing these things about yourself can help you be clear about the ground rules you might want and need to assure the process has a better opportunity of reaching a constructive result.
While attitude and preparation aren’t the only things that will drive outcome in a particular direction when conflict occurs, preparing and choosing your attitude represent things you can do to help move a situation away from confrontation and toward a greater likelihood of significantly reduced contention.
(Photo illustration: Jupiterimages/Getty Images)
The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via Ipso Facto.