When I was in my early twenties in my first job, I messed up and missed an important deadline to support a colleague. She needed my help, and I offered to support her. I failed to put it on my calendar and left the work undone and unaccounted for, and she was waiting for me to deliver. I had messages on my phone, but I didn’t get the calls. I totally blew it.
Then I doubled down.
One of my great fears early in my career was disappointing people. I was terrified of making someone mad at me. This was clearly the case in this situation. Looking back, missing the deadline wasn’t that big of a deal — that problem could be dealt with. I, however, felt incredibly embarrassed and didn’t own up to it. I failed my colleague, and I avoided the conversation — I avoided the apology. I didn’t follow through on the commitment, and then made everything worse by not owning up to my mistake. The longer I waited and the more I avoided, the worse it got.
As I’ve written before, not dealing with your issues gives them power. What was a small misunderstanding became a big deal. She was incredibly frustrated, not with my lack of showing up in the work, but for my lack of follow-through and apology. She was right, and she had every right to be frustrated. I made it a bigger deal than it was because of my fear of disappointing her. My fear of disappointment, ironically, led to more disappointment. I had created a conflict out of something that was really pretty small.
I thought “I can’t do this”
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.
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 Power of Appreciation
I had the fortune of working with two great people and facilitators that founded SagePresence a few years back. These two taught me a life-long and valuable lesson: the power of appreciation.
When conflict arises, where does your attention go? Most likely it’s on yourself. And the truth is, we’re pretty mean to ourselves. When our attention is self-focused, we tell ourselves all sorts of terrible things: they don’t like me, I don’t know what to say and they’re going to be mean to me, I hate this, I suck… etc. That talk only feeds the lizard brain beast. It ramps up the anxiety and adrenaline and invites our body to run away. To shift that talk track, and to turn that anxiety into a possibility, we need to take the attention off of ourselves and put it fully on the other person. To do that effectively, we need to appreciate the other person. By leading with appreciation, we remove the attention from ourselves and we start to build empathy and understanding with the person we are in conflict with.
That empathy and understanding, guided by appreciation, allows us to calm down, soften, and actually learn to enjoy the moment and the situation. We are no longer a victim to the emotion of the conversation, rather the driver of it.
As my friend and former colleague Pete Machalek taught me, it is important to note here that appreciation is not an act, appreciation is a feeling. It is an emotional experience that we have. To get to that emotion, here is a series of questions you can ask yourself before entering into the conversation:
What can I appreciate about this person?
What can I appreciate about this situation?
What is their situation, and what can I appreciate about what they’re experiencing?
By prepping our emotional state before the conversation or conflict, we can actively manage our own emotions and bring our attention to the other person — thus deepening our connection and driving the emotion of the conversation from one of conflict to one of appreciation.
The feeling of appreciation is like a muscle. You have to work it out to build it up. Here’s a suggested exercise to build the muscle of appreciation:
- Think about someone in your life that you deeply appreciate, and ask yourself: “What do I appreciate about this person?” Don’t stop until you get to the feeling of appreciation.
- Once you’ve experienced the feeling, think about someone in your life that is difficult, and ask yourself: “What can I appreciate about this person?” Don’t stop until you get to the feeling of appreciation (this one may take longer, but comes easier with practice).
- Think about a situation in which you have a conflict with someone — what can you appreciate about that person and situation? Work to get to the feeling of appreciation. Once you experience the feeling, practice as often as you are able, and then have the conversation and face the conflict leading with appreciation.
The more you build the muscle, the easier it becomes. And before you know it, the “I can’t do this” will turn into “I appreciate the opportunity to do this.”