How to fight well
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How to fight well

Picture by Don Sutherland, licensed under Creative Commons

How to act wisely in conflict

When we’re triggered we feel urged to act immediately. But those actions often come with unintended, unhelpful consequences. Here’s how to change that.

(This is part two of a series on how to engage in healthy conflict, as taught in my practice of How to fight well — you may like to read Part One first).

Your heart rate’s up, your mind is racing, you’re feeling angry or scared.

Someone else — a partner, a colleague, a friend at the pub — has said or done something that triggered a reaction and all your internal fireworks are going off.

The only thing you’re certain of right now is that you have to act: make a sharp retort, storm out or force them to admit they’re wrong.

We’ve all been here, but how often has that initial impulse to act actually helped our situation?

Personally speaking, very rarely. Any time I rush to respond without checking that immediate urge, I can be fairly certain of starting the kind of fight that I didn’t want.

What’s the real need?

Conflict is messy because we are.

That means there are no simple answers but when it comes to ‘fighting back’, there are things we can do to that will create more mess, and things we can do that help everyone get something out of the situation.

If you’re one of the normal human beings who finds conflict to be an awkward or scary place and would like that to change, then you’ll need to understand that it all starts with you.

This is because the initial impulse to act is a result of your personal ‘stuff’. The reason that you become triggered in the first place is because you’ve interpreted another person’s actions through the lens of your past experience or tightly held worldview.

So in most circumstances (with the exception of situations where your personal safety is threatened or you are subject to abuse) we have to start by recognising this.

This is not about denying our experience but knowing that acting on it is unlikely to get us anywhere productive.

Once we’ve paused long enough to notice this, and done the work to find out the motivations of the other, there’s just one question to ask ourselves…

What’s the real need, here — what would genuinely make life better right now, and in the future, for all involved?

Not — ‘How do I win?’ or ‘How do I leave feeling that I was in the right?’

But instead: Can I consider this situation from all perspectives and ask what outcome will serve me, this person and whoever else is affected?

This isn’t easy but it is simple. You need to put down the side of you that wants to take everything personally and seek that bigger self.

It might sound like taking the moral high ground or being a more spiritually enlightened being but it’s not. Really this is about knowing how wired we all are for delusion and self-sabotage.

Because our triggered self perceives a threat (even when there isn’t one there), all it’s interested in is making it go away. It’s not concerned about whether you feel stupid after the adrenaline has subsided or whether you’ll have to clean up all this mess once it’s done.

The other part of you — the part that’s capable of more long term, constructive reasoning — knows that the short term hit of self-satisfaction is transient and much less satisfying than say, not repeating the same old patterns of conflict for the rest of your life or staying friends with this particular person.

How do I want to act?

Once we have moved beyond the need to be right, or simply strike out, we can ask ourselves what we want to do next.

This might be to walk away, to explain how something landed for you or make a request that they do something differently.

There is no right answer — but here are a few options and examples of how you might like to think about action in conflict.

Share: even if you found that your original assumption about why someone acted in a certain way was wrong, it might be helpful to share how it landed for you. This is particularly applicable if it’s a relationship you value (a partner, for example) or have to be in (a team member), so they at least know what you find difficult or irritating and you can both avoid unnecessary future pain. The key here is to take responsibility — this means making it clear that their action and your reaction are separate components e.g. “Just so you know, when you use language like that, I find myself reacting …— it might be because I’ve had to deal with lots of sexism in the past.”

Request: having seen things from a more rounded perspective you might still like this person to do or say something differently, now or in the future. The key here is to be clear (with yourself and with them), that you’re making a request not a demand. This means being open to them saying no. Why? Because unless they’re already happy to do what you want, then the only options they have are to roll over or to tell you where to stick it. And neither are very good options. Don’t get me wrong, it takes practice and it’s very easy to become triggered again if you feel you’re making a perfectly reasonable request and someone doesn’t want to agree to it. But if this does happen, engage your curiosity and use it as an opportunity to find out why. Language like: “Are you willing to…” or “What would it feel like if you…” can be helpful in making it clear you’re seeking their consent.

Resolve: this is all about letting go. More often than I care to admit, I’ve become angry, irritated or anxious about someone else’s words or behaviour, only to find out that the assumptions that led to those feelings were way off. If you find yourself in this situation, or just find that the heat dissipates once you’ve taken a moment to pause and reflect, there is no shame in just walking away from a conversation that might otherwise become a pointless or nasty situation. Life is short, your time and energy is precious — a lot of the time, the part of us that wants a fight is just a scared little child that needs some care or attention from you. Turning down an invitation to drama is one of the best decisions you can make as a developing adult.

There are definitely more options and plenty of space for nuance and play here — which is intentional. You have to make this work your own.

Some of the ways conflict management is taught can lead people to sound robotic or like they’re trying a bit too hard. The key really is to try things out, get it wrong and adapt your approach.

At the end of the day, the value you’ll gain through this practice is not in each conflict being lovely and smooth (because it never will be, consistently). Instead it’s about developing your own capacity for curiosity, self-awareness and staying calm when it feels like you should be a ball of rage or a tiny hedgehog, tightly curled up.

If you’d like to go further and develop your capacity for acting wisely when everything’s going off, check out my six-week programme: http://www.howtofightwell.com/.

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Getting comfortable with conflict to have the conversations that matter.

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Max St John

Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com

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