Conflict is not a Heat-Seeking Missile

By Shaun Bonett
CEO, Founder and owner of the Precision Group
YPO member since 2006

True “empathy and honesty helps to release the pressure valve.”

Conflict rarely leaves the periphery of our lives, but unless we choose to engage, it is equally rarely a heat-seeking missile on an inevitable collision course.

We are too often that heat-seeking missile!

An unfortunate aspect of the human condition is that we are hard-wired to run out to meet conflict head on. When we sense the presence of conflict, our first instinct is to jump into the breach and play the role of the defender, mediator or aggressor. This very act of initial participation validates the conflict, and once we are involved, it is so much harder to disengage.

The first rule of conflict resolution is to avoid it if at all possible. Most potential conflicts will settle down of their own accord if they are left to simmer, but the main problem with simmering is that it takes time, self-restraint and an abundance of patience.

With the incessant pressure to be productive, time is often the one aggravating factor that compels us to seek a resolution. We are driven to sort it out now, and there is no time like the present. This sort of impatient thinking causes half-baked decisions to be made that have not been suitably thought through. Neither party is genuinely satisfied, nor are the wounds of the conflict fully healed, leaving scars that cloud future interactions. Collaboration is based on past success, and if sufficient time is not given to reach a successful conclusion, these multiple scars can build up until a relationship is damaged beyond repair.

If a conflict is still in the simmering stage, it is in the ideal state to dissipate, but only if handled in the right way. In my experience, if you learn to weave your way past conflict, you can avoid having to meet it head-on. Here are a few thoughts on how this might be achieved.

First, embrace the belief that it is possible for everything to resolve eventually. Initial attempts might end in deadlock, but just because it doesn’t work the first time doesn’t necessarily mean that future resolution is impossible. A determined and flexible approach goes a long way toward unlocking new possibilities. If a relationship is malleable like plasticine, it can be modified, and if both parties trust each other enough to make changes in a common direction, often this flexibility will prove the catalyst for resolution. It is irrational to do the same thing and expect a different result, but the more tenaciously you explore, the higher the probability of an eventual breakthrough. It is okay that “unresolved matters” sit in the background of any relationship — as long as they don’t stagnate, this is an entirely healthy state of affairs.

Second,  we have to free ourselves of the egotistical notion of “right” and “wrong.” If we live in a world of Plans A, B and C, moving to “Plan B” will always feel like a backward step. However, if we agree to explore three equally promising “Plan As,” far more potential paths for a prosperous future will open up. There is no reason why there cannot be three equally pleasing solutions (in their own different ways), and it is possible to avoid the mentality of “good, better, best,”which creates a winner and a loser. If both people gain in any given transaction, they are both winners, and the degree of victory shouldn’t need to be measured. When there is no longer a competition to win, a competitive conflict turns into a common journey.

Holding on for an eventual resolution — and freeing ourselves of the necessity of being right — helps to relieve the pressure that conflict can create. Pressure dehumanizes us, and in this unnatural state, our emotions have a tendency to cloud our rational thought. Irrational and emotional responses fan the flames of conflict because they are often selfishly motivated and do not acknowledge the views of the other party. Pressure makes us retreat into ourselves. In this state, it is almost impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can’t resolve conflict unless you are able to empathize with the other person, but when you are under pressure, it is very hard to hear anything other than “me, me, me.”

One of the final requirements for minimizing conflict and increasing mutual understanding is the necessity to act consistently and honestly. If you behave in a straightforward manner in different situations over a period of time, others will know what to expect from you, and there will be less likelihood that certain boundaries will be crossed. These “lines” exist for everyone, and as long as you respect where others draw their own lines, conflict often will be avoided. On the other hand, if someone steps over your lines, you are compelled to react. If you let things slide, the lines will become ever more blurry, and it is in that grey area that conflict can be born and becomes hardest to avoid.

Conflict may be forever on the periphery of our lives, but modern technology often allows us to keep it “out of sight and out of mind” for longer than is healthy. When we engage with someone over email or text, it is inevitable that the human connection will be reduced somewhat. The weaker our connections, the more fertile the ground for conflict to develop. A strong relationship will be able to keep conflict in check, but if our connection is weak, simple misunderstandings can fast morph into irreconcilable differences.

To summarize, we can’t deny that potential conflict is out there, but it doesn’t necessarily have your name on it. If you take a long-term view and forget about needing to be right, there is every chance that conflict will pass you by. Empathy and honesty will both help to release the pressure valve, and if you meet any potential conflict face to face, there is every possibility of a successful resolution.

Conflict will rarely fly toward you if you don’t seek it out yourself first.

With more than 26,000 members in more than 130 countries, members of YPO are peers who share in common the achievement of success at an early age; a commitment to learning as a lifelong adventure; and a desire to connect authentically in an environment of trust and confidentiality. If you are a member interested in contributing, please email blog@ypo.org.