We have seen many companies in the news lately that have conflicts that escalated very quickly into something that is seemingly unmanageable. Between corporate discrimination and harassment, to political rhetoric, our newsfeeds have been filled with conflict that escalated very quickly and inflamed the tempers of many people at home, in the workplace, and in our own neighborhoods. Conflict happens. We accidentally (and yes, sometimes purposefully) say something that offends someone. Or, we have differing opinions, and we don’t necessarily engage in respectful conversations. But what do we do when we are faced with a conflict? In many ways our current communications networks (i.e. social media, the news, etc) encourage us to escalate the conflict. How do we stop the escalation and put out the fires?
When we are faced with conflict, it can be like walking into a fire. We know it is hot. We know it is uncomfortable, but at the same time many people are fascinated by it’s power. When a conflict starts, many times it is just a little tiny campfire that doesn’t seem like it is very dangerous and it seems pretty well controlled. However, how we all respond when we see that fire is what determines that fire’s fate. When addressing conflict, we are given two buckets. One of the buckets contains water, and the other contains gasoline. We have a choice as to which bucket we will use on the fire.
When dealing with hot button issues, our first reaction to the conflict (or the fire) is to respond to the fire in a very visceral way and to throw the bucket with gasoline on the fire. We then take action that increases the size and severity of the fire. We are all human, and it is very easy to reach for that bucket filled with gasoline. We want to defend ourselves, and in some cases inflict the same damage on the other person that they inflicted on us.
But what if you can have a different reaction? What if the person didn’t actually intend to hurt you, but the intent of their words did not match their impact? I was recently at a restaurant and heard someone tell their companion that they needed to put on more makeup because she looked old and tired. Ouch! Who wants to be told they look old and tired? It would be so easy to yell at the person, tell the person all about themselves, and maybe even stonewall them. However, you have an option of another bucket. Take a three second pause and reach for the bucket of water. This doesn’t mean that you are going to ignore a hurtful statement or ignore the conflict. It means that you are going to start a conversation that helps to move the conversation forward in a good way. In this case, it is okay to say, “Ow. I felt really put down and discouraged when you told me that I needed to put more make up on because I look old and tired. I have a lot going on right now, and that really hurt my feelings.” You are telling the other person what they did or said was not okay and requesting a behavior change. But, you are requesting the change in a way that is not belligerent or accusatory. You will also notice that you are not saying the person is bad, just that their words had an impact on you, and it wasn’t good. The person is then given the opportunity to apologize, explain what they intended to say, but acknowledge that they did not say it in a good way. It creates space for you to go forward and create new rules of relationship.
Imagine the comments were made in the workplace. It is important to recognize that your words and actions have an impact on others. You can choose how you will respond, whether it be with the bucket of water or the bucket of gasoline. It would be wonderful if we all reached for the bucket of water, but sometimes we will make mistakes and our intent will not align with our impact. As leaders, it is extremely important that we are aware of our words, and that we can take a pause to consider which bucket we will use. When you come across conflict, reach for the water. You have an opportunity to model respectful conversations that can de-escalate a conflict before it grows into something newsworthy. We are surrounded with encouragement to throw gasoline on the fire, but what if we start to model throwing water on the fire. We can be a catalyst to shift the conversation from anger, hurt, and hate to one of respect and inclusion.