In a confrontation, dialogue better than flight or fight

Dave Knutson
Dave Knutson

When a highly charged, intense exchange occurs, many recoil and try to avoid conflict. Some get their hackles up. Still others go along to get along. Research identifies three mechanisms that are frequently deployed in conflict: flight, fight or give in.

Isn’t there a better way to deal with conflict and polarization when it arises? Let’s explore a few approaches.

You’re not going to like this, but guess what? It starts with you. First ask yourself these three questions:

Do I want to win? Coming out on top in a conflict necessarily creates losers. When someone loses, the resentment that typically arises is directed at the winners. Does anyone really “win” when the relationship suffers?

Do I want to be “proven” right? Do you want to be right or do you want to be at peace? The drive to be right runs roughshod over gaining perspective. When one needs to be right, contrary evidence is often dismissed.

Do I want to beat up on somebody? Peter Newel’s quote is pertinent: “Realize that when you want to beat up on somebody, you’re not going to solve a problem.” The need for revenge or putting someone down invokes defensiveness and anger.

In seeking dialogue in a polarized climate, resentment, lack of respect, being closed to influence, defensiveness or anger won’t be your friends.

Calm down, take a breather and ensure your mindset and approach are constructive.

Next, deploy listening skills with others to get clear on their points of view. Oftentimes, anger is only a mask for fear or a cover for weakness. Ask a few door-opening questions. What do you really want? What are you not getting?

Suggest setting up a polarization-free zone by proposing the following approach:

Tell me your position.

Let me know how you got there.

Let me restate what I’ve heard from you.

Did I get what you said or did I miss something?

I’d like you to do the same for me.

In my experience, sincere attempts to understand the other person that are reciprocated produce respect, understanding and a climate for seeking solutions through dialogue.

David Esposito in Tucson puts it well when he boils it down for his students. He suggests three core ground rules for interactions: listen, help and respect.