Conflict Management Series Part 1: It’s never personal

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I’ve thought long and hard about writing this article. Conflict management is a hugely complex area to cover especially in writing. I spend quite a lot of my time teaching in this area but I would never claim to be an expert in the area. I don’t believe that anybody can every truly be an expert in the area. I have studied, researched and practiced for many years in the area though. This is going to take a series of articles to even scratch the surface. I won’t publish them all together but I’ll come back to the topic every couple of weeks. I’m also wary of writing about it because I know that talking about this subject is going to bring out all of the Rambo’s and Chuck Norris wannabes who want to solve every argument with a throat punch. I’m going to talk about it anyway for the sensible folk among you. This first article will be about conflict being rational and/or emotional but never personal.

Understanding conflict

To get even a basic understanding of conflict we need to have an understanding of psychology, physiology, anatomy, physics, biology, law, behavioural science and many more subjects. This isn’t an effort that many people have the time or inclination to go to so we end up just making it up as we go along. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either as the brain has a funny way of figuring it out even if it doesn’t know how. The brain will also play some tricks on us that can lead to increased conflict or escalate already bad situations. Things like our own emotions, stress and ego can reduce our ability to manage conflict and over time completely influence our approach to conflict.

Interpersonal v intrapersonal

When we think of conflict the most stereotypical type of situation that is referred to is two people arguing with each other. That’s only one of many types of conflict however. I often find that interpersonal conflict among people (especially in the security industry) is often driven by unmanaged intrapersonal conflict. Intrapersonal is how a person handles the conflict inside themselves. Do they get emotional quickly, lose their temper or show signs of aggression under pressure for example? Many of these outward signs during interpersonal conflicts are deeply connected to how internal conflict is managed. The first step to managing conflict is understanding it. Understanding that we have to manage our own mind, thoughts and emotions in order to control our external actions is essential. Controlling the inside of your head has a disproportionate positive effect on what happens outside of your head.

Emotional v Rational

Without going too deep into the neuroscience of conflict situations its important to recognise the two types of thinking we experience during an argument. During normal life we walk around thinking with the most developed part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) where we process logic, decisions, language, numbers and other advanced functions. Bearing in mind that most of our arguments happen at a verbal level it might surprise you to note that we as humans are still not terribly well evolved for dealing with verbal social arguments. When we come under stress or pressure (like during an argument) we revert back to using a much older part of the brain (limbic system) which deals with emotion. Buried in this system is a little almond shaped miracle called the amygdala. The amygdala deals with our survival stress response (fight or flight put very simply). When we argue the amygdala perceives risk and puts the brain and body into fight or flight mode even at low levels of social conflict. The longer this conflict continues the more risk is perceived and the more the brain uses the limbic (emotional) system to make decisions. So the longer we argue the more difficult it to access logic, and good decision making. Of course the more experienced we get at dealing with these types of situations the better we get at controlling the emotion but there are triggers in all of us which causes us to react emotionally. These might include an invasion of our space, being verbally abused, threatened or even passive aggressive tactics such as sarcasm. I’ve really over simplified the process here but the key point is this. When you are in an argument your emotional brain will try to hijack your rational brain and make you say and do irrational things. Your job is to recognise this reality and take steps to prevent or control this process. Easier said than done but certainly possible.

Scale of abuse

This is something I use on training courses to emphasise a point. When people verbally abuse us there are a number of reasons why. Firstly to provoke a response. This will:

1. Make you become emotionally engaged instead of rational.

2. validate their initial action (Example: I call you an idiot, you respond by calling me a bigger idiot and you have just validated or proven to me that my original comment was correct and allow me to move to a higher level).

Secondly, make them feel better about themselves. Verbal abuse is rarely about making you feel bad and nearly always about making the other person feel better. When people use verbal abuse it sometimes (not always) goes on a scale. The stages that I’ve noted are like this:

1. Role based abuse: It starts off about your role or the task that you have to do. It might be about an incident, a policy, a task that you have to complete or the security industry as a job ( how many times have you heard the phrase “you’re a failed Garda” or “ how many years in college for your job”)

2. Personal abuse: When role based stuff gets no reaction it becomes personal. You might be fat, ugly, bald, stupid or foreign. Whatever today’s insult of choice is. The emotional mind has taken over the rational and it’s not necessarily logical stuff they are shouting at this point.

3. Peripheral figure abuse: The last hope for an emotional reaction when all else fails. They begin to insult your wife, girlfriend, kids, mother etc. Real grown up stuff as the emotional mind moves into overdrive. I once has a very respectable looking guy in a suit tell me that he hoped my kids got cancer after I refused him entry. If you can keep your emotional mind in check here you can achieve anything.

4. Threats: Last but not least the threats arrive in the hope that the adrenal spike from the amygdala caused by the threat to safety results in a response.

All of this stuff sounds horrible until you look back at the numbered steps and realise it is a natural emotional human response to conflict used to gain a response. It’s never personal.

It’s never personal

How do I know it’s never personal? Because the guy who hoped my kids got cancer didn’t even know if I had kids. These people who you interact with at work don’t know you well enough to dislike you. They dislike what you represent (the role) and then their emotional mind hijacks the process and makes it seem personal to them. It never is though. I’m sure if you chose to you could stop reading this and walk over to your nearest family member and colleagues and within seconds start an argument. You would know exactly what to say to trigger that emotional response and make them angry. That’s because we know them so well. Joe public doesn’t know us that well so they have to go through the process of throwing out all of this abuse to see what gets a response. If they get that response then they feel like they win in their head. Maybe not a lot but a little and that’s all it takes.

Summary

The subtitle of this argument “it’s never personal” is my first principle of conflict management. Understanding and practising this goes a long way to being a good security professional. Every time you get emotionally engaged in an argument is shows. You may not see it but others do. It shows to the other person, your colleagues and the public. As soon as it happens your professional image is gone. Remember that phrase and stay rational. I’ll go through some ways of doing that over the next few weeks/months of this series.

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