Following the new pattern of our blog this year, I want to give a short introduction to our theme for the next few months. Since I believe strongly in the power of repetition to be able to master the basics of any skill, we are going to be digging in to review with you the marvelous principles of effectively working with conflict resolution taught by writers from Harvard Business Review and the Harvard Project on Negotiation. But before we start this study, I want to give a brief background on the biology and psychology of conflict.
Without a doubt, this is a constant theme of concern for the professionals I work with. Even people who can be straightforward in many areas of communication struggle with the emotions and feelings that result from disagreement and conflict. Why is this?
It comes down to the biology of threat. We are deeply wired to avoid unpleasant situations. Our brain can detect this threat in a micro-second. It makes us either want to fight it or flee from it. And for most, the general choice is to flee. Our limbic system is thought to be the center of that panic control system and the amygdala, a small almond shaped organ within the limbic system runs the operation.
While brain research is constantly refining these definitions this gives us a simple base on which to build understanding. When you are in a situation where the inbound information, through any of the five senses, is not matching up with something you have handled in the past, the brain goes into alert mode. It has no ‘map’ to refer to, so it puts on the brakes and moves cautiously. And, if the information is similiar to a past negative experience, the brain goes into an even higher alert mode which can easily swing into panic. One research calls this the ‘amygdala hijack’. Our patterns of dealing with conflict are usually set in strongly during our childhood for a variety of obvious reasons. And the patterns stay with us for a long time, unless we intentionally change them.
So, imagine yourself in a conference room. The agenda seems neutral, although there are some items that are high profile. The first part of the meeting runs well, but then some key players start to disagree, voices become more tense, and you notice yourself start to fidget, look down at the floor, but certainly not look at the participants…..
Or you are in a patient’s room, as a nurse, and your charge nurse comes in and starts to review the patient’s condition and ask very pointed questions, in a patronizing way. She is very much your senior, and you start to feel very incompetent, even though your patient care and charting is impeccable. You find yourself speechless, and what few words do come up are only apologetic, even when there was nothing to apologize for…
Over the next months, we will focus on how to work with conflict, from the basics to the advanced. We will keep it short and build a platform of skills that will become a strong part of your leadership personality.
There are a multitude of great sources for information on conflict resolution. We have chosen to use, as a principle source for the next few weeks, the superb work by Amy Gallo, Managing Conflicts at Work, published by Harvard Business Review.