The Thrust of Two Widows: How to Make Your Conflicts Constructive

In fencing, there is a maneuver called “the thrust of two widows” — where the fencers both lunge, neither blocks, and they each succeed in killing the other one. It’s generally considered something of a failure. Fencing students are warned against it.

You’ve probably witnessed a similar event — the conversation that makes two victims. I recently watched two people interrupt each other, and each was convinced that the other one had done the interrupting. They each felt victimized and mistreated, and acted that way. The small amount of trust they had had for each other was gone.

This, too, was something of a failure. It was a destructive conflict. Yet every normal conflict can be made constructive. Every such conflict represents an extraordinary opportunity to improve a relationship.

In constructive conflict, we start with conflict, and respond to it in ways that show a high level of emotional intelligence. By performing three or four out of these seven positive steps (drawn from the book Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader), we can take most destructive conflicts and turn them constructive.
Here’s how it works.

The human brain has three layers — reptile, mammal, and primate — responsible for survival, emotion, and thinking. The higher layers only function well when the lower layers are “quiet” and allow those higher layers to work. In even a minor conflict, when your emotions become aroused, your thinking quickly becomes clouded. If the conflict is major, your sense of survival may be triggered, and thinking may shut down completely.

Here are the seven things you can do to make your next conflict constructive. (Thanks to several sources, including Aneil Mishra, Tim Flanagan, and Craig Runde.)

1. For most people experiencing a conflict, a great first step is to simply delay responding.

Constructive conflict always requires us to act calmly, think rationally, and behave generously. We can’t do any of those things if our feelings have become heightened to the point of clouding our judgment, and certainly not if we fear for our survival (or our job, our social status, our children’s safety, etc.)
Most social conflicts at work or at home aren’t really that serious, so in a few minutes our emotions can calm and we can think more clearly. While highly trained people can often avoid having their emotions heightened, for the rest of us our mothers’ advice was correct: when you feel mad, count to 10.

2. Use the time you’ve bought to practice adaptive thinking.

When you can only see one way to interpret events, or only one way the future might unfold, you become rigid — some folks even become “anger locked” and unable to consider multiple possible futures. When you consider multiple possible ways that the current conflict might resolve into something positive, you’re practicing adaptive thinking. This opens you up to notice when the other person offers an olive branch, or when circumstances around the conflict change to create an opening for a positive shift.

The adaptive thinker chooses to be optimistic and mentally flexible.

3. Now that you’re mentally limber, start questioning your own position and looking at the conflict from multiple points of view — be reflective.

Normally you may rehearse your side of things to try to strengthen your vision of how right you are and how wrong the other person is. That’s just repeatedly seeing things from your own point of view. To really change the conflict, change yourself — by looking through the other person’s eyes. How might your conflict partner have seen and experienced the event? How might a bystander have seen it? What are some different stories they might be saying that would account for many of the same facts, yet give a different meaning to them?

Reflection is both great mental exercise, and it helps you realize at an emotional level that the other person probably doesn’t see it your way, and it’s okay if they don’t. It’s also vital preparation for the next step.

4. When you can say out loud what you think the other person experienced during the conflict, it’s called perspective taking.

In order to transform a destructive conflict into a construct of one, you will need to bridge the gap between your worldview and the other person’s. Let’s assume that’s entirely up to you. You can bridge the gap by stating aloud your best guess for what the other person experienced. If you are even close, you will instantly build credibility with that person. And, by demonstrating that you understand them, you help them to calm their own emotions. (Remember, perspective taking is not the same thing as surrendering or agreeing.)

5. Share with the other person, in an honest and responsible way, what feelings you had around the conflict — don’t act out negative feelings, but do express emotions.

Very often, we tried to avoid conflict by hiding our emotions — yet they inevitably leak out, often in snide comments or other inappropriate behavior. It is healthier to simply share with the other person what it is we are feeling. “When you interrupt me, I feel disrespected.” Or, “When you show up late, it makes my day harder, because I don’t know how to forecast our labor for the day.” By routinely expressing emotions responsibly, you avoid the negatives that occur when the emotions leak out, and you show you trust the other person with the truth.

6. Work with your conflict partner to brainstorm multiple ways to move forward — creating solutions.

Once you’re in dialog with the other party, the act of formulating several ways to solve the problem sends a positive message. The very notion of conflict implies a tension between two or more points of view. Treat that as an opportunity to tap the energy you each have, and seek out some way to satisfy both of you in an entirely new way. This is how dynamic tension and conflict can lead to breakthroughs.

7. Find yourself an olive branch and reach out.

Far from being a sign of weakness, the ability to reach out — including with an apology, if one is warranted — is both a sign and a source of strength. Although it takes one person to try to start a fight, it takes two people to maintain one. By reaching out, you attempt to soothe the emotions of the other person. That can be an indispensable step in moving from destructive to constructive conflict.

By mastering these seven behaviors, you will have fewer destructive conflicts and “Thrusts of Two Widows.”

And, you will avoid many fights, end others quickly, and you’ll harness the positive energy that comes from diverse points of view.

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