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Conflict Basics 1: Focus on Your Own Boat.

A significant portion of the questions I get asked about conflict distill down to a single essence. So often people ask:

“What do you do when people don’t get along…?” or,

“How do you handle a stubborn coworker…?” or,

“What do you do when someone does…?”, or

“What about people who just won’t change…?”

If we look carefully at these leading questions we see the root of them is really, “What do we do about other people?”

Now, that is a really good question to be grappling with. It’s the kind of question that can lead to marvelous breakthroughs in thinking, and possibly even to adopting new more productive behaviors. After all, for the vast majority of us, other people are what our entire life is about. To update John Donne’s nearly 400-year-old poem, “No one of us is an island entire unto ourselves, each of us is a piece of a continent, a part of the main.” We have grown apart from this deep recognition of our interrelatedness and it is producing unending levels of conflict among us.

Before I give my answer to the question of what to do about other people, I want to relay a story I heard about a sportscaster who was covering the summer Olympics. He was assigned to interview the athletes who row in sculls either singly or on crew boats. During the course of his interviewing, he became aware of a pattern in the way that everyone was answering his questions.

He would ask, “What do you do when the judge's rule goes against you…?” or, “How do you handle unexpectedly rough water…?” or, “What do you do if another boat cuts you off…?”, or “What about some unforeseen event occurring…?” and whenever the subject of his questions pointed to things such as the race course, the competition, the referees, the weather, etc., the answer was always some variation of: “That’s not in my boat.”

These world-class performers got to the Olympics by focusing all their attention and effort on the things that they could directly influence and control. Things that were “Outside of their boat,” were acknowledged as the background against which they had to pit themselves. For them, there was no point in spending time and energy on things they were unable to change. They knew it was far more effective to focus on what is within their sphere of influence. Then they honed their strength, capacity, and skill, so they could cope with all the complexity of racing against other skilled oarsmen in capricious weather and water conditions with the pressures of the whole world watching.

Well, by now you’ll hardly be surprised when I say that my answer to the question of what to do about other people, is to recognize that their behavior is not in your boat. Not that you can’t influence them either positively or negatively, you most certainly can. However, when conflicts arise, as they always do whenever people get together to produce some kind of work, all you really have control over is your own ability to stay grounded and centered enough to maintain access to your executive function resources, because conflictual situations tend to activate our amygdala response and then all hell breaks loose.

Coming in the next post:

The Amygdala Hijack – how our evolutionary response to conflict is great for coping with saber-tooth cats, but rarely works well when we are upset with our colleagues.

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