If you only read one thing today, make it this excellent guide to difficult conversations from the Harvard Business review. The first mistake we make, say Sarah Green and Holly Weeks, is to fall into a combat mentality. As soon as we decide that a conversation is going to be a battle, it almost certainly will be.
When we get into arguments, our flight-fight responses kick in. Steering the course between full-on assault and humiliating retreat is therefore quite difficult. As this slide says, sometimes we veer erratically between the two; aggressively confronting one minute and smoothing over or withdrawing the next.
The advice in this set of slides makes sense; most of us know this stuff intellectually. The trouble is, flight-fight is a natural response to any conflict and it seems to shut down our rational responses before we have chance to assess the situation. We know what we ought to be doing during that difficult conversation but, in the heat of the moment, we often revert to combat mode, especially when we are caught off-guard.
For me, the key to overcoming this was to understand my own hooks - the hot buttons that, when someone else presses them, make me really angry. Double loop learning and coaching from my good friend Mike Vernon helped me and I will do a proper post on that process in the near future. I am now far more likely to recognise when my flight-fight response has been triggered which means I can stay in control and choose a different response.
I say ‘more likley’ because, alas, I still can’t do it all the time. Even after all the work I have done on this, I still find myself getting angry and confrontational in some situations. Well, quite a lot of situations, actually! (You may have noticed this in some of the comments threads.) As I say, the tips in these slides are great but they are bloody hard to do when every bone in your body is telling you either to attack or retreat. Like everything else, practice is the key. The more difficult conversations you have and the more you apply some of these excellent techniques, the better you get at handling conflict.
Flight-fight is a powerful instinct but it doesn’t always serve us well in a business context. Avoiding combat mode will lead to better outcomes – for you and for the person you nearly had a row with.