Here’s a paradox of leadership. If you want to make peace, you have to learn how to pick the right fights. Healthy relationships include productive conflict. Otherwise, families and organizations get messy when no one is willing to name the elephants.
“Picking fights” does not mean exploding in anger. It means turning into a torpedo before it explodes. Often people avoid conflict which maintains a false peace. Avoidance misses the opportunity to connect. It leaves a gap of misunderstanding which usually gets filled with something paranoid. It can make you liable to over-react next time.
Trust is forged in the crucible of healthy conflict. But it takes someone willing to pick the right fight, in the right way, for the right reason.
Pick the right fight
We all deal with people who don’t recognize boundaries. (And we must admit, sometimes it’s us!) But when it’s the other guy, I’ve tended to absorb the discomfort for the sake of peace. “Yes, that’s my toe, but it’s fine. I have others.” I saw this accommodation as a virtue. (It’s not.) I thought of it as serving rather than wimping out. I even gave myself a gold star for it.
One day “the penny dropped” and a new resolve emerged. A colleague had crossed the line and I decided to pick up the chalk and redraw it for him. It was a respectful but very difficult conversation that might have resulted in us going our separate ways. Instead, it became a turning point, indeed the beginning of real friendship.
You cannot know someone unless they speak their mind. Consciously or unconsciously, people may cross lines to find out yours. Emmerson Eggerich’s says confrontations are often more about connecting than controlling. It sure doesn’t feel like it in the moment. But one thing is for sure, if you are not congruent, if you keep a poker face, you may be safer, but you cannot be known.
Someone said, “If two people agree about everything, then one of you may not be necessary.” Yes, it’s good to choose your battles. As long as you actually do choose. Pick the right fight.
In the right way
Fighting fair does not come naturally. Just open Twitter (or, maybe not) and read for five minutes. If it’s true we all have reptile and mammal parts of our brains, you’re bound to see turtles reacting to dolphins and dolphins trying to reason with sharks. In other words, people talking past each other–
Neglecting or twisting someone’s intended point;
Changing the subject without even recognizing it;
Making emotional arguments that offend rather than convince.
To fight fair you must first manage yourself. It takes discipline to let someone know you understand their point before making yours, for example. Just saying what you heard is a powerful step towards being heard yourself.
First, it calms the other person down. They may even soften, telling you more—not only their opinion but the emotion or experience driving their opinion.
Second, you earn the right to a turn. And if you take that intermediate step, you’re likely to get a full, uninterrupted turn. You may get heard because you were willing to use your ears before your mouth. That’s the right way.
For the right reason
What if you named the goal in your next conflict privately? Just in the quiet of your own counsel? It might sound like this: “My goal is to make this person feel ashamed of themselves so that I can have my way.” Isn’t that often the case? What if you admitted something like that to yourself?
If you can name the ugly goal, then you might give yourself a shot at choosing a better one. Something like this: “My goal is to help this irritated person calm down without being condescending so that I might then win a fair hearing.”
The second part of a famous prayer is worth committing to memory.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.– Francis of Assisi
Nature is red in tooth and claw. Becoming more human is an unnatural act.
“Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace”2 Cor. 13:11