By Alan Zucker
July 11, 2022
Conflict exists in just about every aspect of our lives. It is a natural part of being human. It occurs at home and work.
We disagree. We have different perspectives and opinions. We get upset by things that were said, or not said. These events arouse our emotions. We become angry or afraid.
When there is conflict, we cannot control the other person’s behaviors. However, we own our response. Our choice can be the difference between a career-limiting and a career-enhancing move. The decision is ours.
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capacity to be aware of our emotions and handle interpersonal relationships thoughtfully and with empathy. Daniel Goleman introduced EI to business and described four components:
- Self-Awareness. Identifying our feelings.
- Self-Regulation. Controlling our disruptive emotions.
- Social Skills. Managing relationships and getting along with others.
- Empathy. Considering others’ feelings when making decisions.
The human brain is complex. The amygdala is the prehistoric part of our brain that responds to external stimuli with an instinctual fight-or-flight reaction. The prefrontal cortex houses our executive functions. The cortex manages our ability to exert self-control, analyze a situation, and respond accordingly.
Brain physiology explains why we sometimes “act without thinking.” The amygdala reacts instantaneously. The prefrontal cortex requires more time and energy. By the time our logical brain has time to think, it is too late.
The first step in choosing our battles wisely is pausing the instinctual response by exercising self-control. This is easier said than done. Reacting to a perceived threat or attack is visceral and primal.
However, suppressing that immediate retort and thoughtfully contemplating our actions is best. There is an old French expression, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
Something happened! Our emotions are triggered. Our body instinctively responds. We smile, our heart beats more quickly, we tense up, or we start sweating. What is going on?
Self-awareness is the practice of identifying and labeling our feelings, and then, separating these feelings from the judgments we make. People have four basic emotions: mad, glad, sad, and afraid.
Deconstructing an event creates self-awareness by identifying:
- Data. Observable behaviors, actions, and words.
- Our interpretation of the event.
- How we feel about what happened.
You arrive a few minutes late to a client meeting. As you enter the room and find a seat, a colleague greets you and says, “Nice of you to join us.”
The data is clear: the time you arrived and your colleague’s statement. But this may invoke many judgments:
- Your colleague is trying to embarrass you or make a power-play.
- The client is annoyed you are late, and your team is not unified.
You may feel angry at your colleague or fear how your manager and client will react.
Only the data is factual. Our feelings and judgments are interpretations of what happened. These are the stories we tell. And we can reinterpret the events through a different lens. Perhaps your colleague knew you had a schedule conflict and was relieved you could attend the meeting as you are the subject matter expert.
Deciding What to Do
We demonstrated self-control and did not respond in the moment. We were self-aware and understood how we felt. Now, what do we want to do? We should consider our actual needs, and the tactical and strategic impact of our actions and respond accordingly.
A tactical response fulfills a well-defined need. On a recent trip, my flight was canceled. My immediate response was anger and to argue with the airline. However, my tactical need was to find another flight.
Strategic outcomes are longer-term and are more broadly defined. In our meeting example, building or maintaining a collaborative relationship with our colleague and client are the desired goals.
Identifying and Evaluating Options
We should carefully identify our options and evaluate how best to respond.
We always have the option of doing nothing and not responding. It preserves all other options and creates the time and space to consider our alternatives fully. Remember the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”
Considering Other Options
We usually have more options than we initially realize. Start by brainstorming possible actions and outcomes. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. Do not worry if they are bad or unrealistic. Giving voice to all ideas is valuable.
It is best to use index cards or sticky notes for brainstorming. Write one idea on each card. Physically writing the options reduces mind swirl. This is an unstructured activity. Let your mind run free.
Favorable vs. Unfavorable Outcomes
Once we list the possible options, we will consider what best meets our needs. We should evaluate both the short- and long-term impacts. Sort the options into two columns:
- Favorable or productive actions, or
- Unfavorable or unproductive outcomes.
If there are specific, immediate needs, then we should focus on them; like rebooking the flight. If relationships are important, we should consider how our actions impact them. Our instinctual responses often do not support our long-term goals.
Outcome vs. Likelihood
A deeper analysis may consider the potential outcome (favorable/unfavorable) and the likelihood of success (likely/unlikely).
|LIKELY||Suicide Mission||Wise Move|
|UNLIKELY||Fools’ Errand||Snowball’s Chance|
- Wise Moves. These options yield a favorable outcome and are likely to succeed; and are the ones to consider further and pursue.
- Suicide Mission. Mission successful, but an unfavorable outcome. You can tell your boss what you think of them, but the outcome will not be good.
- Fool’s Errand. Bad outcome and low probability of success—avoid these. Be wary of colleagues who suggest you be the one to respond on behalf of the group.
- Snowball’s Chance. The outcome may be good, but it’s not likely to happen. Do not waste your time.
The best outcomes are beneficial to both parties. They are most sustainable and have the greatest likelihood of long-term success. Creating a win-win solution requires empathy and considering the other person’s needs.
A transactional mindset focuses on the immediate situation and undervalues the broader context. Most conflicts occur with people with whom we have long-term relationships. Only focusing on the immediate event leads to win-lose outcomes.
In our client meeting example, the best long-term outcome would be a win-win-win. You, your colleague, and the client are all happy. So, how do we construct a solution where you and your colleague both feel good and look good in front of the client?
Get a Second Opinion
We have thoughtfully considered our options and made a wise choice. For big, critical career-making decisions, seek a second opinion from a trusted advisor. Ideas often seem great in the vacuum of our minds, but we have our cognitive biases and blindspots.
A trusted advisor can lead you through a critical review of your thought process. This may uncover unconsidered pitfalls. They may role-play the situation so we can test our expectations and practice what we want to say.
About the Author
Alan Zucker has over 25 years of experience leading projects and project management organizations in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016, Alan founded Project Management Essentials to share his passion for and experience in project management, leadership, and Agile.
Alan is a frequent keynote speaker and thought leader. He authors monthly articles, is regularly quoted in the industry press, and is a podcast guest. He is an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University and the University of Georgia; and is a senior instructor with several national, professional development organizations.
Alan has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland and a master’s and a certificate in IT Project Management from the George Washington University. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Agile Professional (PMI-ACP) through the Project Management Institute. He also holds multiple Agile certifications from Disciplined Agile, Scrum Alliance, and Scaled Agile.