(How to avoid conflict through self-awareness)
We all have automatic behaviors…those tasks we perform unconsciously with very little thought. This morning proves it. I’m sure that most of you reading this article go through the exact same routine every morning from the moment your toes touch the floor until you’re done with your first cup of coffee. Much depends on our automatic behaviors, since there’s no need to occupy our conscious minds with repetitive tasks. Our automatic behaviors can make us more efficient going about our routines.
But these behaviors are not always productive and, when it comes to conflict, they can be downright destructive. You see, we all have automatic reactions to stress and conflict that can actually cause further conflict to occur. If you don’t believe me, read on…
Be honest with yourself. If, during a fight, you talk over your spouse or coworker, admit it, you’ve always done so throughout your life with others. If you’re the type that withdraws and gets quiet during an argument you’ve always done it. Get the point? This is the reason why most married couples can complete the other’s sentences…and can finish each other’s arguments.
Here’s why these automatic behaviors are a problem. When in “automatic mode”, your brain is unconsciously organizing what’s happening in front of you in a predetermined pattern. While your mind is busy reacting without thought, you are not aware of what others around you are thinking and feeling. Meanwhile, the other person may be reacting similarly. The result can be further misunderstandings and escalating tension.
Those of us in the conflict resolution profession engage in extensive training to identify our own automatic behaviors and to learn how to circumvent them when working with the conflict of others; after all, if we can’t rise beyond our own unconscious reactions to conflict, we will miss what is happening in front of us and we will be ineffective in helping others. In my case, I spent two weeks at the Harvard Program on Negotiation to engage in just such a training.
The good news is that we can overcome these behaviors and have more conscious, conflict-free interactions with others. By performing the following exercises, you can have deeper, less reactive conversations and avoid ongoing conflict both at home and in the workplace. These can be performed individually or, to be more effective, invite others to participate with you.
1. Perform an “automatic behavior” inventory: Individually, write down how you act when in conflict. Are you someone who withdraws? Attacks? Raises your voice? Talks over others? Gets defensive? Has to always be right? What do you say and do when things get heated? You know who you are. Be honest with yourself.
2. Share your insights: Get together and talk about it. Recently, I joined with an international group of mediators, facilitators and stakeholder engagement specialists to create a stakeholder engagement organization. This group will have to work very closely on large projects. Each of us shared our personality profiles and we each shared how we act when under stress. As a result, for example, I now consciously understand that I should not take it personally if a member of the group gets quiet and needs to step away from the group to organize his thoughts. It is simply a personality trait.
3. Create an “Inner Observer”: Create an inner observer, a fictional “mini-me”, who will continually remind you when you are beginning to engage in your self- identified automatic behaviors. This tip will enhance your self awareness and will allow you to transcend your initial reactions and remain a conscious participant in your interactions with others.
4. Remain Aware and Be Compassionate: Always remember that other’s reactions may also be automatic and that what you are hearing may not be a fully thought out response. Be forgiving and seeing beyond the initial reaction, will help you refrain from escalating the interaction with your own reactions. Compassion and understanding should remain in the forefront of your thinking…always.
These exercises create great self-awareness that grant us the gift of being fully present in the moment. Being conscious of both your and another’s reactions is the key to both breaking the cycle of conflict created by automatic, ingrained responses. I would love your feedback. Please let me know your experience in working with this model!