Remember that time when Johnny and Jane couldn’t agree on where to spend the extra $10,000 you had in the budget? The conversation got heated, departments were being defended, and nothing was being accomplished by the conversation. When situations of conflict arise in office, what are some sure-fire ways to extinguish the resistance before it sets the entire building on fire? 

I recently re-read a fantastic book: Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. The book is based on the work of Dr. Terry Warner and his team of scholars, who were originally working on how to address the problem of resistance.

Let’s start at the beginning:

As humans, we have an awareness of other people’s needs for care, empathy, and kindness. Studies have shown that toddlers and young children will try to help and comfort others to alleviate their own distress. So, we start with this innate humanity to care for each other.

As we get older, we stop doing the ‘humanity’ things, even though we know we should. This is called self-betrayal. Going against what we know is right:

  • I know I shouldn’t hit my younger sibling, but I’m older and more important.
  • I know I shouldn’t tease and bully those kids at school, but I’m far cooler than them. 
  • I know I shouldn’t be rude to the retail staff, but I’m the customer and so I’m always right. 
  • I know I should hold the door open for the person behind me, but I have places to be and things to do.

You see the pattern that’s developing here?

There are 4 key characteristics of self-betrayal:

  1. Inflate ‘others’ faults
  2. Inflate own virtue
  3. Inflate the value of things that justify my self-betrayal
  4. Blame

Not only that, but humans naturally tend to accept self-betrayal through self-preservation, or justifying your actions to preserve your outlook on yourself. I’m not a terrible person, I only did those things in response to the other person’s actions. 

  • I only hit my younger sibling because they didn’t ask me before taking my toy- they have no manners.
  • I only teased and bullied those students because they didn’t move in the school hallway, when my friends and I were trying to get through – they were taking up all the space and not moving.
  • I was only rude to that retail person because she made these mistakes with my purchase – she wasn’t paying attention.
  • I didn’t hold the door open for the person behind me because they were taking so long and being lazy about not trying to get to the door faster.

As much as it pains for me to say this, we all do this, all the time. 

When we stay in this rhythm long enough, we begin to believe the stories we make about others. Whether what we’re telling ourselves is true our not.  This is self-deception. We’ve made judgements about people without proof or validation.  Suddenly, we stop seeing the other people for who they are as an individual with their own thoughts, feelings, needs, and difficulties.

Understanding that these three concepts are often fueling the “conflict fire”, leaders can better approach resolving the issue between two people by asking the following questions:

  1. Have we provided the other person with the time and space to speak, without interruption or feeling rushed?
  2. Have we actively listened to what the other person is saying?
  3. Have we removed our pre-judgment about what the person is about to say? 
  4. Have we asked effective questions about the situation and the other person?
  5. Have we understood the other person’s point of view or perspective?
  6. Have we clarified and confirmed our understanding of the situation?

Once you break the situation into facts, Johnny and Jane’s conflict is easily resolved by searching for the best investment for the extra $10,000 to help the company reach it’s goals in the next year. 


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