Four Questions for De-escalating Conflict

Repurposed for LeadingWithQuestions.com by Jay Payleitner from Chapters One & Two of his just released book, Don’t Take the Bait to Escalate

Congratulations. You’re a member of the human race with a sincere desire to play nice with all the other members of the human race. That’s an excellent goal. The Bible even challenges us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18 NIV)

What’s more, getting along with others increases your chances of making friends, making money, finding romance, raising decent kids, and doing other stuff you want to do.

But conflict, as you’ve already discovered, is inevitable. And it seems to be on the increase. Without getting too specific, recent months have seen polarizing hostilities spring up from politics, civil unrest, generational misperceptions, military invasions, social agendas, class warfare, unfair taxation, royal riffs, Oscar assaults, billionaire buyouts, and holiday gatherings with our extended families.

It’s clear that playing nice is not always easy. Still, for the most part, reasonable people (like you) are sincerely seeking peaceful solutions to a wide range of ongoing differences of opinion. Even so, your pride and ego want no part of any quick fix that requires you to be a wimp or settle for a compromise that leaves everyone unsatisfied.

The answer begins with the revelation that conflict is not in and of itself a bad thing. As a matter of fact, when approached with wisdom, common sense, and a whisper of optimism, conflict can often be a force for good. Examples are easy to come by:

  • On a high school baseball team, the two best athletes inevitably want to play shortstop. A good coach will use that rivalry to make the entire team better. Plus, those two boys who started the season as enemies will invariably become best friends.
  • Manufacturers may panic when they ship a defective product concerned about damage to their reputation. But a well-run customer service department effectively mitigating a crisis can often improve their reputation and secure a loyal client for life.
  • The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis nearly launched World War III. But dealing with that conflict led to the infamous “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin keeping the peace for more than 50 years. Someday historians will wonder why presidents Biden and Putin failed to reach for that red phone early in 2022.
  • When I lead marriage retreats, I’ll ask, “How many of you have hit bottom in your marriage?” About half the couples will raise their hands. With a wry smile I’ll add, “Ain’t it great?” The nodding heads and laughter confirm that couples who endure a rough patch or challenging season have stronger and longer marriages.
  • For decades, Union Auto Workers and the Big Three Automakers made headlines with their contentious negotiations. Yet, even during the grandstanding and posturing, both sides knew that when they finally came out of those smoke-filled rooms, a fair contract would be signed and well-built cars would keep rolling off the assembly lines.
  • An intervention organized for an alcoholic uncle is certainly preceded by all kinds of painful chaos and conflict. However, done right, he gets the message, goes to rehab, and God works a miracle.

Without conflict there would never be any reason for heroes, mentors, compromise, empathy, rules, reconciliations, or apologies. Let’s also agree conflict can add spice to life. The world would be a dull place without the occasional scuffle over a pretty girl by two high school suitors, a manager going nose-to-nose with an erratic umpire, or an antique buyer haggling over a couple bucks with a flea market dealer. In a well-run church, pastors and elders should occasionally debate policies and procedures.

James 1:2-3 reminds us that conflict can test and strengthen our faith, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (NIV)

In many ways, conflict is part of life on this planet. Conflicts crop up as a result of our own human temptations and the demanding nature of our culture. We see conflict every day between people who genuinely love each other, perfect strangers, people who have opposing ideologies, and those who seem to share identical worldviews. In other words, there’s a lot riding on the challenge of how to resolve conflicts. That’s all the more reason we need to have an effective plan for dealing with them.

We think of our workplace as the most obvious place for conflict, but really it’s our family and social relationships that may be the most blatant source. Just about everyone has memories of one, two, or twenty uncomfortable Thanksgiving gatherings. Lifelong friendships are often built on conflict as individuals find themselves vying for recognition in academic pursuits, on sports teams, or on the job with people of similar age, interests, and abilities.

Perhaps the most exasperating conflict conundrums come as a surprise. Your lovely niece is planning her wedding and suddenly your family gets sucked into her bridezilla vortex. While driving home from a nice evening  out, red flashing lights appear in your rearview mirror. I’ll never forget the surprising conflict early in my marriage when my wife and I found ourselves locked in a relentless battle in the supermarket peanut butter aisle over creamy vs. crunchy.

In every case, we have a responsibility to ask the question: Do you want to escalate or de-escalate? Once you choose to de-escalate, asking the following Four Questions drastically improves your chances of making your next conflict a proverbial win-win.

QUESTION #1: WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?

Entering your next conflict, it may seem like what you want is pretty straightforward. For instance, as the leader of the free world, you want the Russian military to stand down. On the job, you want that raise you richly deserve. You want your spouse to put down their smartphone. You want a peaceful Thanksgiving. You want your teenager to obey your curfew.

But is that really your deepest desire? Might there be emotional, relational, political, or professional needs that are equally or more important? Maybe your deepest need is for less stress or more respect. Maybe the root of your conflict goes deeper than you initially think. Your bottom line goal might be avoiding a nuclear war, better job security, or more intimacy in your marriage. Maybe you want Uncle Reggie to admit his drinking problem or your teenager to open up about their hopes and dreams.

Also, don’t always hope for an instant resolution. Rather than settle on some compromise that favors neither side, it may be worth brainstorming to come up with an inspired third option that delights all parties involved. When possible take the time to consider your own deepest, most heartfelt goals. Often your truest self doesn’t reveal itself until faced with a conflict that threatens your wellbeing or your carefully planned future.

QUESTION #2: WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

There’s risk to any conflict. Obvious and not so obvious. That idea shouldn’t come as a surprise. If it gets ugly, the risk is losing a longtime friend, client, or vendor. Words taken the wrong way can strain relationships in families, at the workplace, and between neighbors. Both parties may enter a conflict, negotiation, or debate in good faith expecting a fair exchange of ideas. But too often someone takes the bait to escalate. A back is turned. A door is slammed. A nasty email is sent. A button is pushed. A punch is thrown. A threat is made. Volume increases. Pride, greed, fear, or envy takes over.

Regrettable actions and emotions can occur even when both parties are sincerely trying to resolve the conflict. The repercussions can last long after. In the end—if you do get what you really want—the question may still linger: Was it worth it?

As a person of integrity, you may have no choice but to take a stand on issues of right and wrong. Other times, a conflict may not have moral implications, but threatens your economic well-being, your social status, or personal comfort.

Approach any conflict or potential conflict with your eyes open. Gauge a realistic appraisal of the worst-case scenario. Weigh that against the possible gain. After establishing what you want, decide what you are willing to risk. If necessary, act with devout courage.

QUESTION #3: HOW CAN I EMPATHIZE WITH MY ADVERSARY?

The world could use a little more empathy. Dwelling solely on our own problems seems to be the driving force for most people today. Even more troubling, we tend to live in a silo surrounding ourselves only with people who think exactly like we do which means our problems, opinions, and way of thinking are reaffirmed. Collectively, we whine, point fingers, wring our hands, and blame the other side—never stopping to think, Maybe they have a point?

Empathy is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing and understanding their perspective. That doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing, but we should acknowledge they have a right to an opinion. By taking into account their objectives, you open the door to productive negotiation. Empathy is the foundation of the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12 NIV)

Having empathy is good advice for dealing with friends and loved ones. It’s even better advice for dealing with adversaries. Thoughtfully considering the other side of the debate or negotiation drastically increases your chances of presenting a “winning” option for yourself.

Hint: To gain empathy, you don’t have to be a mind reader. You might try actually communicating with your adversary. Too often, we assume we know what they’re thinking. Being open and honest yourself will free them to put their own cards on the table. When both parties divulge the essentials of what they really want, more often than you might imagine a resolution is imminent. A little empathy goes a long way.

QUESTION #4: WHAT IF I’VE ALREADY WON?

In addition to empathy, the world could use a little more biblically-based optimism.

Christians especially should live in the light of hope. Our ultimate destiny is in heaven, but even here on earth we have the promise of Romans 8:28, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

In many cases, a victorious outcome should also be good news for both you and your adversary. Applying optimism to some of the above examples: Nuclear de-escalation and world peace might be something to shoot for, right? What if your pitch for a sizable raise gained you a partial increase plus an extra week vacation? Manufacturers need to equip their complaint departments to actually resolve complaints. A husband and wife who agree to seek a mutual win could surely find a few romantic options for rekindling that earlier flame. At Thanksgiving, what if you helped Uncle Reggie feel really loved? Bilateral respect between parents and teens can lead to great conversations about the future.

In any conflict, there’s work to do. Decisions to make. Risks to take. Two sides to contemplate. But by nurturing the hopeful and optimistic side of your nature and putting your best face forward, you increase the chance your adversary will bend toward finding a resolution you can both appreciate. Practice active listening, abstain from revenge, admit your own part in the conflict, maybe even bring humor to the situation or apply everything you’ve ever learned about positive body language.

In general, you’ll want to approach every conflict with the anticipation of a beneficial outcome. But it’s also worth remembering, a ”win” in your next conflict may not come in the way you initially hope or expect. You may discover that when you apply the Four Factors, your next conflict actually opens the door to fresh perspectives and unexpected solutions.

In the end, respectful debate clarifies and confirms your own convictions. Resolving international conflict strengthens borders and builds cooperation between countries. Those two boys fighting for a girl’s affection may come to realize she gets a say in the matter. Friendships and partnerships are forged in conflict—sometimes with your adversary. In marriage, healthy conflict helps husbands and wives see another side of each other which builds greater respect and renewed commitment to meet each other’s needs. Sometimes the answer to a conflict is easy and you realize that it’s quite reasonable to have a pantry stocked with two jars of peanut butter. One crunchy, one creamy.

Note from Bob:  You can order Don’t Take the Bait to Escalate by Jay Payleitner today by clicking HERE

Jay Payleitner

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jay Payleitner is a national speaker and best-selling author of more than 25 books. His latest release is Don’t Take the Bait to Escalate: Conflict is Inevitable. Being a Jerk is Optional. Published by Salem Books. There’s more at jaypayleitner.com.

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