The Root of All Conflict

celeriacCan you believe a single three-word phrase is the basis for nearly all conflict? It is true that conflict shows up with numerous symptoms and there are many different ways of resolving it. If it were not for three words, and their implications, we would rarely experience the dysfunctional behaviors of conflict that cause interpersonal problems and billions of dollars wasted in business.

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes; each of us is a unique specimen. One universal truth we all have in common is an amazing ability to drive other humans crazy when we try to live or work in close proximity. Two people working in the same area day after day will eventually hurt each other emotionally, if not physically. Put three people together and it will happen even faster. When you peel back the various layers of symptoms, you always come back to the same three-word source of the problem.

Professional negotiators and conflict resolution consultants have hundreds of techniques to deal with the conflict problem and to try to get people to get along. Each one of us has some mixture of techniques we use, depending on the situation. Typical techniques for dealing with conflict include:

• Flight – Trying to avoid it or somehow get away from it.
• Smoothing – Trying to make everyone feel good.
• Negotiating – Finding a compromise that works. Looking for a win-win.
• Showdown – Driving for a decision. Demanding a judgment on win-lose.
• Confronting – Getting to the real issues. Finding the root cause.

In my leadership classes, I have a module on conflict reduction. I give each student a three-inch round button with the three words that are the root cause of all conflict. The words are “I AM RIGHT.” In most interfaces, each person has a personal opinion of what is happening, and that opinion is invariably “right” according to the person who has it. Reason: It is next to impossible for a person who is not insane to get his or her opinion wrong. If you believe it, then it is true for you.

If I have a disagreement with another person about a situation, the other person must be wrong by definition, because I am convinced that I am right. Few people will draw a conclusion about something believing it to be incorrect. I pass out the “I AM RIGHT” buttons to remind my leadership students that all people are, in effect, walking around each day wearing the same button. If we could only change the wording on these buttons to read, “I am not sure” or “I may be wrong,” then there would be less conflict and more room for constructive dialog.

If we can teach people to soften the zeal with which they believe their opinions long enough to at least listen to the case for an alternate view, then we can enable healthy consideration of both views and lower the level of conflict. One way the professional negotiators use to get people to do this is to reverse the roles. During a heated debate, it can be useful to get person “A” to attempt to advocate the views of person “B” and vice versa. That technique is easier said than done.

I recall having a heated debate with another engineer early in my career. Neither one of us was able to convince the other person that he was wrong. Finally I said to him, “OK Frank, how about we reverse roles; I will argue your side and you argue mine.” Frank was a smart negotiator. He said, “OK Bob, you go first.” I then proceeded to explain why Frank’s position was the correct one, then I told him it was his turn to explain my side of the story. Frank pondered for a minute, and said, “You know, Bob, after listening carefully to the description you just gave (which was actually Frank’s thesis), I agree with you.” He had me cold.

To lower conflict in your work area, teach individuals to recognize they are all wearing an “I AM RIGHT” button all of the time. Help people see that an alternative view is possible and should be considered. Encourage people to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and do their best to see the validity in their views.

23 Responses to The Root of All Conflict

  1. William Lewis • BOB, I CANT MAKE COFFEE FOR MYSELF WITHOUT AN ARGUMENT AND WELL, I AM RECLUSE BORDERING HERMITIC GREAT ATTRIBUTE OF THE GREAT ARTISTS. BUT RIGHT IS RIGHT, SPADE IS’A SPADE AND THERES NOTHING LIKE A GOOD ARGUMENT TOO CLEAR THE AIR AND POINT THE WAY. BUT I AGREE WITH YOU MOST PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE A MINDER AND LEAD-DOG ,’-) OR AM I READING TOO MUCH INTO ”I AM RIGHT”. THANKS BOB AND I’LL LEAVE YOU WITH A QUESTION. WE ARE IN THE SAME AGE CATEGORY I GUESS (I GUESS OFTEN OR THATS WHAT I CALL IT, GUESSING)

    QUESTION, DO YOU AS I? BELIEVE EVERY YEAR THAT PASSES AND ESPECIALLY AFTER FIFTHY, GENIUS, BRILLIANCE GREATNESS, OR PICK A WORD, ETC ARE ”JUST” SIMPLE CHOICES TOO BE MADE IF ONE IS PREPARED TOO TAKE THE ARGUMENT?
    (AND POSSIBLY HOW COMFORTABLE ONE HAS BECOME AND WORK IS WORK AND WHO NEEDS IT.)

    The Root of All Conflict: I havent read yet but will. Thanks again, William.

  2. Thank you Bob for another great article. I am “again” going to reblog it to my followers since the same discussion works when talking about adults working with children and adolescents. If we would take the time to listen and be open to alternative beliefs and opinions, there would be a significant drop in conflict and, I believe, in children labeled oppositional defiant disorder.

  3. Reblogged this on The Pediatric Profiler ™ and commented:
    This is a great article by Robert Whipple, The Trust Ambassador. When I work with parents and teachers regarding a child or teen labeled as oppositional defiant disorder, this very problem of everybody wearing their “I am right” buttons is the root of the conflict.
    What would happen if instead of, as the adult, demanding that the child/teen accept your belief, you took the time to hear the child out, ask them to figure out how your viewpoint fits with theirs or why it does not, and then develop an agreement as to why one way or the other fits the situation at the time. Yes it takes more time to do this, but it builds trust in the child that you are to be respected and treated with dignity. Would that be okay with your?
    Let me know your thoughts.

  4. mohamed badawi says:

    Thank you Bob , it is great article , i am agree with you , we should open our mind to the other side and keep in our consideration that they may be right , thank you once again

  5. Gotta love Frank’s answer, haha. Good article though :)

  6. Leo Salazar says:

    This is why in her article, “Paradox of Diversity in Organizations” in the International Journal of Diversity, Prof. Halleh Ghorashi quotes the philosopher Theo de Boer (1993) in what is a first prerequisite for intercultural dialogue. This step is called epochè, which is a temporary suspension of the truth of one’s own conviction. “This does not involve casting doubt on our own ideas but rather creating a common space in which we can listen to the other and get closer to him or her.” She points out what is salient in De Boer’s view is that, without suspension, discussion is pointless; without conviction, there is nothing at stake.

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ojcrqt28l0vprl/paradox%20of%20diversity%20in%20organizations.pdf

    1 second ago

    • trustambassador says:

      Hi Leo. Thanks very much for your learned response. I learned something here about suspension. Appreciate it.

  7. Great article. These three words not only lie at the heart of all conflicts, but also block our ability to effectively engage with conflict scenarios. In order to ethically manage conflict we must begin with the self-awareness that we could be–and probably are–NOT right. This is the difficult work of conflict engagement specialists, collaborative law professionals and mediators.

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jesan. The ability to consider the other person’s viewpoint as equally valid to our own requires high Emotional Intelligence. Would you agree?

  8. Mike Rogers says:

    Your right Bob! I loved the post and reversing the argument.

  9. $ANNY says:

    WORKING WITH “I AM RIGHT” BOSS HAS BEEN SO HECTIC, TRYING TO CONVINCE HIM IS SO DIFFICULT, WHICH THEN AFFECT THE OUTCOME

  10. I greatly appreciate your article. One part of it particularly struck me. It was after Frank reversed roles with you.

    “Frank pondered for a minute, and said, “You know, Bob, after listening carefully to the description you just gave (which was actually Frank’s thesis), I agree with you.” He had me cold.”

    Actually, he had himself cold. He displayed that he was probably at a sufficiently low stage of psychological development that he could not or would not reverse roles with you. It was likely he was at the Expert stage of development, where demonstrating that he is knowledgeable or “right” is a demonstration of his self-worth.He lacked the capacity to reverse roles or even imagine that a position other than his own could have merit.

    According to our research (Bill Joiner and me) 45% of the people roaming the halls of corporate America are at the Expert stage. This makes them good at tactical execution, but poor at strategic thought, delegation (if you want something right, do it yourself), and developing others. There are 4 stages above Expert, and being at them significantly adds to a leader’s power to effect change.

    One suggestion in working with someone like Frank: Get agreement explicit upfront that he will reverse roles. You can say, “Hopefully, if I’ve done a good job expressing your point of view, you will agree with it 100%. Are you willing to do the same with mine?” If he agrees, go ahead. If not, don’t bother. Without that agreement, any attempt at collaborative problem solving will be doomed. Or if he renegs on role reversal, call him on it, and ask him if he would like to get past a polarized position. If not, thank him and take your energy elsewhere.

    if you want to read a novel of how the brightest people (like Frank) can hold your company back (and how they can be transformed) you can read Dragons at Work (It’s on Amazon now).

    Again, thank you for your article.

    Stephen Josephs

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Stephen. Actually, he was making a joke out of it. We both laughed, and I cannot remember who won the argument.

  11. So all we really need to do is all wear a button which reads “You are Right”.
    I teach my clients simple conflict resolution and anger management techniques and that is one mantra i encourage them to remember and state when in a ‘situation’. I love the idea of everyone wearing a button that states it – pre-emptive ;-)

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Anji. Once you get people to wear a button for a day or two, it actually makes a rather permanent change in how they view themselves relative to others. It is amazingly powerful. I get the buttons made up 200 at a time, and they cost less than $0.50 each. When I work for an organization, I charge them $1.00 for each button, so I make up for the ones that I give away. It works out well. I have access to unlimited buttons at no cost to me.

  12. Bob, re: considering that an alternative view is possible

    The best advice I ever received about mastering photo composition was from Fred Picker who said “Assume you’re standing in the wrong place.”

  13. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your article seem to be running
    off the screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know.
    The design look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon.
    Thanks

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