The right thing.

“I am rubbish at dealing with conflict! I never do the right thing!”

“For instance?”

“Like, the other day four guys in a car started shouting abuse at me in the shop car park, and I didn’t do anything. I just walked away as quickly as possible, got in my car and left.”

And that’s where so many people’s heads are at. Resolving a confrontation in a way that maximises safety is “not doing anything”. A result of “I got home untouched” is a fail.

Try asking people who absolutely detest conflict – not just physical violence, but any sort of interpersonal friction – to describe somebody who’s good at dealing with it. Many will come up with someone falling somewhere between “unnecessarily confrontational” and “giant flaming asshole”.

I think that this is a direct result of the fact that we deprive people of the opportunities to learn and practice conflict-management skills. We’re farming conflict resolution out to third parties. In school, call a teacher. At work, call Human Resources. On the street, call the police. Do not attempt to resolve the situation yourself; that carries not only the risk of failure, with resulting consequences, but also the near-certainty of getting punished socially.

Determining whether farming out conflict management is a Good or Bad thing is largely an ethical issue. For instance, would you send a child to a Zero Tolerance school? What would be your criteria for making that decision? Would you look at their results – their statistics on bullying or academic achievements – or the ethics behind their policies? Let’s park the philosophy for the now, though, and concentrate on the fallout.

I think most of us will agree that if you don’t learn and practice conflict management skills, they’re unlikely to be there if/when you need them. We’re bringing up people who are uncomfortable around conflict because they have been deprived of the chance to become comfortable around it, to model different strategies, to work out what actually works for them.

Because conflict is such unfamiliar territory, people see it as frightening and/or epic. Furthermore, it’s seen as an occasional aberration – an Event – rather than as part of the way humans interact on an everyday basis. People raised to be unnaturally* fragile and meek embrace the myth of the glorious warrior who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and damn the consequences. That colours their perception of what “success” looks like.

Too often, we want to Win. We want to “teach them a lesson”, or “show them what’s what”. We want to be Genghis Khan, crushing our enemies and hearing the lamentation of their significant others. But Genghis didn’t have to work with his enemies the following week, or eat food they prepared… And he had a horde of mongols as back-up… And he wasn’t going to get arrested for disorderly conduct, or fired…

We act as if a familiarity with conflict, an awareness of our abilities, would make us more likely to hurt others. I reckon that the opposite is true.


And, best of all:

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