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Be an Alien Anthropologist: Creative Conflict Strategies

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

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People are different. We each bring our own stories, assumptions, and worldview to work with us.

Sometimes, you have a clear understanding of the ways in which you see and experience the world differently than your co-workers and how this plays out in behavior.

At other times, the behavior of those with whom you work can be simply perplexing. It’s like you are from different planets. And in some sense, you are.

When something about another person’s behavior is alien to us, the impulse is usually to judge and reject that behavior. We all judge. It’s unavoidable. Frequently, it’s even useful.

Everyone is tasked with making thousands of decisions each day based on partial bits of data and split-second impressions. We sort this information by making lots of small judgements based on our expectations of the world around us. Some of this is conscious, but most of this activity is subconscious and instinctual.

When the world doesn’t behave the way we expect, we tend to reject what doesn’t fit.

Many workplace conflicts are more about these mismatched expectations than they are about actual concrete disagreements. These “fights” typically revolve around radically different interpretations of a shared experience or event. Those differing interpretations are rooted in the diversity of life experiences and beliefs among colleagues.

When this happens, hold back on the judgement. Instead, become an alien anthropologist.

Try approaching the situation as if you have landed on a strange and alien planet orbiting a far-away star. Assume that your usual assumptions will not apply. The beings here are different and have evolved according to a radically different set of needs, assumptions about life, and expectations.

When you meet a Gorn at work, don’t fight like Kirk. Investigate like Spock.

As an alien anthropologist, you are not here to judge. Instead, be curious. Learn their ways and how they think.

When leading conflict as an alien anthropologist, practice the following strategies:

Model curiosity by admitting that you are surprised by what is happening and you are interested in learning more about it. Unexpected behavior frequently leads to toxic gossip and backlash unless someone demonstrates how to have an open and productive discussion about what is happening. The natural tendency is to judge and reject the novel and unexpected. Avoid this by taking an explicit and public position of curiosity as a leader.

Make the time needed to expand the conversation and go deeper into what happened. Avoiding awkward and uncomfortable conversations only saves time in the short-term. Few things are more valuable than an opportunity for your team to learn more about what makes their colleagues tick. There are no shortcuts to really understanding one another. Seize the moment.

Ask open-ended questions that encourage people to share their personal perspective, not make judgements or tell others what they should be thinking and feeling. Ask that people speak only for themselves. Some useful questions are: “What were you thinking about at the time?”, “What’s been the hardest thing for you?”, “What would better look like for you?”, “What’s one way you are contributing to the current situation?”, “What’s one thing you are willing to change about your own behavior?”.

Encourage storytelling. Most behavior at work has some analog in life outside the office. As you build trust within a team, encourage people to reflect on how similar behavior and events manifest in their relationships with friends and loved ones. When someone does something unexpected at the office, it’s often a misapplication of a behavior that “works” in another area of life. These habits can be hard to change and its useful to talk about that. A good leading question is: “I’m sure this has come up for you in other areas of life. Can you tell us more about that?”

Practice the strategies above and you’ll set out into the cosmos with renewed confidence that your next alien encounter will be a fruitful one.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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