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Move Toward Fear: Leading Conflict Principle 1

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

This is the first in series of articles covering the central principles of leading conflict in the workplace.

In recent articles, I talked about how to strategize like Ali, tell the difference between creative and toxic conflict, why workplace conflict can be so scary and even how to poke someone in the eye!

But all of those strategies won’t amount to much if you run away from conflict – or, more accurately, the fear that conflict produces.

You must develop the unnatural habit of moving toward fear, not away from it.

Millions of years of human development has ensured that a wide range of alarms go off in your body and mind when things aren’t going right between you and other people.

We are all hard-wired to connect to others, to seek deep and meaningful relationships, and like-minded people with whom to bond. When stuff happens between people to impede this from occurring, humans respond in fairly predictable ways.

You might lash out at others, avoid the situation, run away or even blame yourself. Your breathing tightens. Your pulse quickens. Your mind might race or feel paralyzed and blank. Your vision narrows and blocks out all but this one important thing – the event, the person or people in front of you right now.

This is the physical experience of conflict. Your body and mind both limit and heighten your attention and senses in order ensure that you are focused on what your evolutionary biology perceives as a threat. It doesn’t matter if the threat is physical or psychological, your bodily responses will be similar. Even for the interpersonal adrenaline junkies among us, this reaction is never really experienced as pleasurable.

The experience of conflict always involves some measure of fear and discomfort. It is learning how face and use that fear that, at a certain level of expertise, can provide meaningful positive experiences. You can’t eliminate the fear, but you can ensure that it is not your master.

Notice that I didn’t say that you can “master fear”. The goal isn’t to master fear. Fear is useful, normal and natural. Fighting fear is not a productive use of time and energy. Instead, you must practice simply recognizing fear and seeing it for what it is – just another emotion and range of bodily reactions. Fear will only control you if you let it.

Don’t fight fear. Make friends with it. Learn how it works in your body and what it is trying to tell you when it happens. Fear, properly utilized, is a wise advisor – not a dictator.

After you understand how fear works, you must understand how you personally respond to it. While the core experience of fear is fairly universal, we each react to it a little differently. Our own life history and experiences have a large impact on how we make sense of conflict.

You likely come to this blog with deeply ingrained reactions and assumptions about conflict. By the time you make it through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and then join a team of adults in a work setting, you are guaranteed to have a pre-existing pattern of behavior around the experience of conflict.

Take some time this week to think about how you personally respond to conflict and fear. Do you want to run away? Tend to blame yourself? Do you lash out? Or maybe you avoid and try to distract yourself. Learn to recognize your instinctive reactions. Listen to them. Pause to reflect on what happened to cause this reaction.

Perfect the small habit of pausing, reflecting and not running away from the fear. Then, take one or two immediate actions that take you closer to what happened instead of running from it.

For instance, you might immediately share how you are feeling with the person in front of you, tell your team that what is happening is not ok, or schedule that meeting with a colleague that you have been avoiding. Don't worry about fixing things yet. Just take some small action that helps you step in and toward the conflict.

Over time, moving in and taking action will become easier and more instinctual. As one of my mentors taught me, action cures fear.

Hopefully, this blog will help you understand yourself a little better – so that you become better equipped to help and serve others.

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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1 Comment

What a great blog John. Some really practicle approaches to learning how to better handle yourself in situations that have conflict. Somehting that almost all people find very difficult. Thank you for creating this content.

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