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The Great Equalizer

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

There are some domains of human life that are great equalizers. They humble the proud and exalt the modest. Conflict is one of those domains.

As most Leading Conflict readers and subscribers already know, I’m a big boxing fan. The best part about boxing isn’t the fight itself – the physical part. Instead, I find the mental landscape fascinating.

For instance, the article Lead Conflict Like the Goat, explored how Muhammad Ali mastered the psychological art of the game. For Ali, the real fight began long before the first-round bell. He was always several steps ahead of his opponents; mentally as well as physically.

In How to Take a Punch at Work (Part 1), I explained how crowd favorite “Irish” Micky Ward embraced risk and suffering in the ring; something even boxers fear. Part 2 applied these lessons to leadership and broke down some of the simple (but hard) skills to master when learning how to absorb criticism and confrontation at work.

Here’s another lesson I learned from the “sweet science”. The ring, like your ability to lead conflict, is a great equalizer. Expertise in helping others through the uncertainty of conflict is not gained by title or rank, only by effort and experience.

Many of my greatest mentors in the realm of interpersonal conflict had otherwise humble titles. Conversely, I’ve seen many people with flashy job descriptions who reside at the top of their organizational pyramid, choke and run when confronted with mundane interpersonal challenges.

During a boxing lesson at the highly recommended Trinity Boxing Club in lower Manhattan, I was doing some pad-work with a trainer. He was an experienced heavyweight fighter and an imposing mountain-of-a-man. As with any great boxing trainer, you pay for the boxing instruction – the life-lessons are complimentary.

Mid-workout he asks me with his thick Brooklyn accent, “What do you do in the world? You seem like a guy with an important job or somethin’.” I tell him what I do while gasping for air like a guppy out of its bowl.

“Huh… That’s interestin’.” He pauses, then adds, “You know what the best thing about boxing is? No one here gives a s**t.” Then he went back to calling out combinations for me to perform (poorly, I might add…).

He wasn’t being a jerk. What he meant was that no matter who you are (or think you are) in the outside world, it doesn’t matter when you step in the ring. All that matters is how well you can box. The world gets very small in those moments.

So, I think he would say, get all of that other stuff out of your head and focus at being better at this. The respect you think you deserve, the great things you’ve done in the past, your image, your ego – all of these things will beat you if you can’t set them aside and focus on what’s happening in front of you. Here. Now.

Neither the left hook coming for your head, nor the coming confrontation with your colleague, care where you went to college.

The emotional and psychological responses to interpersonal conflict are the same in the ring and the office. The brain cannot really tell the difference.

Panic, fear, insecurity, desire for respect, and the impulse to “cover-up” and protect our ego, are experienced the same by all of us. This makes interpersonal conflict, like fighting, a domain of human experience that acts as a leveler.

When the spotlights lights are on and there’s just two of you in the ring, everyone will know just how much you know – and more importantly, whether you can deploy it under pressure. There’s no hiding.

This is why interpersonal conflict is an incredible opportunity. If you’re the newest employee, conflict is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

And if you’re already a senior leader, know that this is an area of leadership that, regardless of what they say, most other leaders fear and avoid. Developing real expertise in this domain greatly magnifies the impact of your other talents.

At the club that day, there was an up-and-coming fighter in the ring with his trainer; a teenage kid from a nearby neighborhood. Whatever other advantages I have in life would have meant nothing if I stepped in the ring with him, which of course I had the good sense not to do. That is his world and he is a master in that domain. At sixteen he already knew far more about the psychology of conflict than me.

After all, that’s why I was there. I wanted to learn from the real experts.

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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