I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool: Part 2

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool: Part 2

Practices to strengthen your capacity to navigate conflict

In my last post, I wrote about the challenges of navigating conflict, especially where people have long-standing reasons for distrust and disagreement. I outlined three ideas for strengthening your capacity to navigate complex challenges by: (1) reframing collaboration, (2) deepening your self-awareness, and (3) refining how you listen and communicate [ii]. Continuing the conversation, this is focused on practices that can help build your capacity to navigate complex challenges.

Putting ideas into practice.

You don’t have to start by taking on world peace; just look to the conversations, challenges, and conflicts you face in the course of a typical week, and start there. It’s like that quote you see on inspirational posters at the gym:

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training. ~ Archilochus

That’s as true for navigating conflict as it is for climbing mountains or running marathons. (And yup, some people are naturally gifted, but most of us need to train…) It’s worth practicing. We can learn about our strengths and weak spots, and develop more skillful approaches so that we’re better prepared when the high-stakes stuff comes along.

For the next week, make an appointment with yourself at the end of each day to reflect on the following questions and practices.

Plan on about 10-15 minutes as a quick check-in. You may find it useful to keep a running list, so that you can notice patterns as they emerge over the course of the week. [Background on the underlying ideas for these practices is here.]

(1) Notice how your views about collaboration and conflict showed up:

We need to engage with others AND assert our individual interests and views. If we only focus on common ground, we minimize real differences and capitulate to the will of others. When this happens, we gloss over real issues that need to be addressed. On the other hand, if we only assert our own interests, we disregard our interdependence and impose our will on others.

  • Did you tend to focus on common ground and minimize differences?
  • Did you tend to assert your position and minimize common interests?
  • How well did you hold the tension of allowing for common ground and meaningful differences?

(2) Deepen your self-awareness:

A high level of self-awareness is a crucial foundation for navigating conflict effectively. If your lizard brain is feeling threatened and a flight/fight/freeze reaction is triggered, you’re not going to be at your most resourceful.

  • In navigating whatever conflicts you faced today, what did you notice about your motivations and your internal narrative? When did you find yourself forming judgments, and when did you find yourself getting curious?
  • How did you view the people you were dealing with? When did you see them as human and when did you see them as something less than human—as an obstacle, an inconvenience, an enemy, etc.? (The capacity to dehumanize isn’t just something that ‘those other bad people’ do, so it’s worth checking in with ourselves on this. Again, seeing somebody’s humanity doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with them or that you’ll expend much energy addressing their concerns, but it does help to create greater clarity.)
  • What choices did you make? What served you well? And, given the opportunity, what might you do differently next time?

(3) Refine how you listen and communicate:

Skilled communications involve receiving and making meaning of complex information from multiple sources. While we sometimes go through the motions of conversation, sometimes the quality of our listening and speaking limit what’s possible. Take a look at this summary of four different levels of conversation [iii], and assess how much of your time you spend on each level.


  • Notice the routine quality of your conversations. At the end of each day, review the time you spent in conversations (meetings, meals with others, etc.). At what levels did you spend the most time? What did you notice about how you listen compared to how you talk? Are you listening to understand, or are you rehearsing your point? [Four levels of conversation are described here.]
  • Practice in some low-stakes settings, such as routine staff meetings, lunch with a colleague, etc. While you’re in conversation, look for opportunities to expand your listening and talking at Levels 3 and 4. Notice what impact it has.
  • Think of a conflict or challenge that you’re experiencing with a particular individual. Brainstorm what it would sound like to be engaged in conversation with them at each of the four levels. What are the strengths and limitations of each level? Practice both what you want to say, and how you might elevate the quality of your listening. What are you curious about with this person? What might you want to pay attention to, in addition to what is spoken? Ask a trusted colleague or friend to be a sounding board as you role play versions of this conversation.

YOUR TURN: I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • What practices help you stay grounded and focused when your face conflict?
  • What helps you recover quickly if you find yourself getting rattled?

Please share your comments below.


[i] Title quote: Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s pithy example of the concept that we tend to view our own actions more charitably than we view the actions of others. From a 1948 BBC radio program, cited in Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, Cambridge University.

[ii] This article draws on ideas from Collaborating with the Enemy, by Adam Kahane; Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute; Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown.

[iii] The four levels of conversation is lightly adapted from Theory U by Otto Scharmer.

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