Taking Ownership of Conflict and Relationship Breakdowns

Taking ownership of our role in conflict instead of hiding from it, stressing or making it worse, can pave the way for avoiding relationship breakdowns. I recently chose to own a conflict with a family member based on practices outlined in the book, Leadership and Self Deception – Getting out of the Box, by The Arbinger Institute.

Moment of truth: “I feel like such a jerk as I have always judged you as lazy,” I said to a close family member. “As a result, I only focus on what you are not doing, versus the great work you do.” There is a pause. “I felt so justified in my limiting beliefs about you that I set you up for failure – you could never win with me. I am sorry and I won’t do that again.” After another awkward pause, he says “Thank you.”

According to the book, most conflict begins when we betray ourselves by doing the opposite of what we know is right. Betrayal can come from being a victim of others, fear, making others wrong in order to feel better about ourselves, or maybe to hide our failures in the relationship.

Betrayal can be as simple as: “I should give them feedback, but I won’t.”  Betrayal gets amplified when we start justifying our choice. This could look like “I am going to let them fail – they are not worth it”, or “They don’t care about me or what I want.” We start turning the other into an object worthy of criticism and labeling. This is de-humanizing as it disregards that others too have needs, values, desires and wants, like all humans do.

To explain how this all works, I will use the family member example above. As you read this, reflect on one person you view as ‘the’ problem and what you might be doing to contribute.

1) Betraying what you know is the right thing to do. ‘They are not offering to help yet again. I won’t say anything.’

2) Self-justifying the reasons for betrayal to achieve self-validation; treat the other as an object, not a human. ‘He doesn’t care about others at all and why should I care about him. He will eventually learn a hard lesson – there is no ‘I’ in team.’

3) Distorting reality by imposing your truth and limiting beliefs on the other and resisting objective thinking.  ‘He is lazy and couldn’t care less. No wonder he is not successful!’

4) Transforming our character by adapting behaviours to match the distorted reality. ‘I will show him what hard work is!’ I become difficult, angry and hard to please.

5) Breaking the relationship as the other starts to treat you like an object as well. It is hard to be around each other without being angry and resentful.

6) Amplifying the problem despite any positive change. Neither wins due to validating ongoing distorted views. ’Even if he isn’t lazy, I won’t praise him or change my opinion as that would make me wrong.’

7) Gossiping to gain the support of others which increases stress in self and others. ‘I will share my frustrations with others so that I can feel even more justified.’

8) Not focusing on results, but rather focusing on what is not working. We secretly want the other to fail. I become difficult to be with. We are each no longer focused on relationship, but instead, self-preservation. ‘Nothing is resolved and in fact, I hope he fails.’

Effective leaders avoid self-justification and interpersonal conflict by seeing others as they are. They deal with problems, objectively, when they begin so that teamwork is not compromised. This takes self-awareness of our part in conflict, understanding what threatens our ego and knowing that others’ actions are merely a reflection of how we see them as or how they learned to work with us.

Unhealthy interpersonal conflict can be avoided simply by caring about another, rather than resisting them. It may be easier to point fingers but by taking conflict ownership, we are more likely to build more relationship bridges than dams.

Kwela’s Conflict Resolution course gives participants a high level of confidence in the tools needed to help in this area.

Glen Sollors, Partner