"We're Not In Kansas Anymore, Toto!"
Each person in a conflict has their own story.
These stories play
out as dramas, in which we see ourselves as the innocent victim
(or, perhaps, the righteous hero) and cast our adversary as the villain.
Our adversaries, on the other hand, see themselves as the victim
(or hero, standing up for themselves) and see us as the villain.
This cycle of victimization, attack and defense can be characterized
as a drama triangle of conflict - a dynamic that locks us into
confrontation with winners and losers, right and wrong.
One person's hero, however, is another's villain, as both roles are
marked by aggressive behaviors that impose what is "right" on others.
How we label people
We label people based on how their actions impact us. When we
feel attacked or disrespected, we assume the other person intended
that result and characterize them as a villain. (We justify our own
actions based on our noble intention and the righteousness of our cause.)
Being aware of the culture in which a conflict occurs helps us clarify
these assumptions by understanding someone's motive or intention.
I refer to "culture" in the broadest sense - the values and norms that
reflect "how we do things around here." "Here" could pertain to
religious or ethnic communities, families, organizations or nations.
In their book, Turning Conflict Into Profit, Larry Axelrod and Roy
Johnson go so far as to state "every communication is a cross-cultural
communication" (i.e., colored and influenced by each person's unique
Culture can be seen as the lens through which we judge behaviors
and we characterize people as victims, heroes or villains. Behaviors
lauded as admirable in one culture ("she is forthright" or "you know
where you stand with him" may be judged as inappropriate and
unacceptable in another culture ("she is so aggressive" or "he's
always in your face.")
In some groups, arriving ten minutes late
for a meeting would be considered rude and disrespectful. In other
groups, no one would think twice about it.
From judgement to curiosity
People who feel judged
and misunderstood naturally become defensive, escalating conflict
To break this cycle, switch from judgement to curiosity and seek to
understand the underlying values in a conflict.
A colleague recently moved to a new organization that described
itself as open and collaborative. She therefore assumed she would
be invited to express herself at meetings and receive balanced and
ongoing feedback on her performance.
Instead she became increasingly
frustrated as she found herself fighting for airtime at meetings and
hearing from co-workers only when there was a problem. It took her
several months (and many challenging conversations) to understand
this new culture.
Reflecting ethnic values around directness, the
organization expected people to speak up if they had concerns and
took "no news as good news." Behaviors which she judged as rude
or even hypocritical were simply "the way we do things around here"
and were not intended to disrespect her in the least. Her co-workers
likely viewed her as passive or needy.
Once the cultural underpinnings
of these conflicts were surfaced and addressed, she was able to negotiate
about airtime and feedback and adjust her own style (and expectations)
Had she not remained curious (and had the courage to
confront the situation) the cycle of judgement would have reinforced
and hardened the conflict. ("They are clearly villains! I can't believe
they are treating me this way!")
Heroes vs. villians - flip side of the same coin
Our values and history lead us to judge similar behaviors very
differently. Consider what values might be reflected in some of
the following characteristics normally ascribed to "heroes" and
"villains" in our conflicts:
A hero is...
- takes charge
A villian is...
These can be seen as flip sides of the same coin
In a recent workshop,
a participant who had spent years in a male-dominated, competitive
industry told of attending her first girl guide parents' group. During
the meeting, in the spirit of give and take to which she had become
accustomed, she disagreed with another mother's suggestion. Her
comment was met not with the healthy debate she expected, but with
It's not hard to imagine who was cast as the villain in that particular
culture - judged for the same behaviour was demanded of her and made
her successful in her corporate culture.
So next time your find yourself involved in a conflict, stay curious.
Instead of reacting automatically and characterizing the other person
as the villain, ask:
"How might they characterize their behaviour? What's their intent?"
- "What assumptions might I need to clarify?"
- "What do I value and what might I need to do to assert that value?"
This active curiosity will allow you to clarify assumptions and uncover
the problem instead of judging or attacking the person. By separating
the person from the problem, you can devote your energy to problem-
solving rather than being caught in the ongoing drama triangle of conflict.
This has two benefits: we can make sense of people's conflict "stories"
identify the root of the problem; at the same time, these stories provide
us with a window through which to gain insight into the culture in which
the conflict occurs.