Why is that trying to resolve conflicts with some people feels like being locked in to a brutal Tug of War game? You may be faced with someone who has Conflict Competition Mindset. For many high conflict individuals, conflict is always considered a competition; a competition where the only acceptable outcome is when one party wins and one party loses. For a high conflict individual, losing is taken more seriously and more personally than it is for most people, making the stakes very high for them to end up with the win, whatever the cost.
Disagreements, disputes and conflicts are considered challenges, or competitions, in which the high conflict individual is driven to be victorious. In an argument they will need to prove they are right, and by extension that the other is wrong. Even in matters of preference or taste, they consider a difference of opinion to be a challenge they must win.
For the Conflict Competition Mindset, disputes and disagreements are a tug of war, with clearly defined opposing side. The results are going to end one way or another, with a winner and a loser. The idea of a tie or a compromise does not occur to them. If the other party gives up or gives in, that is a win. If they walk away from the fight, it is frequently considered it a win by default.
In the heat of the battle, the Conflict Competition Mindset can contribute to a high conflict individual losing perspective on the importance of the issue at stake, escalating relatively minor things into larger conflicts. They will “play dirty” trying to get others on their “team” by recruiting allies or by engaging in personal attacks on their opponents. Win-at-all costs is the approach of the Conflict Competition Mindset.
So what is the best advice I can give for how to keep from this tug of war type of conflict engagement? Don’t pick up the other end of the rope. Make it clear that you do not consider yourself in a competition over the results of the conflict. When possible frame the issue as the two of you against the problem, not against each other. Don’t let the high conflict personality define how the conflict or disagreement is going to be sorted out. Don’t buy into the framework that there must be a winner and there must a loser. Reframe a dispute as the search together for a win-win solution. Be firm that you are only willing to go forward in the process if the aim is to find a solution that works for you both, where you both “win”. Offer an invitation to search for creative options together, and even when provoked, resist the temptation to buy into the two sided, me against them, dynamic. In the case of a difference of opinion, disagreement, or minor issue, don’t take the bait. Be firm when it’s not worth a fight to you, and don’t pick up the other end of the rope.
For a person with a Conflict Competition Mindset, approaching a conflict as anything other than an all-out battle of strength and endurance may be very foreign and uncomfortable. This is where a neutral third party, such as a mediator, trained to help people resolve conflicts with productive strategies, might be a resource to consider. They can help redirect from old destructive habits and patterns and can provide a safe professional environment to approach finding solutions.
You know the old saying “it takes two to Tango”?; well, it takes (at least) two to tug of war as well. You will save yourself a lot of grief and struggle, if you refuse to participate in the back and forth of the competition, and leave the rope on the ground, as you go and search for potential positive resolutions to the issues at hand.
Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS, is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict, emotional management and leadership issues. She is a Credentialed Mediator and Certified Anger Management Specialist. As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, leadership and organizational consulting and training, anger management coaching, and curriculum and material development.
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