You cannot calmly discuss your differences with someone who has a shiv in his shoe.
You either have to get yourself a shiv or you have to walk away.
The pitiful thing about people who’ve read the self-help manuals about how to manage conflict and fight fair is that they don’t realize that their opponents haven’t studied up on sharing feelings and appreciating another’s point of view. They’ve been doing pull-ups at the gym while the anger management devotees have been doing deep breathing and learning how to put their anger into “I” sentences.
And here is the fork in the road about handling conflict. With whom are you dealing? If you are dealing with someone whom you know will fight fair, then rational discussion is the right strategy. But if you suspect that your ‘opponent’ if you will (or more mildly put, the person with whom you have a difference of opinion) is committed to winning at all costs, the risk of conflict blossoms like a mad, hyper-fertilized sun-blocking sunflower.
A friend once told me that a weaker guy who’s insanely angry will be able to beat up a much stronger guy who isn’t. That is because the weaker guy has decided that there are no limits, no punch, no words, no behavior is out of bounds. So while the stronger guy is observing normal rules of social disagreement, the weaker guy is using his shiv, waving a baseball bat, and breaking a beer bottle to use as an extra weapon.
Women who are first-time victims of domestic violence get this in the most visceral, astonished way. An abuser’s violent reaction to conflict is so out of bounds and so unexpected that the victim immediately questions her own perception of reality. Did he really do that? And worst of all, because it’s so unbelievable, she next asks the question: What did I do to provoke such a reaction?
Nothing. You just stood there with your little conflict-resolving self trying to reason with a person with a shiv in his shoe.
I’ve experienced the equivalent in my professional life where a person in a position of substantial power pursued a conflict with me in a no-holds barred way. The challenge was to keep my reputation intact while fending off attack after attack using weapons I’d never dream of using. During this time, I remembered my father’s advice to always stay on the high road. “Don’t sink to his level,” I could hear him say. But more and more, my opponent was putting IED’s on my high road. So even as I motored along, trying to be focused and professional, bombs were going off right and left.
Ultimately, I had no choice but to exit the situation. My opponent had a shiv in his shoe.
Not all conflict is like this, fraught with the risks of extreme and terrible behavior and consequences. I have conflict with my husband all the time. We are as different as two people could be. But we have no shivs. So we may go silent for a while, decide to be in different places, settle a disagreement, or let it go, but there’s never any risk. We won’t say the cruel things or make terrible threats. One can’t frighten the other, one won’t frighten the other. That’s not how it’s done. It’s not how we are.
We fight fair in a sucker punch world.
Written in response to a prompt from The Daily Post: “How do you handle conflict? Boldly and directly? Or, do you prefer a more subtle approach?”