Are You Ready for a Fight? Or Are You Ready To Try Something Different?

On a recent walk in New York City, I had an encounter that reminded me of an experience in a previous work environment.  As I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change, the person next to me bumped into me abruptly. Even as I turned to look, I heard his voice. “What’s the matter with you?” is the censored version of what he said.

The scene was a classic physical confrontation in the making:  he raised his voice as he started to gesture and wave his arms at me, he stepped back and then came forward again to close the distance between us.  Everyone else waiting for the light to change suddenly backed away from us, not sure of what will happen next but definitely sure they didn’t want to be any part of it. 

It’s strange what thoughts come to mind at times like these, and I’m thankful for my training.  I say this because it reminded me of many meetings at a previous employer. A number of people are trying to move forward together, and are suddenly disrupted by an individual who seems to randomly have it out for someone.  People have lost their train of thought, and for a moment are absolutely focused on both wanting to be anywhere other than here and imagining the horrible things that can happen in the immediate future. What they’ve all just lost is focus and direction, and their day may never be the same.  They are probably already imagining what they’ll tell their coworkers and friends, graphic details about the random act of violence that’s about to unfold any moment. Some of them are also wondering how they would react in the situation, perhaps recalling a similar incident in their past. I can see one person’s face change in this manner, and I assume he’s reliving the embarrassment and hurt he felt at that time and feeling sorry for me at the same time.

And here I am, seeing their faces and remembering what those meetings were like. I remembered how this person would shout and berate and start arguments in order to establish his perceived alpha role.    People were apprehensive coming to meetings with this individual, and the one-on-ones could be absolutely hair-raising.  And yet this person perceived themselves as bringing value to the organization. There is a difference between having no disagreement and not feeling comfortable to speak your mind.

When confronted, the common reaction is to focus on the threat.   Your heart starts to race, you can’t think straight, and you start to shake and stammer. You get tunnel vision and all you can see, and all you want to avoid, is the impending attack. When it actually happens, you’ll recall later that it felt like it was coming in slow motion but you couldn’t do anything about it.  These are common reactions in a physical altercation; the main difference in a verbal altercation is sometimes the intensity but the reactions are still the same.

I mentioned training before, and here’s where it makes the difference.  Years of martial arts training, doing private security, and using conflict resolution skills in the workplace as a project manager have prepared me for this moment.  If you don’t anticipate or plan for an issue, you won’t know how to react to it. If you expect an altercation, whether verbal or physical, you won’t be as surprised when it happens.  Plan often enough, prepare often enough, and the plan will start executing before you know it.  In the martial arts dojo, we call this practice.  In the workplace, we project managers call it continuous risk management.

By planning and anticipating, you can avoid simply reacting.  Remember that tunnel vision I mentioned? Tunnel vision is a reaction that prevents you from seeing the multitude of options you may have.  For example, many people react to conflict by either retreating or confronting. In reality, there are often other options.

So here I am with this person glaring at me and looking for a response.  I don’t go forward to confront or backwards to retreat.  I choose the third option and go sideways.   “Hey, if I bumped into you, my apologies. I guess I have a lot on my mind.  You know how that is. Maybe I’m hangry. I could use a burger and a beer.  Want to get a burger and a beer?”, I ask.  Maybe he’s right and I bumped into him accidently. Maybe I didn’t, but the actual fact does not matter at this moment. What matters now is diffusing the conflict safely without necessarily backing down or becoming a victim.

Now his focus has changed. The person who he challenged just asked him to join him for a meal.  The tables haven’t just turned, he’s just been invited to sit down at it.  He looks confused and doesn’t know how to respond for a good few seconds. He looks at me as one sometimes does in New York when you wonder if a person is two parts crazy. He shakes his head and walks away, and I watch him go a few steps before I start to walk, creating a non-threatening distance. 

With my colleague, it was the same concept.  When he would lash out, I would not react to his aggressive approach.  I would simply ask what he suggested as a way forward since the one that was presented wasn’t acceptable.  I made it clear that I was looking for a solution, not to challenge, and I offered to support the approach that he would propose. It only took a few times doing this for my colleague to realize this this blustery approach was not productive.  Not only was the team relieved whenever I’d defuse this verbal assault, they started speaking up and contributing more once they realized that they didn’t have to suffer a verbal onslaught. This improvement in team dynamics could not have happened without the conflict being addressed.

I’m sure you’ve been in similar meetings as I have. How will you respond differently the next time you’re in a similar situation?  What steps will you take to prepare for it?