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Why You Get Stuck in Conflicts at Work, According to a Harvard Negotiation Expert

Why do even rational people get embroiled in conflicts they can't solve? The root cause, says Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, is an adversarial mindset called the Tribes Effect, in which conflicts turn into "me versus you, us versus them." "People think, 'Let's just be rational and we can resolve our differences, we can resolve our conflict,'" Shapiro says. "Not true. Unless you deal with the core psychology to the conflict, the mindset that's driving you and the other side in the conflict, unless you deal with that, the conflict will persist."

Why do even rational people get embroiled in conflicts they can’t solve? The root cause, says Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, is an adversarial mindset called the Tribes Effect, in which conflicts turn into “me versus you, us versus them.”

“People think, ‘Let’s just be rational and we can resolve our differences, we can resolve our conflict,'” Shapiro says. “Not true. Unless you deal with the core psychology to the conflict, the mindset that’s driving you and the other side in the conflict, unless you deal with that, the conflict will persist.”

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Shapiro has launched conflict resolution initiatives in the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia, and advised world leaders and hostage negotiators, as well as embattled CEOs and families. For three years, he chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Conflict Resolution, and he created a youth conflict management program that spans 30 countries and a million people. Now, with his latest book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts, Shapiro turns his expertise to the more mundane struggles that afflict us all, those seemingly intractable conflicts that come up at home or at work.

“Every organization will experience conflict,” says Shapiro. “Every individual will experience conflict. That is a fact of life. The challenge is, how do you deal with conflict most effectively?”

In a recent interview with PayScale, Shapiro explained how what he calls “The Five Lures of the Tribal Mind” sabotage those in a conflict situation, and how being aware of these lures can help us to deal more effectively with the problems that inevitably arise in every life and career.

1. Vertigo

The first lure will be familiar to anyone who’s ever found themselves stewing over an argument at work while they’re at home … or vice versa.

“Vertigo is when you get so emotionally consumed in a conflict that you can think of nothing else but that conflict,” says Shapiro. “…The way I envision vertigo, it’s like you’re in the middle of a tornado, and those emotions are spinning all around you and you can see nothing other than that demonic other person in the tornado with you. Meanwhile, you forget that you’re just two cubicles. There are a lot of other cubicles on your floor, but you can’t see any of it. So I think you have to become aware of it, and you make a conscious decision, ‘Do I want to stay in this or not?'”

How to Resist This Lure: Become aware. Recognize that you’re becoming consumed by the conflict, and decide as a group not to get swept away. Once the automatic psychological process becomes a conscious choice, Shapiro says, you’ll stand a better chance of resisting vertigo.

2. The Repetition Compulsion

Freud invented the concept; Shapiro’s definition is “a dysfunctional pattern of behavior that you repeatedly reenact.”

“It’s not helpful to the organization, and they know it’s not helpful, and yet they can’t stop doing it,” he says. “So it’s more than a habit. It’s a compulsion. It’s almost like an addiction: ‘I know I shouldn’t drink, but I have to have another drink. I know I shouldn’t yell at my teammate, my subordinate, but I can’t stop doing it.'”

The twist is that when people try to break the repetition compulsion and adopt more effective behaviors, it feels unnatural, which makes the compulsion hard to break.

How to Resist This Lure: Shapiro suggests several ways to adopt more effective behaviors, including consciously adopting a new habit (knowing that it will feel unnatural at first), avoiding the trigger, and changing your interpretation of the consequences to reduce the stakes. The best approach, he says, may be to sit down with the other party and plot out the conflict, in order to figure out a way to break the habit.

3. Taboos

“Taboos are social prohibitions, things you’re not supposed to say or do,” says Shapiro. “My mother-in-law put it well: she said, ‘They are big no-nos.'”

The problem is, everything you’re supposed to do to resolve a conflict becomes taboo in a conflict situation, Shapiro says, including talking, listening, being open, and being respectful.

“What are you supposed to do in a conflict? Well, I’m supposed to not listen, I’m supposed to defend my side, I’m supposed to close my ears to your side, I’m supposed to be adversarial, so at a core level in a conflict, everything that we want to be doing, becomes taboo.”

Additionally, the core problem may be off-limits to discussion. He gives the example of a case in which the boss’s son works on the team, and is controlling or otherwise unproductive. It’s not against the law to tell the boss that her son is a problem, but it is against the unspoken rules – and there might well be a social punishment for bringing it up. On the other hand, by not talking about it, the other team members are adding to the dysfunctional dynamic and allowing the organization to suffer.

How to Resist This Lure: Shapiro says that there are three main approaches to this problem: 1. Accept it and do nothing, 2. Chisel away at the taboo, and 3. Tear it down. The right approach will depend on the situation, the players, and the corporate and broader culture.

4. An Assault on the Sacred

“When you feel that the most meaningful aspects to your identity feel threatened or attacked, you almost immediately move toward the Tribes Effect, toward that us/them mindset,” says Shapiro.

In this sense, “sacred” doesn’t necessarily mean having to do with religion, although that can certainly be a factor. Shapiro gives the example of a parent who feels that his children have been insulted by a colleague. It doesn’t matter how much sense it makes to work together or what’s at stake in business terms. Once he has felt an assault on the sacred, his co-worker is now his enemy.

How to Resist This Lure: “It’s important in a conflict to understand what people do hold as sacred,” Shapiro says. “…It’s so easy to otherwise step on someone’s identity.”

The goal is to become aware of what people hold sacred before the interaction takes place, learning as much about the corporate culture and personal values of the person you’re working with as possible. But, if you accidentally misstep, the solution is the same as it was when you were in a kid: apologize.

5. Identity Politics

Identity politics is “the way we position ourselves every single day at work. To be friendly with some people, to distance ourselves from others for some sort of political purpose,” Shapiro says. When you buddy up to the boss or distance yourself from a colleague who is in disfavor, that’s identity politics.

“It’s a necessary part of organizations, but it also can prove dysfunctional,” he says.

For example, two teams might be competing over budget. Each has a representative, who meets with the CFO privately to make their case. The problem is that this situation can quickly devolve into an us-versus-them mentality, which means that there’s a danger that everyone involved will forget that they’re all in this together. Ultimately, the health and success of the organization should be the goal.

How to Resist This Lure: Again, awareness is key. None of the lures are about rationality, Shapiro says. Recognizing the emotional forces at play can help people navigate conflict more effectively.

To learn more, check out Daniel Shapiro’s site or his new book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have trouble dealing with conflict at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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Craig Tallar

I have engaged in “repetition compulsion” where the facts presented that illustrated the cause of the problem, is not what the answer they wanted to hear. They want a solution without change. As far as “taboos;” is to present the principles that are not being applied to upper management that they cannot comprehend. Which you are then basically telling them that they are “ignorant” on the topic. And that there are many who supported this “ignorance” for years! Politics are always in place. And for most with upper management who are only versed in accounting or marketing, protect their egos… Read more »

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