My conflict work used to center squarely on helping people have the conversations that resolve conflict. As my work has shifted over the last decade to being more about helping people approach conflict in ways that don’t require my presence to be successful, some of what I do is about shifting conflict-related habits. Here’s one approach that can be very powerful.
When I squabble with my husband, I am the queen of the last word. I want the last word. I will have the last word. I don’t feel the need to have the last word with others, but I sure do with my beloved.
It is a habit I don’t like in myself and contributes nothing to restoring the peace. So, a few months ago, I decided I disliked the habit enough to break it for good.
The method I chose came from a confluence of three ideas bubbling back to the surface over the course of one week:
- During a coaching session, I described a mental trick a client could use to get herself out of an unwelcome emotional state. The “as if” technique is adapted from theatrical improv and invites us to act as if were are feeling a certain way or are a certain person or type of person.
- The next day I happened to explain philosopher Ruth Chang’s method for making hard choices to a dear friend of many decades. My friend’s adult daughter was facing a hard choice in a relationship and I told my friend about Chang’s important question, “Who am I to be?”
- A few days later, I was looking up a quote in James Clear’s fabulous book, Atomic Habits, and I stumbled across a phrase I’d highlighted: “Identity change is the North Star of habit change.”
Many moons ago my doctoral dissertation explored behavior and habit change. To better understand what motivates behavior, I researched factors that influenced university students’ safety-related choices when walking on campus at night.
Identity-based habits focus our efforts not on getting a particular outcome, but on becoming a type of person we want to be. James Clear calls identity-based habits the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation:
My research bore this out: Students who saw themselves as people who take care of their health were much more likely to take safety precautions (walk on well-used lighted pathways, walk in groups, etc) than students who had intentions to act more safely. It was the difference between “I know I should take safety precautions” and the more powerful, “I am a person who takes care of my health.”
Using these ideas, I decided that I am a person who doesn’t need to have the last word.
And then I set about being that person.
It was a very informative experiment. I used to think to myself, “Let go of having the last word, Tammy.” But inevitably, my husband would say something that really begged for a response. My ego just didn’t want to let it go and I would violate my own rule “just this time.” And the next. Sometimes I succeeded, but just as often, I didn’t.
But with my identity on the line, the experience was very different. Now I found myself thinking, “I’m not the type of person who needs to prove herself with the the last word.” Just that simple mental shift eclipsed the need to muster self-control in the moment. It didn’t matter how right I was or how unfair my husband’s last remark was; I didn’t need to talk myself into shutting my mouth.
I found it much more powerful just to be who I have decided to be.
Who are you to be?
Is there a type of person you want to be in the midst of conflict? When I ask my clients who they want to be during conflict, they frequently tell me they want to be “a calm person,” or “a person who others see as a role model,” or “a person who isn’t afraid of conflict.”
Who is the person you want to be? Dig a bit until you get to the essence. For example, sometimes a client might initially answer, “I want to be someone who doesn’t get flustered by conflict.” If I ask what causes them to get flustered by conflict right now, they may go deeper and revise their answer to, “I want to be someone who isn’t afraid of conflict.”
If you’re afraid of conflict, telling yourself you are a person who doesn’t fear conflict — and proving it to yourself successfully — is much easier in a minor disagreement with a friend or colleague than in a very tense team meeting. Use those recurring small wins to grow into the skin of the person you are to be.