A regular Conflict Zen® reader wrote to tell me she’s been working on changing her past conflict patterns, primarily avoidance. Linda went on to say (and I share this with her permission),
“Maybe it’s me, but now that I’m facing some of the conflicts and trying to solve them, I’m finding folks sometimes want me to do anything but. I hear phrases like ‘let it go,’ ‘it’s no big deal’ or ‘let’s move on.’ What are some questions I can ask myself to ensure that I am differentiating correctly between it truly being time for me to let it go and move on, and others’ avoidance just perpetuating a dysfunctional group dynamic?”
I love that Linda asked for guiding questions instead of the answer recipe, because the latter will always be formulaic and unsatisfying and the former is where the real richness rests. Finding your own answers is so much more satisfying that anyone trying to tell you what your answers should be.
In Confronting Conflict: Raise an Issue or Let It Go? I pondered a question similar to Linda’s. But Linda invites me to go deeper, so I’ll build on my earlier thinking.
There’s pretend letting go and genuine letting go of conflict
Pretend letting go is when you (or the other person) say you’re going to move on, shrug it off, or let it roll off your back — but you don’t really do it. Instead, you allow it to eat at you or influence your future interactions with the other person. Pretend letting go is just another form of avoidance.
Genuine letting go is when you decide to move on and hold yourself to your commitment. It’s based in self-awareness and commitment to act on your decision.
How do you know which type of “letting go” is at play in a conflict at work? Here are some questions to guide your thinking:
- If we let this one go, will it leave stale air in the room or relational debris we never really worked out?
- What is left undone if I let go and move on? Will that undone thing haunt me or the other person?
- Is it a big deal to me, even if it isn’t to them? If it is, they still have a problem because I still have a problem.
- What would it take for me to really let this one go? Am I capable of that? Is it the right thing to do for the long-term relationship or work environment?
- What makes them not want to engage the conflict conversation further? Are they truly done with it or do they worry the conversation will be painful, messy, or make things worse? If the latter, what would address their concerns so we can have the conversation we need to have?
There’s letting go we can do alone and letting go that involves the other
As Nelson Mandela approached the prison gate on his way to freedom, he “realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me. I wanted to be free so I let it go. It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.”
Mandela describes the kind of freedom and letting go that was his work alone to achieve. He could have asked or demanded his guards do something to give him “closure,” but he decided to use his own personal power to create the closure he needed without relying on their capacities or willingness.
Sometimes we can’t rely on the other person to engage and work through a workplace (or any kind of interpersonal) conflict because they’re not ready, afraid, or just not that interested. Then we have to do what Mandela did. And sometimes we can engage the other in a final “clear the air” kind of conversation that helps us close the door on the conflict. Here are some questions that help you decide whether you can do it alone or in tandem:
- What would a last conversation about the conflict achieve, beyond a painful re-hashing? Name what you want it to achieve, specifically. If you can’t, well then you’re probably done.
- Is there something I want to understand or have understood that I believe is possible to achieve in dialogue? Can I put words to what I need to understand?
- Is there something I’m hoping the other person will do (apology, for instance)? How realistic is it that they’ll give what I hope to get?
- Imagine doing what Mandela did. What would I gain? What would I regret?
For some ideas about how to let go, try my 2007 article, How to Let Go of Unresolved Conflict.
How do you decide when it’s time to genuinely let go and move on?