In the past I’ve written about our mental models of conflict, those paradigms or lenses through which we view a conflict. Because our mental models often exist beneath our awareness, their influence on our behavior is usually invisible and unexamined. Navigating conflict better means, in part, examining these models.
Conflict "rules of engagement" are a type of mental model-they’re the conventions each of us uses to guide our behavior during a difficult conversation, and they’re often unspoken. We learn our conflict rules of engagement from our families, friends, communities, faith institutions, workplaces and schools.
Having conflict rules of engagement is a natural way to make behavioral choices during a dispute-it’s like having a behavioral compass. But here’s the rub: Our conflict rules of engagement aren’t universal. The rules we’ve each adopted over a lifetime are as different as the families, cultures and experiences from which we learned them.
In a recent workshop, I asked participants to reflect on and discuss their conflict rules of engagement. Here are some of the responses I heard:
- It’s always better to set a dispute aside and come back to it later with a clearer head.
- Never go to bed angry at each other.
- Deal with a dispute right away, get it over with, and move on.
- Never raise your voice.
- It’s ok to yell sometimes-it’s honest and it show’s how strongly you feel.
- Walk away, count to 100, and then talk about the problem when you’re calm.
- Never just walk away from a difficult conversation-stay with it until you work it out.
If this small sample is any indication—and I think it is—it’s not surprising that we violate each other’s rules of engagement, often without knowing it. And so the conflict escalates.
Effective conflict resolution, then, is a synergy between creative strategizing about the content of the conflict as well as thoughtful navigation of the process of talking about it. How and when we talk about the conflict is as important as what we talk about.
So, what are your conflict rules of engagement? Consider childhood lessons taught to you about dealing with other people. Then consider additional lessons or rules you’ve adopted along the way. Even consider the rules or lessons you no longer believe but may be so much a fabric of you’re being that they’re hard to discard.
Next, talk to those closest to you-close family and friends-about their conflict rules of engagement. Where is there overlap? What rule differences might get you both into trouble next time you disagree?