We put people, places, things, and ideas into categories. Categories help us navigate the world and it’s natural to categorize. We categorize in conflict, too. But the tension of conflict increases the chances we’ll make category errors — and category errors can really get in the way of conflict resolution.
It’s two o’clock in the morning and your doorbell rings. You get up, put on your robe, and go downstairs.
When you open the door, you see a man standing there. He’s wearing a fur coat, has several diamond rings, and his Rolls Royce is parked in the background.
He’s so sorry to wake you at such a ridiculous hour, he tells you, but he’s in the middle of scavenger hunt and it’s very important to him that he win. His ex-wife is in the same contest, you see.
He needs a piece of wood about three feet by seven feet. Can you help him? To make it worthwhile, he’ll give you $10,000 if you can supply him with such a piece of wood. You believe him, as you should; he’s obviously wealthy.
How in the world can you get this piece of wood for him? Your mind goes to the lumber yard, but of course, it’s closed in the middle of the night. You don’t know who owns the lumber yard, so you can’t call to beg a favor. You struggle to come up with other ideas. Reluctantly, you tell him you’re sorry. He goes on his way.
The next day, you drive by a construction site near a friend’s house. Just sitting there is a piece of wood that’s exactly the right size, three feet by seven feet – a door.
You could have just taken a door off the hinges in your own home and given it to him, for $10,000.
Why on earth didn’t that occur to you last night?
Categories help us navigate life
It didn’t occur to you because yesterday your door was not a piece of wood. The seven-by-three-foot piece of wood was hidden from you, stuck in the category called “door.”
Categories help us navigate our world. They help us order, understand, and distinguish between things, people, ideas. Without categories, life might feel substantially more overwhelming.
We categorize circumstances, locations, and people in conflict, too: “Interpersonal conflict,” “workplace conflict,” “marriage conflict,” “difficult person,” “doormat,” “bully,” “frenemy.”
Categories also feed conflict
Over-reliance on or mindless use of categories, though, has a dark side. We can become blind to other ways of viewing and understanding what’s around us. Category errors cause us to miss the fact that a “door” isn’t just “something that opens and closes” or a “room separator”; it also falls into the category called “wood.”
We build our own and our shared realities and then we become victims of them – blind to the fact that they are constructs, ideas.
Category errors abound in conflict. They feed it.
We see a work relationship going south and we label it “interpersonal conflict,” mindless of the ways the new office restructuring is provoking the tension.
We see someone acting badly and label them “difficult,” failing to acknowledge that the categories “loving husband,” “tireless volunteer,” and “cancer fighter” also apply. We act to condemn their difficult-ness instead of challenging ourselves to look beyond the simplistic label we’ve constructed.
As we act again and again based on that original category, label, or diagnosis, we unconsciously tune out evidence that contradicts it. We mindlessly see what we expect to see, and in so doing, become increasingly certain of our view.
How to question the categories we’ve assigned
Here are some questions I’ve found helpful for challenging my own and my clients’ categories during tension and conflict:
- In what ways is the category I’ve placed them in (“bully,” “wimp,” difficult,” “liar,” etc) unfair? This questions helps us be more mindful of the ways we construct our own realities, and push us to look beyond our own harsh judgment.
- What “positive” categories does this person/situation belong in? This question helps us view things more multi-dimensionally and re-humanize our foes, both very useful conflict resolution skills.
- What categories would I like them to put me in and how will I demonstrate I belong in them? This question helps us choose our behavior mindfully and strategically.