Behavior in conflict, like any complex human behavior, is changeable and can be difficult to change. Here’s one reason why.
Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a woods. The woods are filled with briars, tree roots sticking up from the soil, low-hanging branches. On the other side of the woods is a sunny meadow filled with fragrant flowers.
I ask you to get yourself to that sunny meadow as fast as you can. You have two choices for proceeding: One is through the woods I just described; the other is a well-worn footpath that leads to the meadow. Both are about the same distance.
Which should you choose, given my request? The well-worn path. It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s efficient. It helps you complete the task most readily.
Now imagine this: I ask you to get yourself to the sunny meadow, without benefit of the well-worn path, every day for a few months. You traverse the same section of woods again and again, back and forth.
What happens? You create a new well-worn path. The more you use it, the more worn it gets. It gets easier, faster, more efficient. Eventually the old path, unused, turns once again into thick woods.
This is the experience of adopting new habits for resolving interpersonal conflict, negotiating and becoming more influential in your organization. It’s the experience of unlearning your old, less effective habits. The neural pathways in your brain are like the well-worn path in my story. Adopting a new habit is the act of creating new neural pathways and letting the old ones wither.