I want to stay calm and flexible in my negotiation with him, said Ann. My goal is to keep my center and allow my reasonable self to lead the way, instead of my inner lizard.
Good behavioral goal, right? Ann had been working hard to better manage her conflict triggers and had made excellent progress in low-stakes situations. Now she was about to negotiate with her husband about a money matter they’d been arguing about off and on for years – a higher stakes situation.
After the difficult conversation, Ann called me. Success! she cried into the phone. She had kept her calm in the face of the inevitable storm that had become their habit when discussing money. But her husband hadn’t. In fact, in Ann’s eyes, her husband’s behavior declined. She felt good about her own behavior but critical of the ways her spouse hadn’t been able to retain his own calm.
What’s going on here?
Ann’s new negotiating behavior has begun changing the dynamic between her and her husband. The new dynamic had likely thrown her husband off balance, maybe even left him skeptical, much the same way a grad student of mine had described his conflict behavior change experience years ago.
But that’s not all. Recent research has concluded that when a person goes into a conversation with an “impression management goal,” a goal for the way they want to act and be perceived by the other, they tend to rate the other person lower on that same trait.
Drs. Brian Gibson and Elizabeth Poposki, in their research titled How the Adoption of Impression Management Goals Alters Impression Formation, found that when we strive to make a particular impression, we tend to adopt a comparison mindset and see our conversation partner as having less of that same trait. Note Gibson and Poposki,
Our research highlights the notion that the impressions we form of others are not made in a social vacuum. By selecting particular impression management goals to guide our social interactions, we may unwittingly influence how we come to view others as much as we influence how they come to view us.
I told Ann about both this research and my grad student’s experience and encouraged her to be mindful of these ideas in their next money conversation. Taking an incrementalist approach to shifting a conflict dynamic is a good approach.
As is knowing about the ways our minds may cause us to unfairly measure someone else’s capacities.