We’ve all encountered people who seem to be an endless source of conflict.
You might hear them saying that others are doing terrible things to them. His boss is denying his promotion although he is the most qualified person for the role; a colleague at work has been spreading rumours about her; his ex is trying to steal all his money in a painful divorce.
Amanda Ripley called these people “conflict entrepreneurs”, and I like the term. They generate conflict whenever they go – and before you get too judgemental about this, all of us can become conflict entrepreneurs blaming others, not taking responsibility for our actions and accusing people of everything that isn’t going well in our lives.
If you don’t believe that, try to live with a teenager for more than a month and you’ll see what I mean.
When people get into conflict entrepreneur mode it feels as if there’s not enough empathy in the world to fill the void. You might try to ignore them, but that doesn’t work, as they have an amazing ability to generate an endless loop of conflict that becomes exponentially more complicated over time.
The first thing Amanda Ripley, author of the book High Conflict, recommends in such cases is to identify the conflict entrepreneur as quickly as you can, avoiding demonising them. We all can be tempted to criticise them for obvious reasons, but by doing this we’re doing exactly what they do. Life experiences and hidden traumas can fuel the “it’s me against the world” narrative, so acknowledging that one person is getting into this dynamic is the first step.
The second step is to try to find common ground. Is there any topic or interest where you can meet them that isn’t tainted by conflict? Conflict entrepreneurs tend to have a lot of energy, otherwise they couldn’t handle so many conflicts at the same time, so by meeting them outside the conflict narration you’re protecting them and others while at the same time acknowledging their strength and energy for starting new things. I love how Eva Marie Allison applies the Aikido principle of protection through connection to leadership:
“In Aikido, we never block or retreat. Instead, we blend with our opponent, their energy, and their intentions. We do not flee from an attack, we meet it and connect with it. In this way, we always know where our opponent is and can better sense their intentions and next move. While it may seem counterintuitive to come closer to an attack, it is the connection we have with our training partner that actually protects us. Once unified, we use that connection to redirect the energy of an attack to resolve the situation peacefully.”
The last step is to create some ground rules with your team about conflict and disagreement, so that everybody has a clear picture of how to engage with others. Sometimes the simplest ground rules work best; for example if you need more than three sentences to explain your disagreement in an email, consider booking a one-to-one call. You can also give people some quick tools with which to disagree on the spot when the matter is urgent and need to be addressed ( link), or help them to cultivate a more debate-like style to disagree using this simple approach ( link)
And as always, when it comes to conflict and disagreement, curiosity is all.
What am I not seeing or not willing to see about this conflict right now?