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Personal Territory and Conflict, Part II – Psychological Territory

Good fences make good neighbors, or so our elders tell us. When it comes to personal territory it’s a pretty useful truism. We all need a sense of boundaries and space, physically, emotionally and mentally. There may be no more common source of unnecessary conflict and strife than all the ways we walk over each other’s personal fences.

In my last post I talked about physical and emotional territory (see HERE). In this week’s post I’m all about psychological territory. This least obvious of the territories people possess is also usually the one we’re mostly likely to walk into unawares. Most of us know not to stand too close to other people, or to treat their feelings respectfully. But how the heck do you see someone’s mental boundaries, what they think is theirs and worthy of defense?

The Shape of Psychological Territory

What are examples of psychological territory? Well, what are your political beliefs, for example? Progressive? Conservative? Independent? Green Party? People become deeply invested in their various political beliefs and, when challenged, can be very territorial about those beliefs. And, like other creatures who experience territory violations, we can get pretty reactive – angry, defensive, upset, going on the attack, all to defend our territory.

Personal values are another source of us feeling territorial, and as a result fiercely reactive. If I think that courtesy is the most important thing, and I see you being what I think is a jerk to someone, bingo, we’re potentially on the way to a territory battle. If I hold dear the notion that personal feedback is usually criticism then I’m going to have a hard time with anything about my behavior that you are critiquing. (Can anyone say “employee performance review”?)

Still another is our skills/experience/knowledge. How many meetings have you experienced where one co-worker questioned another’s ability to do something, or what they knew, or whether they had done something right, and suddenly you had a grumpy, irritated, defensive person on your hands? That’s all psychological territory too.

The point is that we react to things we think and hold to be true, real, important as if they were our possession – our territory. We are often unaware that we are reacting this way, but we are.

Something else to keep in mind is that our mental territory is one way we map the world, make sense of it. When that map is challenged it can be anything from mildly disorienting to disruptive to earth-shaking – and again, we can’t tell from the outside the degree to which someone is bothered by mental fence-crossing.

So when someone seems to be (or is) calling into question something fundamental to our mental map of the world, well, depending on how much the earth moves in response to that challenge, we can have some pretty intense reactions.

(Of course that doesn’t mean that we always react when we’re challenged. When the mental terra is pretty firma we might have no reaction at all, or even just be amused when someone crosses our fence.)

Implications of territory for conflict

1) One quick way to use this information is to simply allow other people their reactions. Practice seeing them as JUST reactions, rather than a personal attack on you/the folks in the room. If a colleague or client or family member seems to “go off the rails”, get defensive, irritable, etc., it’s a pretty good bet that they had a territory line crossed.

Instead of fixing it is often true that the most useful thing we can do is give another person room to process what they’re experiencing. It might resolve itself – it’s minor, it was a reaction, it’s over. Or it might be significant, but this is a bad time to address it, for that person, for you, for both of you.

2) It also might be useful to ask a low-key question about what’s irritating them. That can be helpful, or they may not even know why they’re irritated, mad, etc. We’re not always clear ourselves when we feel like someone has jumped our fences. Or it might mean an artful change of topic until they sort out why they’re reacting, or are in a position to talk about it.

3) And of course (you knew I was going to say this) it might serve to simply listen and reflect back what you’ve heard. One useful outcome of someone reflecting back to us what we’ve said is to HEAR ourselves – and especially when we’re reactive. That listening might just be what we need to get both clarity and a little distance from our fence-crossing reaction.

People are territorial – physically, emotionally and mentally. A little respect for the fences seen and unseen can go a long ways to diminishing potential conflict between people.


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