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The Absolute Essentials Toolkit for Healthy Conflict, Part II

(Originally published October 29, 2019)

My Dad was a referee when I was growing up in Las Vegas back in the 60’s and 70’s. I was never sure when he took up this avocation, but by the time I’d reached junior high school he was already qualified to ref basketball, baseball, football and soccer (we all scratched our heads back then and asked each other “what the heck is soccer”?)

He had a blast as a referee. Some deep part of his rule-loving, structured soul enjoyed watching for offsides, illegal blocks and double-dribbles. He was so passionate about being a ref that when we went to watch sports games for the actual sport he couldn’t help but fixate on how good a job the referee was doing. It drove my Mom crazy…

He loved talking about being a ref as well. One of his favorite topics was how sports were impossible without rules. “It’s just a free-for-all, son, if you don’t have clear rules” was something he was wont to say. He was especially concerned as a ref with rules and player safety, and one of the ways you could make him mad was to disregard the rules to the harm of another player.

He had a point - a great point. Nothing makes conflict less interesting, and engaging in conflict more risky, than the lack of good ground rules. The lack of ground rules leaves people (metaphorically) bloody and bruised, often angrier than they were before the conflict started and even less inclined next time to risk having the necessary difficult conversation.

So it’s remarkable how few of us understand how essential ground rules are for functional, productive, healthy conflict. I don’t know if it’s just a symptom of the general avoidance of conflict these days (at least until it’s unavoidable) or if it’s a product of limited or non-existent conflict training.

Ground rules are essential if you’re going to get anyplace useful (and unbloodied) in conflict.

Some Examples of Ground Rules

Thankfully it is easy to get started working out some basic ground rules. In my humble experience there are a few that are almost universal, so I’ll get us moving with a few examples. One is using “I” language. "I" language is simply talking about what you're thinking, what you're experiencing, rather than making the other person the issue.

So, for example, "you really make me mad when you eat all the chipotle mayo" is NOT "I" language. "I get mad when you eat all the chipotle mayo" is "I" language. Easy, yes? I'm way likely to get defensive if you talk about you rather than me, especially around a sensitive topic.

For some people that sounds unnecessarily restrictive or soft. In truth coming at any difficult conversation is easier when we talk about what we think, what our opinion is, what we are taking away from what we’re hearing, etc., rather than using statements like “you always make me mad when you say…” or “you never listen” or other accusatory (sounding) comments.

One of the things that using “I” language does is defuse, to a great extent, defensiveness in the other person. If that was the only reason to use it then that’s enough, as ANY tool or behavior that increases the chances of engagement is a good one in a conflict situation. Double that if you or the other person is new to conflict…

Another useful ground rule is LISTEN FIRST (please see my last blog post to this effect). I’m sometimes asked how to decide who should listen first in a difficult conversation, and my answer is always jump in feet first. Listening is a ridiculously useful tool to disrupt and cool down the energy of conflict, and in some respects can’t be overused. When in doubt, listen, even if you're convinced that you're the injured party.

Another ground rule that is wonderfully effective is allowing for timeouts in a difficult situation. I don’t know where we learned the notion that once a conflict is engaged that we HAVE to finish it right then and there, but it’s often the case that people need to process their thinking, what they are hearing and what they want to say or do. Some of us can do that johnny-on-the-spot. Others among us need some time!

That might be a 5-minute break, a 15-minute walk around the block or agreeing to adjourn the discussion until later that day. In my experience it is important to agree to a return time, but giving people the psychological room to step away when they need to is, again, a great way to make conflict less risky and more productive.

What are the Ground Rules that YOU Need or Want?

It’s always interesting to me to learn what other people need to make conflict something they’re willing to try. Here’s a short list of some of the rules I’ve heard over the years:

  • No shouting or yelling

  • Shouting/yelling is fine

  • No slamming doors

  • Don’t drag other people into our fight

  • Make eye contact when you talk

  • No public fighting

  • Fighting in public is fine

  • No fight over 30 minutes/keep fight time limited

  • Affirm the relationship before you start the fight (I.e., "hey, you're important to me, or I really respect you, or whatever - and I need to talk to you about this thing that's bothering me.")

Here’s a couple of ground rules about ground rules to help you compose your list:

1) Talk about behavior, not about attitude – i.e., ground rules that talk about what someone says or does are great and useful, but we really can’t govern what another person is thinking or feeling. This can be a rabbit hole for ground rules and such rules are impossible to manage or govern. This can be enormously tempting. "Stop criticizing me in your thinking" is pointless. "Stop criticizing me in front of my mother" is outstanding.

2) Keep ground rules to as few as possible but as many as actually needed. 5 pages of ground rules are unwieldy and difficult to keep track of…

3) And, of course, establish these ground rules, to the best extent possible, BEFORE you actually engage in conflict –

The Sneaky Thing About Ground Rules

Yup, the cat is out of the bag now. Ground rules, for the most part, mean that you are preparing to have conflict. (Gasp.) It’s just like my Dad said – you can’t play the game safely if you don’t have some rules first.

And that may be the safest thing of all to do when faced with a difficult, scary conversation with someone in your world, this sitting down to talk about how to do conflict before you actually walk into it. Just the conscious decision to set boundaries like this is an exercise in making conflict productive and safer.

That doesn’t mean you can’t establish rules that you stumble across when you’re in a conflict discussion. You can. Which means one more thing: write those rules down someplace. If you’re at home put them on the fridge. (WHAT? The fridge? What will the neighbors think??!

That we FIGHT? Well, yes – and they should too, if they want a healthy relationship.)

If you’re at work and these are ground rules with a colleague then stick them in your drawer and take them with you to the conference room or bathroom or wherever you’re going to have that difficult conversation. If these are ground rules for the team, well, put them on the fridge! (Or the conference room door, or wherever you like that everyone can reference them.)

And yes, teams can have ground rules too. They SHOULD.

Ground rules. Utterly necessary and useful to productive, healthy, safe conflict.


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