Got Dragon Breath?

Got Dragon Breath?

  • March 1, 2014

Are you regularly setting people’s ears on fire when you talk? Hold your dragon breath, please.

One of my favorite cartoons as a kid growing up in Austria was the story of Grisu, the little dragon. His dream was to become … a fireman. There was only one little problem: He kept accidentally breathing fire, which didn’t exactly help the firefighting part.

I meet many dragons in my conflict resolution practice. Some are like the mythical dragon whose movements serve as the model for a particular martial arts fighter style – strong, yet adapting to the needs of any situation with great flexibility. Many, however, are like little
Grisu – breathing fire just because they’re dragons. They can’t help it.

I understand. Not because I’m a dragon myself. I don’t do fire. I understand, because I’ve done enough self-reflection and observed enough different people in conflict situations to realize that, when our brain senses a crisis, we return to who we are deep down. And dragons – well, they just breathe fire.

As with any ability or trait, dragon breath has both advantages and drawbacks. Fire gets people’s attention, which can be a good thing when you’re trying to communicate. At the same time, the accompanying panic, smoke and debris can be quite a distraction, which is not such a good thing when you’re trying to communicate. As a conflict resolver, I’ve had to point out to many a dragon: The other person has something you want – whether it’s money, a product, cooperation, an apology, or just peace of mind. And she is more likely to give that to you if she’s not tied up tending to her third-degree burns.

As a mediator, I often have to keep the dragons sequestered in separate dungeons, uh rooms. (My idea of making peace does not include seared human flesh.) Sometimes, however, you may not have the luxury of staying in private quarters and negotiating with the help of an intermediary. In those situations, I have found some key ingredients to handling potential burns most effectively, whether you’re a dragon yourself or dealing with one:

* Diagnose. Take an honest look at your strengths and limitations, and how your communication style may affect the person in front of you. Find out what triggers the fire-breathing and how you could handle those hot buttons differently.

* Inoculate. Warn people that you’re a dragon, and suggest they bring a fire-proof suit. You may even want to share what usually sets you off, so people can anticipate your verbal blow torch and take cover. Commit to maintaining a flame- and smoke-free environment and mean it.

* Bring a First Aid Kit. Always have a strategy on how to diffuse the situation when someone is about to turn into little Grisu. Be prepared to crack a joke, take a break, or let someone else do the talking. If despite your best efforts you do set someone’s ears on fire, ask for forgiveness and help with putting out the flames. It worked for Grisu.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t do fire. Deep down, I’m a builder of bridges, mender of relationships and restorer of harmony – this is what I do best and where I go in tense
situations.

I’m not even a dragon on the outside. My martial arts instructor is currently teaching me a “dragon” kata, featuring much twisting and turning, rising and falling, and changing direction during strikes and kicks. My narrow frame and long legs don’t naturally lend themselves to that sort of thing. With patient effort, I’ll rise to the challenge. But there’s a limit to how dragon-like
I can move. Ask me to be a crane, and we’re in business.

If you’re a dragon, please know that I have the deepest respect for your abilities. Please also know that lasting relationships and agreements hardly ever flourish on scorched earth, so kindly hold your dragon breath. If you are truly unable to tame your inner Grisu, own it and
be thoroughly prepared for the situations when you can’t afford any accidental fires.

And if you’re like me and don’t do fire, rest assured that there’s no need to become like a dragon when you’re facing one.

When you’re tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department generally uses water.