I was icing my bruised forearms, feeling grateful. Not because all my bones were still intact. Okay, maybe that too. I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in an advanced martial arts seminar with the grandmaster, a tenth degree black belt in Kenpo Karate. I was grateful for deepening my understanding of how to resolve conflicts effectively.
My forearms were bruised from practicing the finer points of blocking an opponent’s strike. To the uninitiated, blocking may sound like a good idea. After all, you managed to not get hit, right? True, but that’s pretty much it. You haven’t done anything productive to end the fight, because your opponent will happily strike you with his free limbs. The uncomfortable truth is: You block when you messed up. Based on your flawed assessment of the situation, you moved out of the way too late or in the wrong direction. Now all you can do is block. It’s better than getting hit, but you still messed up. And since we all mess up sometimes, we practice blocking. And go home with bruised forearms.
How does this relate to resolving altercations of the non-physical kind?
Many people in conflict get sucked into protracted arguments about the “issues” – the points where they vehemently disagree. Whether you’re in litigation over the breach of a multimillion dollar contract, arguing with your neighbor about his tree blocking your view, or negotiating curfew time with your teenager, the underlying dynamics are identical:
You know you’re right, because there is clear evidence that contradicts the other person’s untenable position. Since you believe that humans are mostly rational beings, you proceed on your quest to convince your counterpart that she’s wrong by presenting irrefutable facts in your favor. While you are engaged in this most productive endeavor, you notice that the other person is not bowing in deference to your compelling reasoning. Curiously, your counterpart is wasting her time presenting weak facts supposedly in her favor but really supporting your own vastly superior arguments. You continue your verbal ping pong match, defending your respective positions and BLOCKING. You’re getting more convinced by the minute that you’re right. For reasons that are beyond you, the other person seems to become increasingly convinced that she’s right.
Say, you are fighting with your spouse over where to go for dinner. Giovanni’s Hole-in-the-Wall or The Maharaja’s Palace? Things are getting heated. ‘You picked the restaurant last time!’ ‘No, I did not!’ ‘You always get to choose!’ ‘So not true.’ Block. Block. Block. ‘You picked The Lucky Bamboo last week, and I don’t even like Thai.’ ‘That was an exception – we were celebrating my promotion.’ ‘Well, how about the time before when you insisted we meet your friends at this steak place, and I’m a vegetarian?’ ‘Those were special circumstances – it’s the only place my friends like.’ More blocking. Nothing productive is happening to resolve your dispute, and you’re frustrated: Why can’t your spouse just face the obvious reality that you’re the victim of long-term culinary bullying? What is going on here?
Blame a cognitive phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” Psychological research shows that, when people are confronted with information that contradicts their opinion, they usually don’t change their mind, and some may cling even more strongly to their original belief. Simply put: the more you’re trying to convince a person that she’s wrong, the more convinced she may become that she’s right. Psychologists have yet to find a reliable antidote to the backfire effect, although there is a glimmer of hope: Some studies suggest that people are more likely to consider contradictory facts and adjust their original beliefs when they feel safe, and when they feel good about themselves.
This should serve as a warning to hardball negotiators, who may be tempted to accuse their opponent of being unreasonable, misinformed, or ill-intentioned – these tactics may backfire and cause the people across the table to feel threatened, dig in and defend their position even more vigorously. It is the same phenomenon martial artists observe in sparring: The tendency to just stand your ground and resort to blocking is much more pronounced when you feel intimidated by your opponent, view your skill set as inferior, or simply believe that you’re not bringing your A-game today.
The basic take-away lesson: When you are embroiled in an argument and trying to change someone’s mind, it is in your best interest to remain calm and respectful. Make your point politely, do not harp on the superiority of your reasoning, and always allow the other person to save face. If, despite your best efforts, your counterpart becomes more entrenched in his or her position, STOP. Any further efforts to get your point across would be counterproductive. You would just be blocking and getting bruised. This is the time to do something different.
The martial artist is taught that, when attacked, it is preferable to move out of the way and redirect the opponent’s energy. In resolving a non-physical conflict, it is more productive to focus on points where you can agree, on goals that are not mutually exclusive, and on hidden factors – or “interests” – underlying the dispute.
Let’s return to our case of alleged culinary bullying. Both you and your spouse want to go out for dinner – you agree on that. You want Italian, your spouse wants a nice place – these goals can both be accomplished at the same time. Perhaps the argument is less about who usually picks the restaurant and more about your emotional experience of the power balance in your relationship? Once you shift your conversation to what you can do so you both feel more like equals, a resolution is much more likely to be forthcoming. It may be as simple as tossing a coin, the winner picks a nice Italian restaurant for tonight, and next time the other person gets to choose. You might want to write down who picked, so you won’t have the same argument again …
Many conflicts are resolved while everybody still vehemently disagrees on seemingly central “issues.” The secret? No blocking. Move out of the way and redirect everyone’s energy towards more productive topics.
‘That’s a great restaurant you found, honey.’ ‘Thanks.’ ‘By the way, you did pick the place last time.’ ‘Would you like some more garlic bread?’