Approaching Conflict: Are You Making These Mistakes?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Anatomy of Peace" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are you the kind of person who often gets into high-conflict situations? Does conflict with one person tend to spill into your other relationships? What’s your way of approaching conflict?

Being able to manage conflict efficiently and effectively is critical. Very quickly, a conflict can begin affecting more than the relationship in question. It can get in the way of your work and it put a strain on your other connections.

In this article, we’ll take a look at two main mistakes most of us make when approaching conflict.

Conflict is Far-Reaching

When you’re stressed and unhappy in one area of your life, you carry those feelings with you. Further, the longer a conflict continues, the more time and energy you spend worrying about it, and the more that conflict interferes with the rest of your life. As the cycle continues, conflicts tend to expand and drag in the people around you as well. 

A conflict can only be resolved when at least one side seriously considers how they might be wrong. Even if your position is correct and your intentions are good, you can still be wrong in the way you are approaching conflict—your words, behaviors, and mindsets speak louder than your position. And it doesn’t matter how good your position is if the way you express it creates further conflict.

Let’s take a big-picture look at the two primary things that most people do wrong when they approach interpersonal conflict.

1. We Try to Correct the Behavior of Others

We often have trouble resolving conflict because we approach the problem from the wrong angle. In conflict, we tend to focus our interactions with others on trying to get them to change by correcting their behavior, and that doesn’t work.

According to the Arbinger Institute, there are two main problems with trying to correct the people you’re in conflict with:

  1. It’s not helpful to correct someone who’s upset with you because they don’t want to listen. They’ve already decided you’re wrong, so even if you feel their reasons are foolish or invalid, arguing with them doesn’t help. (Shortform note: Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, notes that criticizing others makes them defensive and prone to rationalizing their actions. Carnegie recommends using praise and appreciation when suggesting change.)
  2. You’re trying to correct things that have already gone wrong instead of being proactive and preventing them from going wrong in the first place.

Resolving conflict requires a proactive approach; get involved before things go wrong and before the other person shuts you out.

Dynamic Systems Research Shows that a Bottom-Up Approach to Conflict Works Best.

The Arbinger Institute takes a bottom-up approach to interpersonal conflict. Instead of attacking top-level behavioral problems by trying to correct what’s going wrong, the Institute focuses on mitigating the underlying causes that lead to those behaviors. The Institute discourages prioritizing correction because when you aim for the nail that sticks up, you miss the factors that pushed the nail out in the first place. Taking drugs away from a teenage addict won’t prevent them from accessing more, but a stronger support network and a more loving home might neutralize their need for drugs in the first place.

According to science writer Dan Jones, analysts and mediators of large-scale conflicts around the world have begun to shift their attention to a bottom-up view similar to the one Arbinger recommends. Jones explains that in long-running conflicts like the one between Israel and Palestine—which has been ongoing for more than 70 years—broad fixes and corrections are doomed to fail. A ceasefire, a peace accord, or a change in leadership doesn’t address the underlying causes of the hostility that generated the conflict in the first place.

Jones interviewed mediation expert and dynamic systems researcher Robert Ricigliano, who says that it’s important to see an ongoing conflict as a system of pressure dynamics. Ricigliano and his team use complex computer simulations to model the actions of the different agents in a competitive system, all of whom are influenced by many smaller-scale pressures—such as resource availability, local allegiances, and social dynamics. As the simulated agents work to satisfy their individual needs, they compete and cooperate, forming alliances and making enemies. Because the agents “remember” how they’re treated by other agents, the whole system occasionally ends up locked in an aggressive cycle of recrimination.

Like these digital agents, Ricigliano says, humans hold grudges and carry hostility forward, leading to intractable conflicts that resist resolution. When we intervene in such conflicts, he argues, we have to adjust our perspective: Addressing the result of the hostility isn’t enough to prevent future conflict. Instead, the goal is to shift an underlying aspect of the system so that hostility begins to naturally decrease over time. If we can do that, Ricigliano suggests, we can consider the intervention a success, because the conflict begins to wind down as well.

In The Anatomy of Peace, Arbinger explains that the “underlying aspect of the system” that we need to address in our interpersonal conflicts is the way we treat people whose interests conflict with ours. To do this, the authors recommend adopting a new mindset—one centered around being respectful of the humanity of others—thus addressing the underlying cycle of hostility that drives these conflicts. Additionally, treating others with respect builds mutual trust, allowing us to resolve future conflicts cooperatively rather than competitively.

2. We Refuse to Correct Our Own Behavior

If it’s been a while and a conflict hasn’t been resolved, it’s important to accept the possibility that you’re misunderstanding something and are partially at fault. If your actions aren’t at least leading toward a resolution, examine them. (Shortform note: Jordan B. Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life, explains that we should do this regardless of how we feel: In any dead-end conflict, he says, we should assume we’ve done something wrong along the way, even if the error was small, or long ago.)

To resolve conflicts fairly, it’s important to approach them cooperatively. That means you need to act and change, too—you can’t just suggest corrections and wait for the other person to do all the work.

Personal Change Is Contagious. According to some authors, changing your own behavior is the key to getting others to change. Art Markman, the author of Smart Change, says that hypocrisy doesn’t work here; you can’t demand a behavior from someone that you don’t effectively embody yourself.

But, Markman says, if you can show others, by your own actions, how to be better—and the benefits of being that way—your behavior becomes contagious. Marksman particularly emphasizes visibility; the people whose behavior you want to change need to see you embodying the principles you want them to adopt. Loersch, et. al. note that when others trust you, your goals become contagious as well. This is particularly noteworthy in ongoing conflict—if your goal is to find a healthy, equitable resolution to the conflict, make sure your words and actions show that. We’ll explore this in more detail in Part 4.

Final Thoughts

The Arbinger Institute suggests that in improving our approach to conflict, the first and most important step is always to change our mindset. Everything about the way our conflicts happen, Arbinger says, rises from our mindset, so it’s important to understand what the authors mean by this term.

Arbinger describes a mindset as running deeper than just the way you think; it’s the way you see yourself, others, and the worldand the conclusions you come to and the behaviors you choose as a result. The authors note especially that the undercurrent of our thoughts, words, and actions has a strong impact on how we come across to others.

You can’t just fake a positive mindset, either; it’s important to actually mean what you say and do. As Arbinger notes, when others can see that your words and actions don’t match the way you think and feel, it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is or how right you are. Until you address the way you’re failing in your mindset toward others, your efforts will fall flat.

Approaching Conflict: Are You Making These Mistakes?

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of The Arbinger Institute's "The Anatomy of Peace" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Anatomy of Peace summary:

  • How we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result
  • What causes conflict, how we make it worse, and how we invite mistreatment
  • The steps we can take to escape the combative mindset and set aside our biases

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *