How do you approach conflict? Are you the kind of person who resolves conflicts peacefully or drags them out?
Your attitude in conflictual situations plays a crucial role in the final outcomes. According to the Arbinger Institute—a leading consultant in conflict resolution, mindset change, and leadership training since 1979—a person who finds themselves in constant conflict embodies what they call a “combative mindset”—a conflict attitude characterized by self-focused viewpoints that lead them to worsen conflict instead of cooperating to resolve it.
In this article, we’ll examine the combative mindset, how it makes conflict worse, and the biases that lead people to behave that way. Then, we’ll explore self-betrayal and justification, the behaviors that lead to those biases.
Objectification Leads to Collusion
When we embody the combative mindset, we see others as objects and obstacles rather than people. As a result, we constantly treat the other party as if they were less than human and are shocked and offended when they respond in kind. The Arbinger Institute calls this mutual mistreatment-and-response cycle “collusion.”
- When we collude, we jointly create a problem that’s bigger than it should be, to share our anger and frustration in a way that hurts our “enemy” just like they’re hurting us. We start to provoke, demean, and infuriate them, treating them in ways that encourage them to continue making us unhappy.
- Furthermore, we intentionally avoid the other party and seek support elsewhere, making it impossible to even discuss coming to an agreement.
In both of the above cases, we’re avoiding the conflict instead of working to resolve it. Because we don’t communicate clearly and openly, others assume we’re fine with things as they are, or—worse—that we’re hostile and can’t be reasoned with. Either way, the conflict can only fester and worsen, increasing in scope.
The Four Biases
The Arbinger Institute explains that when we embody the combative mindset long-term, we develop biases that damage our ability to create relationships in which conflict is managed well. There are four biases Arbinger says are often held by those who embody a conflict attitude.
Each of these biases helps you avoid doing the work to solve a conflict—whether that work involves communicating, self-examining, standing up for yourself, or helping others. The biases justify taking an easier way out that doesn’t involve confronting the fact that you’re doing something wrong: In sum, they’re avoidance strategies.
1. The Superiority Bias
- We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re better than they are. We feel impatient, disdainful, or indifferent.
- Example: When you make a mess and leave it for someone else to clean up, you’re using a Superiority bias. You’re telling yourself that it’s someone else’s job to clean up after you, someone less important or valuable than you think you are.
2. The Entitlement Bias
- We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we deserve more than they do. We feel entitled, deprived, or resentful.
- Example: When you yell at service workers for messing up your order, you’re using an Entitlement bias. You’re telling yourself that paying money entitles you to perfect service, and that it justifies your mistreatment of the person who you think messed up.
3. The Performative Bias
- We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we need to be seen in a certain way (wanting others to think we’re smart, kind, cool, a good spouse or employee, and so on). We feel anxious/stressed, needy/fearful, or overwhelmed/overburdened.
- Example: When you pretend you know what someone’s talking about even though you have no clue, you’re using a Performative bias. You’re telling yourself that it’s more important that they think you’re smart than it is to be honest with them.
4. The Inferiority Bias
- We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re not good enough to do better. We feel helpless/despairing, bitter/jealous, or depressed/lonely.
- Example: When you refuse to interact with people you think are out of your league, you’re using an Inferiority bias. You’re telling yourself that you’re not good enough to be around them, and that justifies not putting in the effort it’d take to ensure they enjoy your company.
If you find the feelings, behaviors, or thought patterns associated with the four biases familiar, Arbinger suggests that’s a sign you may be holding those biases yourself. To improve your management of conflict, you must understand how these biases are formed, and dismantle them. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to building healthier, more resilient relationships that are conducive to cooperative conflict resolution.
Self-Betrayal and Justification
Biased thinking results from justifying our self-betrayals. Arbinger explains that the concept of self-betrayal relies on understanding that humans have certain innate desires. Evolutionary scientists often argue that the success of our species is largely the result of a desire to help, protect, and care for one another. According to Arbinger, when we choose to behave in a way that doesn’t align with this desire, we self-betray.
Generally, Arbinger says, we make the choice to betray ourselves because we think it’ll cost us less time, energy, or effort—or because we think honoring our desire to do the right thing will lead to some discomfort we’d rather avoid. Maybe we choose not to help when we know we could. This is the core issue of the combative mindset; we lie to ourselves and refuse to see the truth of the situation.
In many ways, self-betrayal equates to going against our conscience: acting in a way that doesn’t align with what we know is right. In Stephen R. Covey’s book First Things First, he emphasizes the importance of living according to your conscience. The more you excuse acting against your principles, the deeper you bury your integrity beneath a pile of rationalizations and justifications. In order to live with integrity, Covey says, you must pay attention to your conscience, as well as the way you respond to its messages. Your conscience will always point you toward your greatest quality of life, by recommending genuine, wholehearted actions that support your principles.
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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