Last week I got into a conflict situation and it got me thinking of how I could have handled it better. Here’s the story…
Pushover or a bully?
I started parking my car in a very tight spot and I knew I was going to bump the cars in front and behind to be able to get in. I’ve done it many times before and it never left any damage, so I was fine with it. I did several maneuvers, bumped the cars slightly and I was in.
When I got out of the car, there was a woman from the balcony above yelling something. So when I went over she says, “Don’t you feel a little insolent?! You bumped both cars a few times!!!”
I was caught off guard and went on the defense saying, “Yeah I circled the place and there weren’t any other places to park.”
She says, “I don’t care, you bumped both cars several times!”
I got a little mad myself and said, “So what? There aren’t any marks, come down and see if you want to!”
She says, “I don’t care, just the fact that you touched another car. Don’t you feel ashamed?!”
I say, “So what if I did? There are no marks!”
She just made an exasperated gesture with her hands, a disgusted expression and stormed inside her house.
At first, I was glad that I didn’t just give in to pressure, I stood by what I believed. It didn’t matter that I bumped the cars as long as there was no damage. But at the same time, I also felt it was a dick move because I didn’t respect the other person’s beliefs and feelings.
Which side are you on?
It all depends on what your belief about the car bumping thing is. If you feel like bumping somebody else’s car is no big deal as long as it doesn’t leave a mark, you’ll probably think that it didn’t matter and the woman was being unreasonable.
If on the other hand, you get pissed off when you see somebody bumping your car, you’ll probably think that I was being a dick.
But both of those perspectives are limited and superficial. Both of them are only considering one point of view, not both.
Why make it such a big deal?
This specific situation is not important since the whole thing is going to blow over in a few hours. Both the woman and I would have forgotten about it on the next day. But it got me thinking about all the other conflict situations that we face in life.
What do you do when you have a strong belief and it differs from the people that you’re communicating with? Do you ignore your own values and beliefs just so you don’t upset other people and respect their feelings? Do you always uphold your values and beliefs even though it would mean that other people would feel hurt?
In the first case, you’re being a pushover. In the second case, you’re being a bully. Neither of these extremes is a good option. It has to be something in between. But how do we find a good balance of both? And since every situation is going to be different, what do we use to guide us to make the right decision every time?
That’s where principles come in.
What is a principle?
A fundamental assumption or guiding belief.
In other words, it’s one of those beliefs that define how you see the world or who you are. What you believe is good or bad, right or wrong. A belief that you use to guide your decisions and actions in life.
It can be a principle that you came up with yourself, or you picked up from somebody else. For example, “Don’t kill.” Or “Don’t steal.”
If the principle is solid it should work well in all situations without exception. It should be reliable to use in all situations as the default option.
Why go that far? Can’t we just trust ourselves to make the right decision in the moment?
It sounds good in theory, but in the heat of the moment, you don’t have time to think analytically. Whatever decision you make is most likely going to be influenced by your current emotions and awareness.
In the example above I felt like I was being attacked for something that I considered perfectly normal and I went on the defense. From that point on the whole conversation was lost because we were in a fight, instead of trying to resolve the conflict.
The whole situation might have been much better if I relied on solid principles instead.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People
One of the most solid set of principles that I’ve found are the Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
- Be Proactive
- Begin with the End in Mind
- Put First Things First
- Think Win-Win
- Seek First to Understand
- Sharpen the Saw
The ones that apply the most to this situation are: be proactive, seek first to understand, and think win-win.
So let’s see how each of those principles could have helped to make this situation better.
Using the principles
Being proactive is the first of the principles not by accident. It means to take action instead of waiting for something to happen to you. It means actively looking for a good resolution to the conversation.
That was my first mistake in that situation. I didn’t look for a way to make it better. I just reacted on impulse.
If you’re not proactive you’re not going to look for principles to make the situation better in the first place.
Seek first to understand
This is the second principle that I didn’t uphold in this situation. My first reaction wasn’t to listen and try to understand the other side. My first reaction was to get defensive and try to protect my belief: bumping other cars is fine as long as there is zero damage.
From that point on the whole conversation was about each side trying to prove their point.
How much better would the whole thing have gone if I started with the question, “Why is she upset? Why does she care about it so much? How can I make this a win for her as well?”
The third principle is about looking for a deal where both parties come out as winners. That means not sacrificing your own win and not accepting the deal if the other person is going to lose.
In my situation, the first part of the equation was good. I won. I got to park where I wanted to. I got to stick to my belief and I didn’t back down.
But the second part of the equation was all wrong. The other person lost. The car got bumped, she didn’t feel heard, and she felt like I didn’t care at all.
It’s a win-lose situation. And since one of my principles is only going for win-win situations, it wasn’t a win for me after all. It was a loss. Which is exactly why I felt bad about it.
I left the other person feeling worse.
• • •
That’s three of my core principles that I ignored in that interaction. No wonder I left feeling shitty about it.
The whole thing is already over and I’m probably not going to recognize the woman if I saw her again, so not much I can do about that particular case. But what about all the other similar situations that are going to happen in the future?
The obvious thing here is that if I didn’t want that to happen again, I just stop doing it. But that way I will feel defeated. I will feel like I’ve given up on my own beliefs. However, if we go deeper, bumping the cars is only the belief on the surface.
The deeper belief is that I want other people to respect my beliefs and my boundaries. And I am the one who sets the boundaries for myself, not other people. So if somebody else doesn’t care about these boundaries, that’s not relevant. It doesn’t give them the right to cross mine.
Similarly, if I don’t have the same belief that other people do, it doesn’t give me the right to cross their beliefs. It’s their boundary after all. My house, my rules kind of thing.
So the end result is the same, if I can’t park without bumping the other cars I’ll just keep looking for another spot. But now that I know the principles behind it, I feel much better about it. I know that respecting other people’s boundaries is much more important to me than occasionally missing a parking spot.
How to Make Important Decisions in Your Life
This was a simple situation that didn’t really matter in the long run. But it’s a great example of what usually happens in conflict situations. Instead of using principles to guide our decisions we react on animal instinct.
What if the situation was really important? What if the outcome will change your life in a major way?
- What if you and your partner are raising a kid and you don’t agree on which school to send her to?
- What if you and your business partner disagreed about which way your company is going to go in?
- What if your boss forced you to do a move to a position that you don’t like?
Are you going to be proactive about it or just let the situation unfold?
Are you going to try to understand where the other person is coming from or just try to get your point across?
Are you going to be a bully/pushover? Or are you going to look for a win-win deal?
We’re faced with important decisions almost every day, decisions that change our lives in the long run. If you have a set of tested principles it’s much easier to make the right choice.
You don’t have to analyze the situation every time, you just know that you have to be proactive. You know that you have to try to understand the other side first. You know that you’re always seeking for a win-win.