Do our reflexive reactions cause unnecessary fireworks?
Conflict is inevitable in any human enterprise; how we handle that conflict is where leadership comes in. Too often we seem bound to react instinctively: voices rise, pressure grows, and soon it’s fireworks like the 4th of July.
But to lead effectively requires us to cast off the tyranny of reaction in favor of a more productive response. To do that, here are seven ways to defuse conflict and declare your own Independence Day.
There are more than 14,000 fireworks displays on a given 4th of July weekend in the US. During them, we get to experience the fun side of reactive behavior as rockets colorfully explode in the sky.
The force that fires these rockets upward comes from a simple chemical reaction. At the base of the firing tube, there’s a gunpowder propellant charge consisting of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur.
In the presence of a stimulus, like a lit match, these substances react with each other, rapidly producing, among other things, lots of hot gas.
In the confines of the launch tube, the gas has nowhere to go, and pressure builds until it is powerful enough to propel the rocket out the open end and into the sky.
When we are celebrating something like Independence Day, the resulting pyrotechnic display can be a real crowd-pleaser.
But reactive conditions like these can also exist in places that aren’t so festive, like among people. Conflict is often the result.
When these kinds of fireworks go off, it’s not a celebration of independence, it’s a sure sign of dependence. Here’s what I mean.
Re-Action: Victim of Circumstance?
To be re-active is to automatically react to the stimuli around you, the same way that gunpowder explodes, or your leg kicks out when the doctor taps your knee with his little hammer. There’s no thought involved. It just happens.
All too often, human reactions to conflict can be counter-productive. When someone argues, our instinctive reaction is to want to argue back. When someone pushes us, we want to push back. When something goes wrong we immediately look for someone or something to blame.
In automatically reacting in this way, we let outside factors determine our behaviors. We make ourselves the victim of circumstance. We give up the freedom to become independent actors.
The good news is that as humans, we have an alternative. Stephen Covey points this out in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.
Pro-Action: Fighting for Independence
Covey coaches that instead of being reactive, successful people are pro-active. Pro-active people reserve for themselves the freedom to choose how they will respond to stimuli.
They choose their words and behaviors purposefully. They identify actions that align with their values and further their goals. They focus on the things that they can control, not things beyond their control.
A proactive person is response-able, capable of choosing the best response to any situation. As they do this, they also become responsible. They become leaders of themselves and influencers of others by taking ownership of their circumstances and exercising the freedom to choose.
Once we learn to respond instead of react, we gain access to tools that can help us defuse conflict. In keeping with the fireworks motif, here are seven ways leaders can do just that.
7 Ways to Defuse Conflict
1. Blow out the match. The rockets won’t fire if the match isn’t lit. You can defuse conflict by anticipating points of friction and acting to prevent a showdown.
One way is to be sure you communicate openly and clearly. Don’t wait for people to discover things they might take badly. Take it to them so that you have the opportunity to explain it personally. When they hear your reasoning it may avert a reaction.
Another way is to look for points of agreement. When you highlight the things you both agree on, you become more like teammates and less like opponents, reducing the likelihood of getting heated up in the first place.
2. Wet the fuse. The fuse won’t light if it’s wet. You become that wet fuse in an explosive situation if you don’t light up.
Stay calm and refuse to be baited into heated argument. Keep your voice low and steady, take a deep breath, count to ten, and think before you speak.
3. Change the mixture. The purpose of sulfur in the gunpowder mix is to increase the rate of combustion due to its relatively low melting point. Remove the sulfur and a lot of the bang goes away.
Think about the mix of elements on your team: are some people prone to rapid melt down? Maybe there’s a way to separate them so small sparks don’t result in big explosions.
4. Un-stop the firing tube. When the expanding gasses cannot escape, pressure quickly rises until there is an explosive release. But if you leave an escape for these gasses, you avert an explosion.
Build in some operating space. Of course you have to be clear about requirements, but when you give people more input into a project at the front end, more latitude to execute it as it progresses, and a say in the decision-making process along the way you are making room for their energies to dissipate constructively.
5. Reduce the pressure. Just as the gasses are hemmed in by the walls of the firing canister, people can feel that their reactions are constrained if everybody is watching or if the clock is counting down.
Reduce pressure and defuse conflict by removing it from a social setting and dealing with it privately. Then, if either of you end up having to change your position, there’s much less risk of anyone losing face.
Giving people time to react to changes is another way to bring your PSI back within tolerance.
6. Deflect the blast. Lots of passion can be a good thing if you find a way to apply it constructively.
Look for positive alternatives you both can agree upon. Channel that energy towards projects and efforts that need the kind of intensity they can provide.
7. Unplug your ears. As we brace for the fireworks explosions, we tend to tense up and may even plug our ears. But now may be the most important time to unplug them and really listen to what people are saying.
You don’t have to agree with them, but if you fight the urge to react with an immediate rebuttal, and simply listen actively, chances are the pressure will drop. Sometimes people just want to know they are being heard.
Defusing Conflict – The Takeaway
When the situation heats up, you have two options: react or respond.
If you react without thinking, you give up your freedom of choice, you’ll always be the victim, and you’ll need to be ready to deal with the fireworks that may result.
If you respond, you have a chance to defuse conflict. Exercise your freedom to choose what happens next. Focus on the things that you can control. Take actions that will change things for the better.
The next time you see someone headed towards the fuse with a match in their hand, declare your independence.
Instead of reacting reflexively, respond thoughtfully, and maybe that match will go out before the fuse is lit.
And don’t wait for a special occasion. Make every day your Independence Day.
Save the pyrotechnics for the 4th of July.