How To Reduce Damaging Conflict In Your Life, Work And Relationships

Part of the series “Accessing the Most Powerful You”

As we all know, some degree of conflict in our work and personal relationships is unavoidable. Human beings are organisms with very different values, upbringings beliefs, mindsets and approaches to achieving their goals. And living and working together inevitably generates disagreements in how we see life and the challenges in front of us, and the ways we wish to achieve our goals and visions. But some people seem to have a special ability to manage conflict in ways that create avenues for collaboration and success, while others do the opposite—they escalate and exacerbate conflict so it becomes more destructive and demoralizing.

To learn more about this important topic, I was excited to catch up with Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, an expert in helping teams and organizations experience conflict resolution and freedom. Goldman-Wetzler is founder and CEO of Alignment Strategies Group, the premier New York-based consulting firm that counsels CEOs and their executive teams on how to optimize organizational health and growth.

Author of the new book Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life, Goldman-Wetzler is a keynote speaker at Fortune 500 companies, public institutions and innovative, fast-growing startups, where she inspires audiences of all kinds, including those at Google, Harvard and TEDx, and in her popular course at Columbia University.

A former counter-terrorism research fellow with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she is a graduate of Tufts University and holds a Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. In her book, Goldman-Wetzler shares that, in order to free ourselves from recurring conflict, we have to break the pattern of the conflict loop by doing something different from what we’ve been doing in the past.

Here’s what she shares:

Kathy Caprino: What’s the number one mistake people make when faced with a conflict?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler: The number one mistake people make when faced with conflict is dealing with a situation the same way we have before, yet expecting a different result. In my work and book, I identify four common conflict habits that get us into trouble: blaming others, blaming ourselves, avoiding others, and relentlessly trying to collaborate even when others refuse to cooperate. We engage in these habits with the best of intentions. We goodnaturedly want to learn from our experiences, or stay focused on what really matters, or achieve “win-win” solutions. But when we habitually rely on these strategies regardless of whether they’re appropriate for the particular situations we face, they become overused and of limited use over time.

Rather than dealing with conflict based on habitual reflexes, the Optimal Outcomes practices help us notice how we’ve been operating, and learn how to take different actions to achieve the results we seek.

Caprino: What drew you to work that specializes in conflict?

Goldman-Wetzler: I was drawn to a career specializing in conflict from a very young age, way before I even knew it was possible to formally work in this area.

My father’s parents escaped Nazi Europe, tragically leaving behind family they’d never see again. This came with the emotional and psychological baggage you’d expect: lifelong fear and grief. Like many immigrants of their generation, my grandparents never had access to professional counselors or therapists to help them process their emotions. Instead, their pain sometimes came out in unhelpful ways; in my grandfather’s case, in bursts of anger and rage.

On the other side of my family, my maternal grandmother was the quintessential “conflict whisperer.” Every Sunday, my grandmother, parents, brother and I would drive from our apartment in the Bronx to the Connecticut suburbs to visit my aunt and uncle. When screaming and yelling inevitably broke out in the car, my grandmother would stop the bickering. She’d simply whisper “Sha, sha, sha,” and then she’d tell us a simple story. Everyone would quiet down. Her very presence and the sound of her voice were enough to soothe our nerves.

Learning to deal with my grandfather’s rage, and through my grandmother’s example, I naturally became the “conflict whisperer” of my family, too. I eventually made it a formal career path.

Caprino: Why do so many people get stuck in what you call a “conflict loop?”

Goldman-Wetzler: Half a century of research has shown that conflict is naturally cyclical. Conflict begets conflict. It’s the nature of the beast.

We get stuck in conflict loops when our conflict habits interact with other people’s conflict habits, forming a pattern of interaction that becomes very hard to break. The conflict loop is self-reinforcing. Unless we introduce something different—what I call “pattern-breaking action”—the loop will continue to go around and around.

But we can identify and revise the conflict habits—our own, and others’—that create a pattern. Using these specific practices helps us think about situations from a different point of view, and take new actions to create breaks in the pattern so we can ultimately free ourselves from the loop entirely.

Caprino: You place a priority on conflict freedom over conflict resolution. Would you clarify the difference?

Goldman-Wetzler: Conflict resolution says that conflicts can be resolved by meeting our own and others’ interests in ways that allow all parties to win. But some conflicts are what I call “resolution-resistant.” No matter how many times we or others try to resolve these conflicts, even using “win-win” principled negotiation methodologies that have been successfully used in complex cases over the past 40 years, the conflict remains.

Conflict freedom is helpful in those cases where conflict resolution doesn’t work. Conflict freedom helps us stop trying to resolve something that has shown itself to be unresolvable. Instead, it shows us how to free ourselves from the mindsets, emotions and behaviors that have gotten us stuck. It helps us achieve optimal outcomes—those that take into account our imagined best-case scenario and the reality of the constraints we face. Optimal outcomes are often different from what we thought we wanted, but more satisfying than we ever imagined possible.

Caprino: What’s wrong with always striving for “win-win” solutions?

Goldman-Wetzler: Striving for “win-win” solutions is often a great thing to do. The problem happens when we always strive for them, regardless of whether our efforts are getting us the results we desire. Seeking to achieve “win-win” solutions when we’re dealing with people who refuse to cooperate, or who are simply not interested in doing so, can be a waste of time, energy, money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. Brainstorming option after option with others who are not interested in them doesn’t resolve conflict. It just keeps us stuck, unable to move forward.

Caprino: Where and how can anyone struggling with recurring conflict begin to identify the unconscious habits that create destructive conflict patterns?

Goldman-Wetzler: To identify your conflict habits, you don’t need to do anything at all. You only need to stop and observe. It can help to take a pause; in other words, a moment to notice whatever is happening inside yourself and in the world around you.

I’ve identified two types of pauses: a proactive pause and a reactive pause. A proactive pause is when you plan to take a few minutes out of your day to stop and reflect, in this case, on your conflict habits. For example, a proactive pause might involve sitting quietly and asking yourself whether you’ve been blaming or avoiding others, blaming yourself, or seeking to collaborate with others.

A reactive pause is when you take a moment to notice what’s happening while it’s happening. You might catch yourself yelling at your kids, stewing in negative self-talk, or making yet another collaborative overture even though others are not responding in kind. It might feel as though you’re watching yourself in slow-motion on a movie screen, or looking down on yourself from above. This may feel good, or it may feel frustrating, as you watch yourself use your habit and get stuck in conflict. But the good news is that observing how you get stuck is the first step to becoming free.

It is helpful to identify your own and others’ conflict habits, and how those form patterns of interaction that keep you stuck. I’ve developed a free assessment you can take online to identify your primary conflict habit.

Caprino: Why isn’t simply walking away from a conflict, or ending a relationship, necessarily the best way to break free from recurring conflict?

Goldman-Wetzler: Sometimes walking away is the way to break free from conflict. Especially for those of us who are habitually collaborative, walking away can help us break free from a tough situation—because it represents doing something different than we’ve done before. It breaks the conflict pattern.

But much more often, the costs of walking away are so high that it seems nearly impossible to do so. For example, imagine the costs of never talking to your mother again, or of disowning your child. Or the costs of firing your best friend. You’re not going to be free from conflict if you’re living with regret, guilt, sadness or pain.

Walking away won’t help if we realize (either consciously or not) that the costs of walking away will cause yet another set of challenges, or we intuitively know that if we don’t develop the courage to deal with this situation now, it will only show up again in another relationship down the line.

Dealing directly with a conflict situation—rather than walking away—often takes a great dose of courage. It takes a willingness to be uncomfortable trying new ways of viewing things and new ways of operating. But when we do, the outcome can be better than we ever anticipated.

For more information, visit Optimal Outcomes.

To build a more conflict-free and rewarding career, join Kathy Caprino in a Career Breakthrough program and join her Amazing Career Project online course. 


3 Steps To Building Stronger Boundaries and a Happier Life

Part of my series “Finding Brave To Build Your Best Life”

One of the most powerful concepts I’ve learned in my life emerged from my training as a Marriage and Family Therapist. It’s about boundaries – the invisible barrier that separates you from the world around you. Boundaries define who you are, and they keep you safe and secure, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Having well-developed, appropriate boundaries ensures that you’re protected from behaviors and actions that are injurious, disrespectful, or invasive. People with healthy boundaries know their limits and are able to enforce them with quiet strength and authority. Healthy boundaries—well-established limits regarding what you expect and need from others and what you will and will not tolerate from others’— allow you to move forward on a fulfilling and satisfying path, both at work and at home.

Those who have insufficient boundaries, I’ve found, have almost always experienced some form of emotional manipulation or trauma in their childhoods and upbringing. Children who’ve been abused or mistreated (emotionally, sexually, physically, etc.), for instance, experience a violation of their boundaries before they had the power or ability to advocate for or protect themselves. Unless we recognize this later in life, and do the necessary work to strengthen our boundaries, we experience ongoing mistreatment from others, and a great deal of pain, confusion, and unhappiness as a result.

Of course, we can’t control other people’s actions and words, but we can control our responses to them, as well as our actions in the face of language and behavior that violate who we have defined ourselves to be in this world.

If your boundaries are weak, others can and will find a way to get under your skin and hurt you, invade your privacy, suck your energy, drain your resources, and wreak havoc on your life. Another way to say this is that without strong boundaries, we allow people to drain us parasitically, taking from us whatever we’ll allow them to.

Healthy, strong boundaries ensure that you:

• Experience and demonstrate self-respect and respect of others

• Understand and articulate effectively the limits you’ve set for yourself

• Know unequivocally when your limits have been overstepped

• Determine with surety and confidence the actions you wish to take when your boundaries have been violated

• Live and relate well with yourself and others, and build a rewarding life that matches what you value and believe in

A few basic steps are required to strengthen your boundaries, and for many people I’ve coached and spoken to, particular those who had narcissistic parents or emotionally abusive childhoods, these boundary-strengthening steps aren’t easy or at all comfortable. Boundary development requires courage, strength, patience, and time, but it’s an essential step toward a happier, more rewarding life and livelihood.

The 3 key steps developing stronger boundaries are:

#1: Gain Awareness Of What You Need More Of

First, it’s critical to understand more deeply what you need more of in your life and work, and what isn’t working today.

Ask yourself:

What do I desperately long for? Perhaps it’s more time, energy, honesty, compassion, respect, care, commitment, or power?

Begin the process of exploring when you feel thwarted, angry, resentful, drained, and undervalued. Most likely your boundaries need bolstering in these situations. Is your boss demanding that you’re available 24/7? Is your spouse refusing to do his/her part of the necessary work at home to help raise the children or manage the household responsibilities? Is your friend demanding, selfish, and critical, unable to relate to you in a caring way? Is your parent horrible to you?

Once you recognize exactly what you need that you’re not getting, and what you’re allowing that is no longer tolerable, start setting clear and unwavering limits – both out loud and to yourself – as to what you desire and need from others to feel respected and valued, and what you will no longer stand for.

Take some time this week to think about your boundaries, then write down what your rules will be going forward in terms of what you expect, need, and will allow from others. Then communicate these limits to the outside world calmly, clearly, and unemotionally. Know in your heart and mind what the consequences will be if people don’t respect your limits. And don’t be surprised when people react negatively to your asserting your boundaries. After all, they’ve become very used to being able to walk all over you.

Here’s a personal example: I remember in my 30’s, I made a decision to finally walk away from the habit of gossiping or speaking negatively of others in the chronic and mean way I had done previously.  I realized that in my life, I would habitually engage in  triangulation –  an emotional manipulation tactic where one person who is not comfortable communicating directly with another person or dealing directly about something challenging, uses a third party to relay communication to the second individual, or to intervene and get involved somehow. This allows the first person to relieve his/her own anxiety by complaining about the situation, but prevents the individual from actually taking the brave, direct action necessary to remedy the problem. Instead a triangle is formed.

To ease my own anxiety, I’d speak critically about one friend or colleague who was upsetting me, to the other. I realized finally that this was a destructive habit fed by my own insecurities, and I knew it always came back to hurt me. But since I’d been doing it for years, the people in my life were used to engaging in this with me, and I needed to change that.

The next time a friend spoke ill of another in front of me, I said, “I know I used to do this in the past, but I’m working really hard not to speak ill of my friends, or gossiping like I used it.  I’m just not comfortable speaking about Terry this way. Would you mind if we changed the subject?”

While a few people got annoyed or offended, most not only obliged my request, but also seemed to respect the decision and began to realize themselves how speaking ill of their colleagues, friends or family members just didn’t feel right or helpful. In fact, it made them feel worse.

#2: Stop Pleasing Others In Order To Feel Safe

Many hundreds of women I’ve worked with, especially those who grew up with parents who were emotionally manipulative or narcissistic, discover that as adults they are striving desperately to please others as a way to either feel safe from punishment or to fulfill their own neediness.

Accommodation to others can be healthy and caring in the right situations, but for those who’ve been culturally trained to be pleasing and self-sacrificing (as many women are today in our society), it is a self-demeaning act, and can destroy our chances for a happy, rewarding and empowered life.

Why do people overly accommodate and acquiesce to another’s wishes?

The key reason is fear. People are afraid that approval and acceptance will be withheld if they are their most authentic, truthful selves. They’re deathly afraid that others will become angry or reject them for being honest (because it actually happened to them again and again in the past).

Many people fear too that they are not worthy, smart, or strong enough to stand up for what they believe. They believe that if they stop giving in to the needs of others, they’ll cease to be loved, needed, cared for, or accepted.

We learn this acquiescence in our early lives. Many people have adopted this behavior to survive their childhoods. Narcissism is now rising in epidemic proportions, and thousands were raised in homes that did not allow expression of true thoughts and feelings. Punishment, sometimes severe, ensued when individuals asserted themselves and enforced their personal limits.

Sadly, I’ve seen as a coach and therapist that if you don’t address your habitual pattern of over-accommodation to others, it just won’t change. This damaging pattern will remain for a lifetime, forever tripping you up in your relationships, work and personal life.

#3: Get Help To Break The Cycle Of Mistreatment Or Abuse

When mistreatment is occurring, we often need outside support to help us recognize what’s really going on, and to explore what needs to be changed, and get help to take safe, appropriate action.

If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, help is available. Reach out and get the help you need. In the workplace, if you’re experiencing mistreatment, stop in your tracks, and make an evaluation of what’s transpiring. Also look at how you may be contributing to or allowing the situation. If any of the statements below are true for you, then proactive, empowered action is called for.

• I’m being harassed and made to do things that feel wrong.

• I’m being passed over or not treated fairly continually because I’m ___ (female, gay, African American, middle aged, disabled, pregnant, on leave, etc.).

• I’m being back-stabbed and maligned.

• I’ve been promised things by my supervisors that I’m not getting.

• My work is being sabotaged.

• Money is being withheld from me for no reason.

• I’m being punished or blamed for things I didn’t do.

• I’ve been forced into a position that I don’t want.

• I’m being excluded from meetings and other informational sources and networks that are essential for me to succeed at my job.

• My reviews have been great, but I’m not being rewarded as promised.

• I’ve been asked to do unethical/illegal things for the job/company.

• I have to work around the clock to get my job done, and I don’t want to.

If any of the above is happening, mistreatment possibly is occurring, and proactive measures are needed. But first, try to get in closer touch with who you are, what you will and will not accept, and understand with more clarity what you value in life and work, and what your limits are. Before you can act powerfully, you have to gain awareness of what feels wrong and right. Become very clear now—evaluate in detail anything that feels like a violation, and why, and document it.

The next critical step is to understand the role you may be playing in this negative situation.
Have you communicated clearly your discomfort or your lack of agreement with what’s been happening? Have you said “Yes” when “No” was the real answer? Or have you shared your discontent in ineffective ways (gossiping, self-sabotaging, passive aggressive actions, etc.)? How are you potentially participating in this situation, and maintaining the cycle by not standing up for your convictions or enforcing your limits? What pieces of yourself are you giving away, to be liked, accepted, or rewarded?

Once you have a clearer idea of where you stand, reach out for help to get a fresh, informed, neutral (outside) perspective. This could be a discussion with a mentor, a sponsor, a lawyer, a therapist, coach, your Human Resources representative, your city’s Social Services Department — whatever is called for in your particular situation. Once you share your situation with them, evaluate their perspective honestly and openly. If it resonates as true, then decide what action is called for. If not, seek another source of support. Find help that feels right for you, but make sure you’re open to the truth, even if it’s very difficult to hear.

In the end, strong, healthy boundaries are essential in giving us the strength and power to design our lives and careers as we want them. Knowing what’s critical to you to lead a happy life, then braving up to take the necessary action to enforce those needs and values, is the difference between building a happy, satisfying life versus struggling continually with dismal disappointment and mistreatment.

To develop stronger boundaries, work with me in a personal growth program, read my book Breakdown, Breakthrough and tune into my new podcast Finding Brave.