I read a blog post recently entitled, “Words Matter.” The author was writing an apology for words he’d used previously. In this “apology” post, the author was using words that created a new narrative, a new story filled with authentic gestures of conciliation.
He’s right — words do matter. They matter because words articulate metaphors and symbols in our minds that come straight from our subconscious and bring life to the self-identity that creates “our story.” Anyone who has coached with me knows that our stories are created by our filters (biologically wired meta-programs) and are drivers in how we interpret experiences.
That interpretation creates a perception; the perception creates our truth, and thus our story is born. When words contradict our stories, the irritation provoked often produces a destructive response. Before anyone knows what’s happening, there is a full-blown emotional conflict brewing between people that can have devastating effects on both work and home environments.
In the mediation biz, these contradictory words are called “hot buttons” and are formally defined as, “People or situations that irritate you enough to provoke conflict by producing destructive responses” (MTI at Eckerd College). Examples are aloof, abrasive, hostile, untrustworthy, self-centered, micro-managing, unappreciative, overly-analytical, unreliable . . . [insert your own here]. These words represent people and situations that, unless dealt with effectively, will serve only to escalate conflict; the hotter the button, the more entrenched and destructive the conflict gets.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It can be, but conflict doesn’t have to end in termination or divorce. Even if the conflict gets so bad that a professional like me must be called in to help sort things out, there is still opportunity to adjust behavior and move toward conciliation. Here are three easy steps to start:
- Be Aware. Challenging your own story is never easy, but it is necessary and healthy. To de-escalate conflict, you must be both self-aware AND aware of how you affect others. Looking in that mirror takes courage and commitment, but the rewards are so worth it! You will begin to understand things like strong personal emotions, impulsive or automatic responses, and areas where you share common ground. Then you will begin to write a new story.
- Articulate the Real Issue. Recognize that stories exist and are valid for each person but so too is the mythology surrounding all emotional (destructive) conflict. Mythology usually comes from three illusions (Dana, Managing Differences 2006):
- “Win-Lose” — someone wins, someone loses; if not everything, then something.
- “Bad Person” — conflict results from the other’s personal defect(s).
- “Boulder-in-the-Road” — differences are too big, too complex to be resolved.
- Stick to the Rules. Rules of engagement that help de-escalate emotional conflict are:
- Control your impulse to walk away or force agreement.
- Take risks and offer gestures of reconciliation.
- Support rather than exploit others’ risks when they offer gestures of reconciliation.
Managing hot buttons and emotional conflict takes practice, and words do matter. So slow down, be generous with your awareness and understanding, and go move your boulders. You can do it!