Daniel Robin & Associates
Making Workplaces Work Better
By Daniel Robin
This article outlines a process for dealing with adversarial behavior in others.
Adversary, or “enemy stance,” usually results from escalating a difference of some sort – making a progressively bigger and bigger deal out of differing views on priorities, goals, or methods. One or both parties make that difference into a problem, a push-pull, offense/defense, ... a power struggle, or the desire to "win" at the other person’s expense.
Such conflicts can be cloaked or overt, but they are based on the same dynamics – the will to fight, or lack of feedback (or lack of concern) about the effects of being offensive, uncooperative, or destructively argumentative. Instead, in Part 2, this article outlines easy steps for keeping the conflict manageable and dealing with differences in a healthy context – before they become time- and energy-drainers.
Part 1. The Defense Rests
Part 2: Recognizing the Six Stages of Adversarial Escalation
Part 3: Unblocking Communication Logjams
See the prior articles on this series at ABetterWorkplace.com/leadership.html.
“Ted, you said you were going to call me with those figures … what happened?”
Ted’s button is pressed: “Oh, you think the world revolves around you and your stupid little project…. Has it ever occurred to you, Jack, that the rest of us have jobs, too?!”
“Look, Ted, I know you’re busy. … any time this millennium would be fine,” Jack said jokingly, but it made Ted feel put down.
With a cold stare, Ted calls a one-man walkout: “Yeah, just do it … yourself!”
A common leadership mistake is to put up a defensive shield without knowing or acknowledging you are doing it. A bigger mistake is to push on that defensive reaction and expect it to go anywhere but straight into the dumpster.
Most of us are unaware that, at times, we feel this powerful need to defend ourselves – it happens automatically, as if the other person’s out to get us, out to cause us harm. Pointing out defensiveness, ironically, often produces more of the same (“I am not being defensive!”), amplifying the futility of persisting.
When do your own instincts say “Oops, better back off… struck a cord”? For most of us, it’s a bit later than ideal.
When your own actions lead to raised hackles in someone else (“Did I just say something that offended you?”), instead of backing this person into a corner, stop, and ease off (“Back away from the human….”). If you continue down that same track, one of three things will happen: (a) Flight: the person runs away in terror, hides, or tries to avoid you, (b) Fight: the push-pull dynamic produces so much interpersonal friction you could heat your office with the energy it generates (energy that could have gone into other, more enjoyable pursuits), or (c) Cope: they show enough emotional restraint, argue their case, attempt to be right or to save face.
It is unlikely that the situation will move toward a lasting solution, and yet, this subtle adversarial pattern runs deep in our culture and our actions. How do we interrupt this defensive loop without causing more of it?
Back in Part 4 of this article series, “Fix Systems, Not People,” we describe the human tendency to make the person the problem (see ABetterWorkplace.com/129.html). Instead, the idea is to see any issue as a systems problem – a broken process, a bogus procedure or job design, or a non-fault-tolerant environment – and lead toward improving the system, not towards “fixing” the person. No matter how tactfully you might present their need to change, unless that person sees your assessment as specific, accurate, fair and executable (spells SAFE), you’ll have a power struggle or a dispute on your hands. Certainly, there must be better ways.
This article outlines three … strategies to get the desired results without wasting energy in a push-pull, or having to clean up adversarial messes after interpersonal meltdowns.
Recognize adversary before it clobbers you on the head – kapow!
– and call for a ceasefire or just (quietly) institute a new gameplan.
Handle resistance proactively before it turns into a dispute, a
contest of wills, or a breakdown in cooperation.
(See our website, keyword “Resistance,” for Six Keys to Handling
Resistance and other tips.)
Think and act all win: look for a dovetailing of interests,
generating options and alternatives to get there.
This is about listening, flexing (your brain, not your muscles), and
leading toward mutual gain, the other party has
less reason to treat you as if you are their adversary.
If you notice adversarial cues – for example, long periods of
silence followed by accusations – start by surrendering enemy stance in
yourself, then take a powerful, non-defensive stand for working it out:
“I’m not willing to fight with you about that.” Or, “I’m only interested in solutions that work for both of
The fast track to avoiding push-pull friction – preventing escalation or breakdowns in cooperation – starts with becoming fully aware and watchful for signs of adversarial thinking or adversarial behavior. With an “early warning system,” you can head off trouble by keeping the tone light, keeping the door open. Maintaining rapport and good will is essential to skillfully navigate the tricky waters of interpersonal differences.
Recognizing “where you are now” is key. The path of escalation usually unfolds like this:
1. Triggering comment or action – a new issue or problem checks into town
or both people say or do something that provokes defensiveness, irritation,
frustration, resentment, discomfort, anger or fear.
Perhaps dealing with the issue at this level seems a bit confronting?
It probably is. But at least there are still choices available … you
can choose to “deal” in a climate of cooperation and hope; failure to do so
now limits options for future constructive resolution. “Act now or forever lose the peace.” See below or ABetterWorkplace.com/conflicts.html
2. Proliferation of issues – “piling on”
One or both people start bringing up new issues (whether
relevant or not) for expanding the basis for the disagreement.
Acting out of the adversarial framework, there’s often an attempt to
demonstrate that a difference or issue exists, as if to prove “how bad it’s
getting.” Instead of piling on, a
better move would be “sorting out” the issue(s), starting with separating
the person from the problem.
3. Formation of adversarial alliances – “choosing
Right/wrong and win/lose thinking begins as one or both parties begin
pulling in other people, resources, or positions for support of their original
contention [while their intention gets lost or misunderstood].
Outside authority (e.g., so-and-so said they feel the same way) is
offered as “proof” that the speaker is right.
4. Distortion of communication – “being right”
One or both people begin to communicate through exaggeration and
distortion; broad sweeping generalizations, deleting or ignoring some of key
facts (often the key to interrupting this path – and jumping to a more
constructive dialogue – is to refocus on these facts); sometimes anger or fear
will cause character attacks followed by periods of silence.
5. Rigid and extreme positions – “digging the hole deeper”
The harder people fight, the more entrenched they become. One or both people become rigid and extreme in their positions, through depersonalizing and in some cases dehumanizing others, taking the position that “I’ll never give an inch,” in order to save face. Coping strategies such as going numb or trying to avoid the whole mess ensue. Solutions at this level come from looking for creative face-savings moves like admitting to a mistake, apologizing, or asking to declare a “new day.”
6. Focus on hurting each other – “destroy or be destroyed”
Although the conflict may have begun with the goal of solving a problem,
as both people become increasingly contentious or defensive, the goal shifts to
hurting or attacking the other person’s position as having no validity. Collaboration is not an option.
Stress clouds judgment. Hope
vanishes. The most civilized option
may be “alternative dispute resolution” approaches like mediation.
Passive-aggressive threats or attack-and-defend patterns cause a
When there is a perceived or actual enemy stance, these stages usually provide clear signs that someone is making the issue into a problem worthy of a fight. An entirely preventable example of this pattern is something we call “resisting resistance.”
If you maintain enough rapport, you’ll be able to sail on through pockets of resistance with minimal scraping or grinding – the soft underbelly of your interpersonal relationship will be unscathed – and it won’t look at all like the last presidential election, a championship rugby match, or courtroom litigation proceedings. It might feel like there’s a slight mismatch – like something’s off a bit – so you can use that signal to make a slight course-correction to get back on track.
This part provides reminders of how to effectively switch gears to prevent or unblock communication logjams. Such logjams are a result of push-pull tension about goals, methods, or priorities. Often there’s a posturing because of perceptions or misinterpretations about intent. Implied blame can lead to defensiveness and an adversarial stance. How can you tell when this is beginning to happen? See Part 2 above or online at ABetterWorkplace.com/081.html.
When you notice the signals or signs of adversary, then what? Short answer (though it takes practice) switch gears and temporarily put aside what you want. Sounds unnatural and counter-intuitive? Not what leaders normally do when somebody says harsh words like “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” or more subtle signals like “There’s no way that’s going to work” …. How would you normally respond to such statements?
(a) Argue, perhaps with “I’ve got more experience in my little finger than …” or “Of course it’s going to work … you just don’t get it.”
(b) Present the merits of your position or point of view.
(c) Ask them to be more cooperative and open-minded.
(d) Side with the person’s view for a moment and dig a little deeper into their mindset.
If your instincts do not currently make your next move something like (d), you’re in good company – by far the majority of professionals will take the bait and argue, push, or plead – but in this case, being “normal” is overrated. Handle the resistance up front and it can prevent lots of mutual misery.
To not notice or not handle a perceived mismatch puts that response-ability squarely in the hands of the other person. Wouldn’t you rather take charge of the situation and head off a “situation” before it starts? If you don’t, you’ll either witness escalation into a full-blown conflict (the result of “resisting their resistance”), or you’ll be dependent on someone else to notice and respond skillfully on your behalf. Success would depend on their ability to do something to handle your resistance. It’s a risk worth avoiding.
The expression “it takes two to tango” applies here, because if one party steps off the conflict escalation “dancefloor,” there can be no battle: “Though I disagree, I’m not going to fight with you about that.” If one party takes responsibility for managing the resistance, especially when it seems minor, no escalation will occur, and the perceived level of conflict will remain low enough that you can get a good result through collaborative problem solving. Any other dance move (hip-hop, slam, twist & shout …) will lead to something less desirable – chaos, power struggles, the will to fight, the need to be “right,” loss of trust – convincing the other party that an impasse has been reached and you’re being “difficult” or uncooperative.
Simply start with listening and verifying, by stepping into their shoes, looking at the situation from their point of view; or, if its getting heated, discuss your intention to “work out” your differences. The most important thing is to NOT LEAD toward your goal for a bit. Give them a chance to be heard – even if you disagree, you can still demonstrate that you understand their reasoning. By learning what underpins their resistance, you can negotiate with more power in a way that maintains rapport and interpersonal cooperation. See ABetterWorkplace.com/resistance.html for additional tools.The early stages of dealing with differences – where you still have the most choices mutually available – are the most important. Differences inevitably crop up; the skill is to keep the perceived level of conflict manageable, tolerable. Only then can you reliably prevent or unblock communication logjams.
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