When you choose to enter a conflict, and it is a choice, what is your goal?
For many, the goal is compromise, which Stephen Covey (author of the “7 Habits” books), characterized as “lose-lose.” The approach says, in effect, “We’ll avoid aggression by each agreeing to lose a comparable amount. We’ll solve our conflict by trying to be equally unhappy.”
If your opening move in a conflict is to offer to lose, and your opponent is determined to win, then the conflict is brief but unpleasant for you.
S/he accepts your surrender, takes what belongs to you with no intention of giving you anything in return, and moves on, quite happy.
If your goal is to win the conflict, what does that mean?
Does it mean becoming angrier than your opponent? We know that high stress levels flood the prefrontal cortex of the brain with chemicals that impair executive functioning.
Executive functioning is the umbrella term for a range of abilities that include impulse control, strategy and planning, problem-solving, and action initiation.
In other words, if you become too angry then you lose to someone who is calmer. You’ll say or do something that is punishable by some external force, freeze up, miss the opportunity to get what you want.
Does winning mean the destruction of your opponent? Our brains are wired for primitive, kill-or-be-killed-quickly victory and survival or defeat and death.
How likely is that outcome in modern society, though?
Are you actually going to have your work opponent fired?
Can you really have your neighbor jailed or force that person to move away?
What about a family member, who is going to remain a family member no matter what happens between you?
You might think that your opponent has some sort of mental illness. Is this fight going to cure that illness?
It’s possible that a conflict would prompt some self-examination on your opponent’s part, but it’s hardly guaranteed and recovering from mental illness often takes a long time.
There is no universal answer but this is both a universal and personal question, one that is essential to the conduct of conflict.
When you choose to fight, what is your goal?
If you don’t know then the goal, and probably the outcome, will be chosen by your opponent.