Take Responsibility for Your Role in the Conflict to Prevent Heightened Emotions

Take Responsibility for Your Role in the Conflict to Prevent Heightened Emotions

When we disagree with a coworker or team member, we’ll often feel offended or misunderstood. Because we feel this resentment, we’re also likely to say something that fuels the fire of the argument. Our quick response just makes the problem worse. In turn, the solution gets further away. But you can turn things around if, instead, you take responsibility for your role in the conflict.

Taking Full Responsibility is Humbly Laying Down Your Sword in the Name of Peace

If you find yourself in a conflict situation with another, there is a good chance that you may have actually played a role in creating that conflict. Sometimes the role we play is very active. (You did something that caused the other person/people to take offense or become confused.) In others, though, the role may passive. (You failed to do something. As a result, the other person became offended or confused.)

By the way, I’m not saying the conflict is always entirely your fault. But it is your personal responsibility to respond appropriately if you want something to change. 

Sometimes, our first reaction should be to take our pointed finger and turn it back at ourselves. Not to blame, but to be more accountable. My goal in this blog post is to show you how to take responsibility for your own actions so that you can manage emotional intensity and navigate difficult situations more effectively. 

"Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Stephen R. Covey

First, Look at the Conflict from the Perspective of Your Other Team Members.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Stephen Covey

We often forget that contrasting opinions can co-exist without one being right or wrong. In today’s culture (especially in America), we see a lot of black and white (right vs. wrong) thinking. (Political polarization, over-sensationalized news stories, and social dynamics to name a few). This black and white thinking can perpetuate division, separation, and a host of unhealthy behaviors in our professional relationships.

Stay Focused on the Shared Mission

When you find yourself disagreeing about the context of a conflict with someone, remember the shared mission you are working toward. After all, taking responsibility for your role in a conflict also means looking for where you can find common ground—which often comes from finding a common goal or shared mission.

At home, that might be creating a healthy relationship and trusting environment within your family. At work, that might be the grand vision of the company. When we focus on the shared mission, it redirects the attention from “he said/ she said” and toward more effective conflict resolution that’s for the greater good of the whole.

Healthy conflict doesn’t mean someone always has to compromise. It’s okay to agree to disagree. This can work as long as you show respect for the other’s perspective. Regardless of the conflict, maintain a “team” mentality. This will help you respond with a sustainable (long-term) solution rather than a reaction that gives you short-term gratification.

Be Open-Minded to Perspectives that Differ from Your Own

Being open-minded doesn’t mean you have to agree with another’s opinion. It simply widens your perspective. It’s like when you take a different route to work. You pass new scenery, discover new shortcuts, and improve your sense of direction. 

Opening your mind to different viewpoints will help you become a better leader. In workplace conflict, leading with humility and curiosity will reduce tension and encourage a healthy, mature, effective conversation. 

This will also help you better empathize with others, thus eliminating communication barriers. Disagreements aren’t about concluding who’s “right” and “wrong.” Again, this causes division (and makes a difficult situation even worse). 

If you are open-minded to other options (instead of being focused only on your own ideas), you’ll discover other possibilities to find common ground. So every disagreement offers an opportunity to widen your perspective so that you can make more informed decisions. It’s good to have people who bring different perspectives (and strengths) to the table, especially in a work environment. Diverse teams create diverse ideas and solutions.

Just as we need different people in our lives for different reasons, we also need different personalities and strengths on teams to help the business grow. So, although varying perspectives and opinions can seem conflicting, it allows the company as a whole to grow faster. 

For instance, when I was interviewing for a job with a small business, I was asked to take the Gallup StrengthsFinder personality assessment. The CEO couldn’t afford to hire multiple of the same type of people. He needed a team with a diversity of strengths to serve different purposes in the business. 

The CEO was creating positive conflict within the organization to foster growth. He created a team with differing views to be used in a productive, constructive way. You can use conflict in the same way. In order for conflict to elicit positive growth, you have to look at it from the perspective of your peers, too. Be open minded to other possibilities, and you’ll see more opportunities for conflict resolution.

Be Open-Minded to Perspectives that Differs from Your Own

To Become a Responsible Leader, Don’t Take Workplace Conflicts Personally.

Taking things personally is an emotional response. We make disagreements harder on ourselves when we internalize other people’s actions. 

It would be like if you focused on a single jigsaw puzzle piece refusing to even look at other pieces until you found where that one piece goes. You’ll never finish the puzzle. (And you’ll drive yourself mad in the process.) 

Taking a conflict personally works the same way. Many things can cause a conflict. And there are also many possible solutions to the conflict. However, if you assume that the person you are in a conflict with has it out for you and just trying to make your life harder, it’s possible that the puzzle piece you are focusing on doesn’t even fit in the puzzle you are trying to solve. Taking things personally is not what we mean when we say take responsibility for your role in a conflict.

In the book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don Miguel Ruiz suggests that we not take anything personally. He says that what other people say and do has more to do with them and their inner world than it does you. He also describes it as quite a selfish act, thinking and believing everything is about you. 

For example, have you ever been cut off in traffic and immediately felt provoked as if it was a personal attack on your driving skills? You start spit-firing assumptions – and perhaps a few unkind words. (We’ve all been there.)

However, there are many reasons that are much more likely. The person may be driving a big vehicle with a huge blind spot and just didn’t see you. In that case, you may be furious, but the other person doesn’t even know you exist. Or it may be that the person is a terrible driver and does that same move all the time. Who knows? It could have been a man rushing his wife to the hospital because she was going into labor. 

The point is that none of those reasons have anything to do with you. In fact, you never even enter the picture.

Give people the benefit of the doubt. It will save you a lot of time and energy from internalizing something that you can’t control (other people’s actions).

Make Your Life Easier: Discern What is True and Let Go of What Isn’t

By the way, when you take things personally, you let your emotions control you. This is exhausting and leaves you feeling powerless. When I came to this realization, I stopped wasting my energy worrying about what someone else’s words and actions might mean about me. 

At times, I still find myself internalizing someone else’s words/ actions. When I do, though, I try to redirect that energy. I check in with my own feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. Internally, I ask myself, “What is true?” and “What is not true?” 

Then, I try to let go of what is not true and move on with my day. 

To put it simply, the practice of not taking things personally has made my life and relationships a whole lot easier. It helps me trot through conflict with a lighter step.

Take Responsibility for Your Role in the Conflict to Identify Better Solutions. (Avoid Playing the Blame Game.)

Take Responsibility for Your Role in the Conflict to Identify Better Solutions. (Avoid Playing the Blame Game.)

As you learned in my last blog post, I didn’t last long at my first job post-college. Soon after, I reconnected with an acquaintance who was working for a startup company. It was in the health food industry, which is something I was greatly passionate about. 

If you know anything about startup culture, it’s typically an “all-hands-on-deck” work environment. My job was demanding, and I wore many hats. I was working 12-hour days Monday through Friday plus about four hours on Saturday mornings. Not to mention, I was commuting to and from Atlanta two to three hours during the work week depending on traffic. I was 22 years old, and my social life was dwindling. I had little to no time for myself, much less my friends. Work was my priority.

At first, the demanding schedule felt invigorating. I was fueled by feeling useful and productive. It’s in my nature to work hard. But after seven months of little to no work-life balance, it began to impact my health. I started experiencing physical symptoms of burnout (exhaustion from prolonged stress). 

I had persistent digestive issues that started my senior year of high school. After trying many different modalities, I finally found a supplement that worked to help relieve the discomfort. It was a quick fix. As my stress increased, my dose did, too. Eventually, it stopped working and my stomach issues started to flare up again. 

I knew something was off. But with how full my plate was, I couldn’t have imagined making time to go see a doctor. I kept using work as a distraction to avoid the symptoms, but they only got worse. 

Eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t ignore the physical discomfort anymore. My body felt heavy and lethargic 90% of the time. It was hard to focus on my work like I used to. As my health got worse, so did my attitude. I thought I was doing everything “right” in my early adulthood by working long hours, dieting, and obsessively exercising to exhaustion (rinse & repeat). 

Looking back, it was all an illusion of control as my body was losing function. Eventually, I became so aggravated by the symptoms that I started to point blame. This was the moment I stopped taking responsibility for my role in this conflict. “It has to be due to my nonstop workload,” I thought. I started feeling resentful toward my boss.

Finally, I made the doctor appointments. I went to digestive specialists, had a colonoscopy at age 22, and was put on multiple medications to bandage the symptoms. Time and time again, my lab results came back clear. Unfortunately, medical professionals didn’t have answers for me. 

I remember the last doctor telling me (verbatim), “There’s nothing you can do but find ways to manage it.” This infuriated me. And, at the same time, fueled my determination to get to the root of the gnawing symptoms.

I decided to venture into more holistic methods. First, I tried diets, like paleo, vegetarian, low carb, FODMAP, and avoidance of certain spices. I even tried green powders, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and endless vitamin supplements. I’d start to see glimpses of progress. Then, my body would plateau. I was desperate for help, constantly reaching for a solution.

Perception is reality.

Perception is Reality

As I realized my external grasp still wasn’t working, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I turned my finger around and started pointing it within. With the guidance of some very wise mentors, I started reflecting on how I looked at my symptoms. 

My attitude was negative and victimizing. I hated my body and thought it was working against me. I got comfortable blaming my circumstances on bad luck and poor timing. This only made the problem worse and me feel more disempowered. 

I started learning about the power of the mind and how my thoughts influence my feelings and behavior. I realized that if I wanted to restore hope, I needed to adjust how I was looking at my circumstances. This started with taking responsibility of my perspective (attitude and beliefs about my situation).

How to (Practically) Take Responsibility for Your Role in Any Conflict

First, I practiced accepting the reality of my symptoms with an attitude of indifference to help rewire my negative thoughts. Then, I checked in with where I was letting my circumstances control my response instead of controlling my response to my circumstances. I asked myself questions like: 

  • What role am I playing in the problem?
  • What am I still saying yes to that should actually be a no?

My burnout had less to do with my boss and workload and more to do with my lack of boundaries. I was saying yes to more than I had the capacity for. This is what started to tip the iceberg toward mental and physical burnout.

Journaling became a tool that helped me bring the unphysical (thoughts and feelings) into the physical (on paper). This helped me see them and decide what was actually true instead of letting them rule my beliefs and behaviors. 

Clarity Creates Solutions

Understanding the root of where a feeling or belief comes from creates awareness. Awareness creates clarity. And thinking and seeing a circumstance more clearly creates the space for creative solutions to emerge. 

It’s like when you’re standing in knee-deep water in the ocean, searching for seashells. If you shuffle your feet, the sand kicks up and makes it harder to find the unique shells. Whereas, if you stand still for a moment and allow the sand to settle, you can more clearly find the hidden gems you are searching for. 

Identifying how a conflict started (getting to the root of the problem) is one way of taking responsibility. It will help you see a solution more clearly, and in turn, help you problem solve much quicker.

Clarity creates solutions.

Self-Responsibility > Victimizing = Solution

Nothing really changed in my health symptoms until I shifted my focus. Instead of fixating on what was affecting me from the outside-in (people, circumstances), I started observing what was affecting me from the inside-out (thoughts, feelings, beliefs). 

For so long, I victimized myself. “This isn’t fair.” “Other people my age aren’t dealing with this.” “What did I do to deserve this?” These were recurring thoughts I grappled with as my symptoms grew worse. 

Once I woke up to how my victim mindset was inhibiting me, I started to reframe my circumstances. If the health issues came to teach or show me something, what am I learning? What is my body trying to tell me? 

Through self-reflection and self-responsibility, the answer became clear. I was learning the importance of boundaries. To put it simply, boundaries are what we say yes to and what we say no to in our life. 

Considering I’d tied my worth to my productivity for years, it wasn’t easy to start (respectfully) saying “no” to things. It took time and practice for me to get comfortable doing so. 

I look back and feel grateful for the health symptoms and burnout. It taught me the empowerment of taking ownership. It also encouraged me use my voice and start saying no as an act of self-care. 

Next Time You Want to Point Blame, Take Responsibility for Your Role in the Conflict

The wisdom of my struggles and courage of my heart opened a door to a more sustainable future. Be the captain of your ship and take responsibility for your role and response to life’s inevitable challenges. When you do, it cuts through a lot of wasted time and energy searching for a solution. 

First, try to look at the conflict from the other person’s perspective. Then, don’t take someone else’s actions (that you can’t control) personally. Finally, take responsibility for how you play a role in the problem to prevent emotions from escalating. These three tips will help you work toward a sustainable (and humble) solution. When you take responsibility for your actions, you take control of your life. 

Kelsey Greenwood instructor at The Leaders Institute
Kelsey Greenwood
Kelsey Greenwood is a leadership & development facilitator with The Leaders Institute ®. She helps Fortune 500 companies, like Google, Nestlé, and BP, create stronger culture through collaborative team building workshops. All while giving back to local, underprivileged communities. Kelsey weaves a bit of philosophy into her group facilitations, leaving your group feeling empowered and part of something greater than themselves.
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