Back to Zero – Self-Management in Conflict

Getting back to Zero
I always had a “back to zero” policy about arguing with people I care about. Ok, definitely not always, but at some point I came to understand that the relationship was more important than my ego, so I built sort of a reset switch in my head. It was great. I had a rational, mature way to handle conflicts at home and work simply by being in complete control of my emotions.

Let’s say we’re arguing over finances at home. It starts with a surprisingly small balance in the joint checking account, followed by suspicious but hopeful inquiries about upcoming deposits, leading to questions of mathematical aptitude, and no I didn’t charge that too, aaaaand we’re fighting. “Can we go back to zero and talk about the budget?”

Maybe it’s a little harder to spot at work because conflict can sneak up on you, but it happens just the same. The team is way behind with the project, and you know it. The client wants an update, and at this rate you’re going to be late, so naturally you do the only thing you can do. You call a meeting. You find out that the project manager is at her wits end saying that if the team lead would just get the programmers to work harder, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The team lead reports that the programmer stuck on the code problem is so stressed out that she had to take a sick day. No idea when this will be resolved. Let’s go back to zero, you think saying, “Ok, let’s shuffle some priorities and some people, and get this fixed,” vowing that next time we’ll get our projections right.

My very intelligent brain loved this highly rational approach. If solving the problem required a set of steps, then I just had to check to see if we were stepping toward solving the problem or stepping toward winning (or avoiding) a fight. If one of us was just trying to win, then I’d say let’s go back to zero and start over. This approach has everything. I get to be the rational adult, and even better, I get to be in control of the argument.

It’s so simple. Lesson and article complete.

On second thought, maybe I’m missing something. In those emotional arguments, like at home, maybe we said some things we’d like to take back. I mean, I don’t really think you’d fail a fifth grade math quiz. That was probably unnecessary. At work, maybe in crisis mode you keep everyone calm and do what they have to do to finish the project. Yet, somehow these problems keep coming up. There is the small problem of ignoring the other person’s feelings or avoiding the hard conversation. At best we’re either saying we’re ok with hurting each other, or we’re kicking the real problems down the road.

We can do better. At the heart of this, we want the relationship to work. We want our teams to function and be happy and do well. We also tend to want to win, or save face, or not have to have conversations about feelings at work. That second part is our ego getting in the way, so what if we could drop that and keep the first part?

We can start by understanding our own intentions about the conflict. Was my intent to make you feel bad about spending money, or to find a better way to make sure we were on the same page and be happy? Our team is in a bad position and we need to fix that. We also need to make sure we feel safe talking about small issues before they grow up and tank entire projects. So start the conversation first with yourself. What do you want to happen, and how do you want to be? Is it about you or about the relationship with the other person or your team? Then tell the other person or your team what you intend and why. “I’d like to talk about how we give updates because I think we can do a better job of helping each other,” for example.

Of course emotions are going to join in, and at some point someone will say or do something not so helpful. We’re humans, and we get triggered. A reset switch isn’t a bad idea when we get off track. Just don’t rely on it. It’s a little like driving too fast to get home thinking it’s ok because you have airbags to protect you. True, your intention is to get home. It’s also your intention to get there in one piece. Just like it’s our intention for our teams to get work done, we also want them to have autonomy and safety.

When we get better at this, the reset switch flips easily. Oops, I’m off track. Back to my original intention. When we get really good, it’s not even a switch. We’re just working for the relationship the whole time. Everything we say has an effect, so we choose carefully what to say. Self-management is more than putting a lid on our emotions. It’s noticing our stress, the stress in others, and the stress in the room and acknowledging it. Then we decide that the next thing we do will serve the relationship and not our egos.

What do you think about this approach? How do you get yourself and your teams “back to zero”?

Have a great week.


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