How do you choose to respond in a conflict situation?

So much of our lives we tend to live on auto-pilot, running around, doing and reacting and, a lot of the time, having very little sense of being able to choose how we act or respond to the things that happen to us. In fact, many of us tend to think that much of our behaviour, thoughts and feelings are somehow pre-programmed and that we have no choice to change them. This was brought home to me very clearly when I was coaching a client Tom, who had spent over three years in conflict with his boss, having attempted both formal and informal resolution options and still no sign of the situation in any way improving or at least getting some level of closure. He came for coaching because he began to realise that part of the problem was how he reacted to his boss as he could see that his colleagues, while they also found the boss difficult to deal with, had not become embroiled in conflict with him.

At the outset of the coaching, Tom said his goal was to be able to stay calm and not react when his boss did or said something that would annoy or provoke him. He gave some examples of situations that would provoke him – e.g. if his boss gave some instructions to do a task that Tom did not consider was reasonable or or fair – and in the coaching session was able to identify that fairness was a key trigger for him. Tom said that in such situations he would get quite angry and start to challenge his boss, raising his voice, and would become very argumentative. Tom said even with his customers, if he felt they were abusing his services, he would tend to be similarly triggered and react in a way that later he would regret.

During the session, one of the questions I asked Tom was “What got in the way of you staying calm and unreactive when your boss did …” and he answered “It’s part of my personality, that’s the way I am, I’m just not a calm kind of person”;he then further elaborated saying that he thought he got this trait from his father’s side of the family. So my next question was “How might you choose to react differently?” At this, Tom looked at me, was quite surprised by this question and asked: “Can we choose how we react when we are provoked?” so I asked him if there were ever times, people or situations when he didn’t react or stayed calm if he was being provoked. Tom immediately answered that with his children, regardless of how much they provoke him, he seldom becomes outwardly angry or annoyed. This was like a lightbulb moment for Tom as he realised that in these situations, he can have a completely different reaction – he is able to remain calm and manage his annoyance or irritation rather than reacting back.

This session put me very much in mind of the famous insight from Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (written about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp) “between stimulus and response there is a gap, and in this gap lies all our freedom”. Through coaching, Tom was able to get more of a sense of the ‘gap’ between him being provoked and his response and we were able to look at what has been described as the ‘golden moment of choice’ – that split second moment where we actively make a choice as to how we will react and how Tom might now choose to react in a different way.

So what happens to you when you are triggered or annoyed by someone – do you believe you can choose how you react? And, if you do, how aware are you of your ‘golden moment of choice’ and the behaviours that you choose in those situations.