Taming the Crocodiles of Conflict

by Susie Amundson

I just got back to Alaska from Mexico. There, my beloved and I rented a casita with friends in a small beach town called La Manzanilla.

One of Martty’s and my favorite activities when traveling is to rent bikes and look around a little further than our feet can take us. Rental bikes in other parts of the world usually have a limp — brakes squeal, derailers are sloppy, and steering is loose. Our bikes from Guadalupe didn’t disappoint.

So one morning we biked through the mangroves to another village.

I’m not sure how long it’s been since you’ve cruised through the mangroves but they have a dank, dense, leafy feel and smell. With a few critters lurking including iguanas and flesh-eating crocodiles.  

Let me repeat. Flesh-eating crocodiles.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these crocs are lounging on the road. Just in my mind – stealthily hiding next to it. And because they can jump 6 feet I was certain a croc was going to lunge for my tantalizing, meaty calf.  

It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking how the anticipation of lunging crocodiles is similar to how many of us negotiate conflict.  And like crocodiles in the mangroves, conflict can pop up anywhere.  It can be a conflict with your family. Or one with your boss. And how about your neighbor with barking dogs? (that was my last life)

Conflict is inevitable in our current human form.  And yet in our humanness, most of us lack a strong skill set for dealing with it.

Since I work with many clients navigating conflict, let’s talk about some skills to boost your conflict resilience. It’s needed out there!

Know Thy Sacred Triggers

What’s sacred to you? What sets you off through the roof? Out the door? Or under your desk?

Here’s the SACRED mirror I use when I look at myself in conflict.  (OK, it’s not always pretty).

  • Status is that part of us that wants to feel important. We matter. You might get triggered when your co-worker tries to sink your reputation? Or your partner questions your decision? Or your neighbor brags about catching a whopper (of anything).
  • Autonomy gives us a sense of control in our lives. Your autonomy triggers? How about your family driving every minute of your schedule? Your boss hovering over the details of that report? Your co-worker guilt-tripping you about signing up for the project-from-hell?
  • Certainty is your sense of confidence of knowing what’s ahead or having a tad bit of predictability. Do you get triggered when your co-worker changes the entire design of the curriculum? Or when your daughter springs up her emergency involving an urgent trip to the mall? Or when your barista forgot to add vanilla syrup to your “regular”?
  • Relatedness is our mammalian social need to have connection and a sense of belonging. If you’ve ever had a colleague or friend throw you under the bus, you know what a trigger is. Or if your sister-in-law decided she wasn’t inviting you for Thanksgiving with the rest of the family.  (OK, there’s usually some relief mixed into that too.)
  • Equality is that sense of being treated fairly. And there’s no place like the workplace to see where fairness triggers gets quaked. Salaries. Offices. Desks. Communication loops. Promotions. Your supervisor’s favorite peeps.
  • Difference is the belief that you’re making a contribution in the world.  Your “why you’re here.”  Triggers go off when a boss makes a condescending comment to you. Or when your business doesn’t seem to reach the people you want it to. Or when your teenage son yells he wishes you would move to Mozambique. (Remind him that it would be hard to send meals from there.)

Note Your Defensive Reaction

As a mammal, this defensiveness is going three ways.  And none has a happy ending.

One way is the reptilian route (yes, even for you, a mammal). You are going to shutdown. Close out. Isolate. Hide under your desk. Shut the office door. Avoid eye contact. We call this “conflict avoidant.”

The next way is fight. We all know what fight looks like. Loud, spewing voice. Blaming another. Strongly defending your position. Undermining those jerks. Hand waving.

The third way is flight. Another path to avoid conflict. It looks like running away, changing the topic, being the skeptical joker, brushing off the problem, and yes, ignoring those emails.

Secure a Neutral Third Party

Fortunately, some conflicts can be handled readily. That’s the fourth way!

Someone walks over to another’s desk and offers an apology or an opening to discuss the trouble. If both parties can step back and step up and own their triggers and reactions, they can probably make it through the mangroves. Unscathed. Actually, stronger and better – also known as conflict-resilient.

When you can’t dig out of your own triggers and your own reactions, the conflict escalates. The crocs stealthily circle. The mangroves stink more. Danger lurks.

That’s when you need a Neutral Third Party. This can be a friend or a colleague to serve as a balance point.  It can be a professional like me.  Someone to help facilitate the initial difficult conversation. And with most conflicts, it’s not a one-and-done deal.  You need steps and navigation to stroke your way out of the mangrove.

A Conflict Doesn’t Happen Over Night

Just like those crocs in the mangrove, a conflict takes time to grow.

And it can take time for people to surface the issue, build enough safety to evoke curiosity, share an understanding, create new ways of being, and boost conflict resilience.

So go ahead, dig up some courage. When you’re facing your next conflict, figure out your triggers, note your reactions, and pull in a neutral third party if needed. 

Trust me. It won’t hurt to stick your head into the crocodile’s jaws.  At least not much.

As always, may you be wise at work, carry a sense of humor, and show kindness everywhere. 


Susie