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Is “conflict management” a forgotten professional competence? I bet not. It is as important as ever

After a week in Mexico, I returned to Cambridge for a few days before flying back to Mexico again this week. I want to reflect on an incident I witnessed, which many others saw too, on the train from Heathrow to Cambridge. The train car I was in was half-full, mainly with executives and a few young people. At one point, the ticket inspector began to ask for our train tickets. Most of us took out our cell phones to show our e-tickets, while others got their wallets to show their printed tickets. However, behind me sat a young couple. The young girl had her ticket, but the boy did not have one. As far as I understood, the inspector asked him to buy one or, if he preferred, to leave the train at the next station. So far, this was quite a normal situation that was not worth sharing. However, the situation escalated when the boy started to insult and threaten the inspector.

The boy raised his voice and began to yell. Furthermore, he started to look around at the other passengers for support, but no one reacted in his favor. The inspector did not get upset and told him that he was doing his job and that he was offering him two alternatives. The boy felt like a victim and stood up face to face with the inspector, while his girlfriend remained silent and seated. The boy began to threaten him with his fists raised, saying that he was going to punch him in the face. The inspector continued without changing his mood and tone of voice. Meanwhile, several people in the carriage moved away because the boy was escalating his violent behavior. Two security guards from the train service suddenly appeared and stood behind the inspector to contain the situation, without intervening. At that point, the boy received no support from any of the passengers, and he lowered his tone and agreed to pay for the ticket. Ironically, when the inspector tried to charge him, the machine did not work, and the boy and the girl got off the train at the next station.

Now, after briefly describing this situation, allow me to share a few thoughts about the different stakeholders:

1.- The Ticket Inspector: He had my full attention. The way he kept calm and systematically tried to de-escalate the conflict deserved my admiration. Throughout the incident, he was not disrespectful, remained calm, and at the same time, he did not forget his role, being assertive and trying not to lose focus on his duties and goals. I understand that in situations like this, it is relatively easy to get tense and even partially mirror the behavior of the other party in conflict. However, the inspector remained focused at all times. This is a desirable and necessary skill for everyone, and I would like to publicly congratulate him. I do not know if all employees have the same strengths and competencies, but companies should invest in training such behaviors for their own sake and the greater good.

2.- The Boy: The fact that he had no ticket was a fact. Nevertheless, when he was pointed out, he felt outraged and decided to defend himself with a furious attack. Does the old adage “The best defense is a good offense” sound familiar to you? From the different coping strategies and defense mechanisms that most humans have and use, he chose violence. I do not know if he had a strong reason for not having a valid ticket. I do not know if what he did was displacement (perhaps he felt bad about himself and felt the urge to redirect such feelings towards the inspector), I do not even know if it was one of his behavioral patterns (I mean, him responding in a similar way when confronted with similar situations). In my systemic work and daily interaction with companies and leaders from different countries and sectors, this conflict resolution style is not as rare as one might think, although passive-aggressive behaviors are more frequent than overt reactions (which are easier to condemn). Over the years, I have seen many people, when caught doing something wrong, attack instead of accepting it. I dream of a society with the necessary soft skills to respect each other, regardless of our social and economic status. Nevertheless, the deeper debate is about emotions and feelings versus facts. How are we co-creating a society where we cannot stand being confronted, even for our wrongdoing? How can we neglect basic facts because our feelings are hurt?

3.- The girlfriend: I do not know if she was afraid of her boyfriend, agreed with him, or simply did not care. The fact is that she remained quiet and silent during the incident. I cannot judge if she did the right or wrong thing. It is possible that by doing nothing, she indirectly legitimized her boyfriend’s behavior. Another hypothesis is that perhaps she did not intervene to avoid negative consequences later on (I wish it was not her case). Either way, it made me reflect on how, as individuals, we find ourselves in privileged situations where we have the opportunity to influence people and situations, but we do not take them. Does the social system invite us to act in such a way? At work, do we believe that we are part of bigger systems and co-responsible for what happens within them? The way we answer these questions has great repercussions for the world in which we live. As you can intuitively guess, the way we define ourselves as mere spectators without any responsibility or as active agents with the capacity to influence events is of tremendous importance for our future as social beings.

4.- Us, the witnesses: When the boy started shouting and yelling at the inspector, witnesses were looking at each other mainly with incommodity and disapproval. When the boy reached out for support, it was clear that we were not going to play his game. One thing caught my attention: most witnesses were mesmerized by the boy and seldom focused their attention on the inspector. Is that a reflection of our society or the fifth power, i.e., media and their manipulation strategies to form a collective conscience according to Noam Chomsky? I want to recall this because such negative bias reinforces a system where we constantly focus on the negative side and neglect the positive side. In this situation, the skills and manners of the humble ticket inspector. A systemic issue needs to be treated at different levels. There is no better place to start than training ourselves to be aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly. One way is to stop watching contaminating news and consciously invest our energy and effort into distinguishing “the green shoots among the undergrowth”. Cheers to personal growth and self-leadership!

5.- The security guards: They were impressive! Their presence alone was enough to not require their direct intervention. Their presence not only did not fuel the escalation of the conflict, but it also quickly diminished it. How many times do we forget our own inner power and influence in many matters (with kids, couples, friends, colleagues, etc.)? We are obsessed with words, although science has shown that what we say often matters less than how we say it, where we say it from, etc. In this situation, the security guards did the necessary but not more. In other words, they honored the “less is more” theory.

To conclude this blog, I would like to emphasize three take-home messages:

1.- Many people experience high levels of stress, which they often direct towards others who are not responsible for the source of their stress. Individually, we must take responsibility for our unresolved issues and strive for healthy stress levels (of course, coaching is a great external resource here). As organizations, we must provide resources and support to promote eustress over distress. This is especially important for leaders, as displacing stress can have negative consequences for individuals and organizations (trickle-down effect). Again, team coaching and training are still a necessity not a luxury.

2.- People are becoming increasingly sensitive to confrontation and criticism. Individually, we should reflect on our behavioral patterns and become aware of how we defend ourselves. Let us be humble and work on improving ourselves. As organizations, we must establish clear structures, processes and protocols that outline acceptable behavior, including policies against workplace bullying, sexual harassment, physical aggression, and other harmful behaviors. We should also create psychologically safe spaces where people can discuss and find common ground for agreements and healthy boundaries.

3.- Many people tend to think analytically and believe they are not involved in many situations. However, systemically speaking, we are all part of and influenced by many systems, whether we are aware of it or not. As individuals, we should develop our systemic thinking and systems intelligence to consider all parts of a given situation and find sustainable solutions for the greater good. In the long term, this investment is highly productive. As organizations, taking a systemic approach can help create ecosystems where ideas and people can flourish, breaking down silos and unproductive habits for the well-being and long-term success of the organization.

Thanks for reading the blog.

I invite you to take a moment, reflect on your organization´s and your own´ practice, and acknowledge what can and should be improved. Let me know if I can be of any help.

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