The Spat

I was about to share a response to Laura Staley’s Kerfuffle poem when it occurred to me that LinkedIn comments have a character limit.

Allow me to dig a little deeper into the subject of conflict.

What is a conflict?

It is when parties have different preferences for something.

The End.

That is probably too brief for a post.

But I thought I would start here because when I have shared this at other times, many seem to have breathed a sigh of relief.  Suddenly it is easier to look past the personal attacks, the animosity, the emotions, and misbehaviors they create… and focus on that there is a something – usually outside of us – around which we don’t feel or think the same way.  Sometimes people forget the issue while they are busy throwing crud at each other.

It is OK to not feel or think the same way about stuff.  (And, actually, we often feel or think a very similar way; we just have our priorities stacked in a different order.)

Let me put a little more meat on this bone with a couple of stories.

Once upon a time, my performance review contained the question “How do you feel about John?” (His name was not John, but never mind that, you don’t know him anyway.)  I said that I liked John but sometimes we didn’t see eye to eye.  My manager said that he had asked John the same question and gotten the very same answer.  He liked me but sometimes we didn’t see eye to eye.  Now could we please quiet down our episodes of not seeing eye to eye because our colleagues were walking on eggshells?

Sure. Thank you for letting us know.

And then John and I talked amicably about what normally upset us.  Six months later we changed our whole department around because we agreed that how work was organized was the main reason for our friction.  (I told you I liked this guy.)

Fast-forward 20 years and I was in a communication training session where another participant and I had an intense exchange.  Because this was a communication training group, people were open about their reactions – among which were that many got triggered when other people had intense exchanges.  By the time the two of us had reconciled – neither of us was uncomfortable with intensity – many others still felt they had to walk on eggshells.

I am sure you can see a pattern here.  I could.

The discussion that followed contained how many of us have experienced parental spats of varying intensities, and that rarely were we present when our parents decided to make up.  Either the issue was swept under the rug (where we could all trip over it again and again), or it was solved in private.

Consequently, most of us are abysmally inadequate at solving conflicts; we have rarely seen it modeled well by the adults we otherwise learned from.  And because we are not good at solving conflicts, we avoid going into conflicts – not even into conflicts worth having.  We don’t stand in our values and don’t defend our boundaries and instead become pressure cookers of hurt and anger that seeps out in the most unproductive ways: sarcasm, passive-aggressive behaviors, violence… creating conflicts much less clean than the original issues.

In the communication group, I learned the benefit of asking “are we good now?” after a conflict.  We don’t necessarily have to end by agreeing.  Sometimes you agree to disagree; but you can still disagree without being disagreeable with one another.  If others had witnessed the conflict, hearing that “we were good” could allow them to move on.  Not hearing it could mean holding the tension in the body with all their childhood memories of conflict wrapped up in that tension.  (And many have had childhoods with considerably worse conflicts and fallouts and tension to be wrapped up in than I did.)

I also learned that although the parties may need a time-out, it is a good idea to agree to finish the discussion.  And then follow up and finish it.  Because otherwise, the carpet will soon look like the Rocky Mountains.  Somebody walks away or goes quiet – and the issue never gets solved.

I wouldn’t be me without mentioning that our personal relationship with conflict is one difference, but depending on culture, people also share different norms for which level of disagreement can or can’t be hashed out in public.

For many years, it seems that the reference point for American management literature was how the USA is not Japan.  And because of that, Americans often believe they are open to conflict.  That is until one of us out of the Germanic tradition shows up.  The Dutch, Deutch, and Danish are a good bit more open to speaking up when we encounter something that rubs us the wrong way.  That is not because we love confrontation – we don’t, as the first story shows – but we are not as afraid of managing upwards because our cultures are less hierarchical, and we can’t as easily be fired for speaking truth to power.

Many other cultures apart from the Germanic are more open to conflict than what is the norm in the USA.  We “the not so conflict resistant” should be aware of that, if we live in the US or otherwise have dealings with Americans.  Between us, we might gauge the level of conflict from the intensity of the dialogue very differently, and, with that, also differ in how we see the chance of finding a peaceful resolution.

All that doesn’t really say anything about being better at solving conflicts, or how to enter them in a way where we can state our boundaries without a big loss of face for anybody.

From shadow work, one piece of advice is to become more aware of what we really don’t want to be seen as if we stand up for ourselves.  If we were to name that we have been hurt, scared, irritated, upset,…, or triggered by something the other did or said, are we afraid to be seen as foolish, petty, small, stupid,…, not worthy of respect, less than?  Name the specific incidents and avoid them always and never.  And then say how you felt: “I am afraid that you will think I am narrowminded if I tell you that I was actually quite upset when you said…”, “I am probably overthinking this, but when you have canceled our last two dates, I am afraid that you are not interested in me.”

I use more intimate relationship examples here on purpose because conflicts with the people we care most about in the world are often more difficult to deal with emotionally than work conflicts with people we might “walk out on”.  And the people we want to really care about should know that we are afraid they will think we are narrowminded or that we feel hurt when they don’t keep their promises.

For our work conflicts, our inability to deal with our disappointments in a constructive manner leads to all kinds of passive-aggressive behaviors.  Quiet Quitting is a clear signal that there is no psychological safety in the organization to have an open discussion about working conditions.  And bad management habits – like late afternoon emails and rush jobs – may likewise be subconscious passive-aggressive behavior from other frustrated colleagues who, for all that they are managers, are fallible humans, too.

When you do hash it out, don’t do it in an open office.  This is what meeting rooms are for.

Or, even better, do a walk and talk.  Many feel less confronted when they are facing in the same direction while you are talking.  (Moving the body around does other good things for the way we can absorb and release feelings.)

And the stuff we don’t feel the same way about?

If we know we don’t feel the same way – and we only know that if we can say that out loud rather than conceding (while seething inside) – perhaps we could take turns?  Some days we do what you like better and some days we do what I like better.  And some days you do what you like, and I do what I like, and we both have something new to bring home to the discussion over the dinner table.

The End.

P.S.  I am still a work in progress.  And if I disagree with you in a comment, it is not because I don’t like you.  I just have a different preference for something.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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    • I sit here giggeling, Zen, at the picture of a pit bull with a feather duster.

      IMO many of us are too afraid what we will find if we start examining why we feel what we feel about most things. There is a lot of energy used to try not to be ashamed of things that were never shameful in the first place. Some important people just had different preferences and put that into us at a tender age..