I once talked with a coaching client whose management team was in the midst of a surprisingly heated disagreement over a seemingly minor issue. After he described the situation, I said to him, "This isn't a fight about [Issue X]. What's it really about?" He fully agreed, and we had a fruitful discussion about the root causes that were being symbolically (and ineffectively) addressed through the struggle over Issue X.
This dynamic is hardly unique to management teams, and I see it in almost every ongoing relationship, including my own marriage. My wife and I even have shorthand for it: Pasta Shapes. Years ago we found ourselves in the middle of a serious argument about what type of pasta we were going to cook that night. It was getting heated when we suddenly caught ourselves and asked, "What the hell is going on here? Why are we fighting about pasta shapes?"
Obviously, we weren't fighting about pasta shapes--we were fighting about something else entirely, a set of issues that weren't being discussed, and those unresolved disagreements were just finding expression in a convenient outlet. (Which is consistent with what we know about unresolved emotions: they leak out.)
Today my wife and I are actually able to use this shorthand to arrest superficial arguments early, before they get out of hand and generate their own momentum. We'll start to get worked up over something stupid, and one of us will just say, "Pasta shapes," and it's like lifting a spell. Sometimes this prompts us to have a meaningful conversation about the real issues at hand, sometimes not--but at the very least it results in a pause and a cease-fire. And it's not that we've evolved to the point where we don't have stupid fights at all, because we still need to use the shorthand to stop them. But they don't do much damage when they're stopped early.
So when we find ourselves in a disagreement, at home and at work, it's often worth asking, "What are we really fighting about here?" If there's a disproportionate gap between the importance of the issue under discussion and the intensity of the argument, it may be a fight about pasta shapes.
The key is managing our emotions--and note that this does not mean suppressing our emotions. Emotion management involves improving our ability to sense, understand, articulate and express our emotions, and we develop those skills by getting closer to our feelings, not by distancing ourselves from them.
Heightened emotional awareness--the ability to physically sense and intellectually understand our feelings--enables more effective emotion regulation--the ability to articulate what we're feeling to others and to express those feelings constructively, in a way that helps us achieve our goals, using all the verbal and non-verbal communication skills at our disposal.
Note that we often experience an emotion before we're consciously aware of the feeling, and anger and other strong negative emotions triggered by conflict can escalate extremely rapidly--a useful response in times of actual crisis, but unhelpful when we're having a stupid fight. And once we're in the grip of a full-blown threat response, our ability to take in and process information is impaired, narrowing our perceived range of options and hampering our ability to choose the best response.
This is why it's so critical to intervene early in a stupid fight, before we say or do something that turns it into a real one, and this is where effective emotion management comes in. Improved emotional awareness allows us to consciously recognize and identify our feelings sooner, before they hijack us, and improved emotion regulation makes it possible for us to discuss our feelings (which in and of itself can help dissipate them) and to find other productive ways of soothing ourselves.
There's no shortcut to improved emotional management--it's difficult work that requires an ongoing commitment to the process--but here are a few guidelines to help stop stupid fights:
- How do I feel? Emotions are physiological experiences, so being more attuned to our bodies and simply asking ourselves (literally) how we feel can sometime help us better understand how we feel. Doing this regularly allows us to begin to identify patterns and habitual responses that are signs that we're gearing up for a fight.
- Speak up. We're often uncomfortable with the feelings that arise when we're in a conflict, so we don't disclose them. But this doesn't make them go away, and the obvious disconnect between our silence and our non-verbal signals can confuse, frighten or irritate those around us. Research indicates that talking about our feelings makes them easier to manage.
- Mindset matters. Developing these skills requires us to take some risks under challenging circumstances, which means that mistakes are inevitable. Maintaining a growth mindset helps us view setbacks as learning opportunities and persist in the face of difficulties.
- Practice. Bad experiences can make us reluctant to engage in any conflict, but the result is that we do so only when our emotions overpower us, and those fights rarely end well. Stopping stupid fights isn't about avoiding conflict altogether; it's about staying engaged in a disagreement without letting it escalate.
Revised July 2018.
For Further Reading
Talking About Feelings (2018)
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 2014)
- A discussion of the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
Photo by ejhrap. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.