Seeing the Human in Our Adversaries

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Tense conversation between co-workers


Think about the people in your life who annoy and frustrate you. Without filter, what words would you use to describe them? Are they flattering? Can you say them in polite company?

Words for such people in my life (that are fit to print) include pushy, manipulative, “schmoozy,” cowardly, self-indulgent, and lacking in decorum and tact. They depend on higher-ups to get their way rather than collaborate with others. Such leaders are myopic in how their decisions impact others, particularly when hiring and coddling boorish, arrogant people like themselves. And that’s being polite!

Perhaps we feel justified in our descriptions. But where does that get us, other than feeling momentary satisfaction in emoting and an elevated heart rate? There is a human behind your opponent. We shouldn’t excuse their bad behavior but improving these relationships may begin with how we view them and their motivations, and how we respond differently as a result. Consider these suggestions:

Watch Your “Halos” and “Horns.” I ask the questions above as part of a reflection exercise when I train professionals to serve as workplace mediators, who must occasionally mediate disputes for people they don’t particularly like. I further ask them to consider the positive traits and characteristics they believe they possess and/or would like to further develop.

My example: I believe I am calm, non-reactive, and self-reliant. I am a good listener. I would like to develop more patience, assertiveness, and self-assurance (among other traits).

I then ask them to compare how their traits and characteristics may be similar to and different from the traits and characteristics of their adversaries.

My example: I believe being “calm and non-reactive” and developing more “patience” are distinct from the “pushy and manipulative” behaviors I don’t appreciate in my adversary. On the other hand, being “pushy” may simply be that person’s way of being assertive and self-assured that I wish to develop for myself. And though I don’t like their “self-indulgence,” is it simply their way of demonstrating “self-reliance” that I value in myself?

This projection exercise forces us to acknowledge where we may be giving ourselves more credit and our adversary less credit than each deserves for what is essentially the same trait. My “halo” is their “horns,” whereas neither assessment is justified. If that is so, perhaps we need greater humility in understanding our strengths and limitations and greater empathy for our adversary’s strengths and limitations. This may also help us better relate to their struggles rather than dismiss them out of hand.

Understand Your Adversary’s Motivation. Your adversary, like you, is a bundle of fears, anxieties, ego, and patterns of behavior developed over years of living and interacting with others. The behaviors that annoy you are the product of this bundle. Their fight or flight reactions are a means of protecting themselves from real and perceived threats. Their knee-jerk reactions reflect a broken-record reliance on such reactions and lack of awareness of more productive responses. Perhaps you have learned ways to overcome your own patterned responses to engage more productively in difficult conversations. If so, you have a better appreciation for the motivations that explain your adversary’s foibles and dysfunction and a hope for employing strategies to work through them. I always findCrucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High” to provide practical strategies for doing this. Indeed, among its Many lessons is to stop telling ourselves “villain” stories in which we attribute evil or malicious motives to our adversaries. Instead, see them as “humans” capable of acting reasonably and rationally.

Work — or Walk — Side-by-Side. We give many labels to our adversaries. Among them is claiming they are “the problem.” In difficult conversations and negotiations, we often sit across a table from our adversary or at least with the mindset that a table is between us. On our side is truth and light and on theirs is fallacy and darkness. This sends a strong message that there is a natural either-or, us vs. them barrier between us.

But our adversary is not “the problem.” in”Getting to Yes,” Roger Fisher and William Ury suggest that we “separate the people from the problem.” Whether physically or in thought, we must ask our adversaries to sit side-by-side with us to look squarely at the mutual problem we face. This involves, among other methods, eliminating threats, accusations, and all-or-nothing negotiation stances that communicate “see it my way or else.” The more we move away from seeing the other as the problem and encourage the other person to do the same, the more we will move to mutual problem-solving to achieve collaborative results.

William Ury further illustrates the value of side-by-side interactions to encourage understanding through The Abraham Path Initiative, a nonprofit he co-founded that has worked with partners in the Middle East to “create over 2000 miles of scenic trails in Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Sinai, and Iraq, providing economic benefits to local communities and opportunities for walkers to have positive intercultural encounters.” He States:

“There is something powerful about walking side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the same direction. There’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with a good walk in some ways. People don’t fight when they walk.”

Ury extends this concept to his Work as a mediator which involves helping parties “step back from the conflict and look to the future, give them perspective of what is truly important [and help them meet] their needs and interests, based upon the future and a common identity.” Mediation, he says, “brings them back to the path, to start walking and talking.”

Will changing our mindsets, reevaluating motives, and pursuing collaborative side-by-side solutions resolve all of our difficulties? Probably not. But the more you take an adversarial stance and viewpoint, the more the other person will react in kind. I’ve called them “adversaries,” but they are our co-workers, colleagues, peers, friends, family members, and loved ones. See them that way and treat them accordingly.

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