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Alpha dogs and rationality

November 16, 2012

I will offer an unambiguous disclaimer up front: I have an degree in conflict theory and have advanced mediation training yet I am far from an expert in applying best practices in one’s own personal affairs. In fact, it’s paradoxical.

That said, here we go.

I recently observed a conflict between a small group of people where the usual posturing, intended-to-wound moves, and undermining were present. I watched as a few battled for the alpha dog position, each hoping their move would be the one that would make the rest of the pack stand back and say “ahhh, now there’s the wise one”. The trouble was, nobody was listening.

Photograph of postcard of US mail leaving Seward for Anchorage, Alaska

The contenders for alpha position overlooked the fact that if one of them had held back and allowed another to run free, they may have unwittingly gotten themselves into a position that supported the new champion’s point. (Otherwise known as self-destructing.)

Stepping back and calming down could only follow introspection where blood flow is returned to the brain so thinking can commence. It’s absurd to think that anyone could be effective in strategic situations where their brain is deprived because of a physiological reaction to stress or emotion. Emotion is a manifestation of the ego and when emotion is driving the pack, it’s because a stressed ego is mushing the sled. Rational? Um, not so much.

Back in the caveman days, humans were built to run from sabertooth tigers and such. Adrenaline causes the blood to rush to the extremities and thus, away from the brain. After all, getting away from something that wants to eat you is rather important.

These days, it’s highly improbable one will encounter a sabertooth tiger, say at the mall, or Whole Foods, or in the copier room. Therefore, there’s no reason why we have to handle conflict in that way. Since not everyone has an easy time with this, someone has to think. That is to say the blood flow has to consciously be redirected back to the brain by intent. Intent follows insight which is borne out of introspection. [No, you don’t have time to go through that whole process when confronted with a metaphorical sabertooth tiger…that’s why we’re having this conversation.]

The net:

  1. What failed behaviors have you used to handle conflict in the past?
  2. What were the circumstances?
  3. How would you handle it differently now?

If any of the above responses involve passion, emotion, conviction, asserting what one doesn’t know to be fact, the dreaded assumptions, etc., remove those constraints. Answer the questions above again. Envision a different outcome (i.e. mentally rehearse it). Revisit analysis later or sleep on it. Run through it quickly in the mind while driving to or from work. Rehearsal will provide a muscle memory of sorts and the better strategy will be there when needed.

People get stressed at work for many reasons, most of them common. Yet, some react to stress-induced bad behavior as if it’s unexpected, surprising even. It’s normal. Be prepared.

Grasshopper, you’ve arrived. Now what…

Whenever conflict arises, let them talk. Maybe they have a point, maybe not. If they’re going to self-combust, let them. Stand back and don’t participate. It is crucial to analyze what their motivation(s) may be. Motivations should be observed rather than judged, BTW. Your brain can get “stuck” if you let it. So don’t let it. Don’t feel like you have to save them or beat them at their own game. There is no game. It’s not apathy, it’s rationality. How many possible moves can someone effectively make if possible outcomes are limited? (Hint: to figure it out, think.)

Heads up:  silence may be unsettling to the other party as they may be expecting an escalated response. That’s ok. It’s an advantage because you are thinking.

While you’re thinking, you might conclude the conversation is going nowhere good, fast. Disengage. It’s the best choice to prevent destructive conflict which benefits nobody. Calmly suggest that the conversation resume at another time, if necessary. If not, be done with it. (Deal breaker: ad hominem attacks or threatened physical harm are never acceptable.)

It’s that simple.

In theory. It’s actually pretty difficult until well-practiced. Even then, it’s still difficult.

[Man, I love a good theory!]

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